Friday, November 14, 2014

Santo & the Legendary Luchadores of Mexican Fantastic Cinema Part 2 of 2


***WARNING! This article contains two images of nudity***

SANTO EN INGLES

Like other examples of foreign cinema, Mexican horror and fantasy films (like THE VAMPIRE, CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE, and THE BRAINIAC) were imported here and dubbed into English; in most cases by K. Gordon Murray and others via Television Enterprises Corporation. Some of the Mexican wrestling movies were likewise brought over. Of the Santo series, only 4 of the 52 films he appeared in made it to America in dubbed format. Those features being: INVASION OF THE ZOMBIES (SANTO CONTRA LOS ZOMBIES [1961]), SAMSON VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN (1962), SAMSON IN THE WAX MUSEUM (1963), and SANTO VS. DR. DEATH (1973). For the two middle titles Santo's name was switched to Samson; a name Americans would be familiar with since Italian muscleman epics were very popular with youngsters at that time; and both those titles featured an assortment of monsters.


The five NEUTRON movies were dubbed into English as well, and released straight to television through Television Enterprises Corporation. This quintuplet of science fiction films featured a mysterious main character who, like Santo in his first couple of outings, was not a wrestler, but a crime fighting agent combating evil. For the first three movies, Neutron goes toe to toe with Dr. Caronte, a mad scientist who, like Neutron, dresses like a wrestler in his white tights and mask. The first three movies were virtually interchangeable with Caronte attempting to build a devastating bomb and eliminating scientists associated with the device. He also commands an army of prune-faced zombies he keeps inside a trap door in his laboratory; and like so many Mexican genre product, Caronte had a midget assistant to do his light work. The fourth and fifth films saw Neutron tackling a psycho killer and an army of Karate fighting automatons respectively. Curiously, Neutron's costume changed in the last two movies. Similar to American comic book heroes, Neutron hid his identity as detective Carlos Marquez.


LIVIN' LA VIDA LUCHA LOCA


The more of these movies you watch, the more you will understand why so few of them made it here in English friendly versions. Some of the ingredients that appealed to Hispanic audiences would be lost in translation to foreigners. Many of these movies could be described as 80 to 90 minute variety specials peppered with wrestling matches, nightclub sequences with jiggly go-go girls and singing groups. For instance, in 1970s SANTO CONTRA LA MAFIA DEL VICIO (SANTO VS. THE VICE MAFIA), the picture opens with a 2 1/2 minute music video with Peruvian pop sensation Jimmy Santy. Singing and dancing atop a precipice overlooking the sea, bikini clad babes boogie down while Santo's participation shows him to be enjoying himself, but never quite displays his Mexican rhythm. The catchy tune of this light opening dissipates by the end with some bloody gun battles. 

 
After a hard night at the arena clobbering guys in tights, Luchadores need to relax. Watching lovely ladies shake their moneymakers, or some Rico Suave making the women swoon is a nice way to close out the evening. But in the world of masked wrestlers, they are often so busy, they have to go to bed in their wrestling attire to be ready at a moments notice. But I digress. Even in the more digestible of these movies it's not unusual for there to be a scene in a nightclub. One film took this to a whole other level of gratuitousness. In SANTO CONTRA EL ESTRANGULADOR (1963), the storyline centers around a PHANTOM OF THE OPERAish type madman with a disfigured face strangling women at a musical variety theater. This plot is but a disguise to trot out some nine song and dance numbers -- two of which are sang in English. If nothing else, you get a very lengthy view into Latin American nightlife back in the mid 1960s. Made a year before, but released after the "world's first monster musical", THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES (1964), SANTO AGAINST THE STRANGLER unbelievably got a slightly better sequel with EL ESPECTRO DEL ESTRANGULADOR (1963). There's only eight song and dance numbers in that one.


Other Santo films used their plots as blatant advertisements for sporting events other than wrestling. SANTO CONTRA EL REY DEL CRIMEN (1962) is, at times, a showcase for popular Mexican sport Jai Alai that sees Santo and Interpol working together to bust a criminal organization. Meanwhile, Santo is integrated into stock footage of Jai Alai games to give the impression he's participating. The game itself figures into the finale of the movie. Possibly the sportiest of Santo's oeuvre, it might make you go outside and run around the block afterward. The inclusion of such things -- along with the wrestling matches -- likely cut down on the scripting of the actual movie thereby saving some money. These particular films in the Lucha genre are comparable to the eccentricities associated with other foreign movies that are geared towards a local audience. To the casual viewer, this genre style won't be for everybody, but the curiosity value will be enough to attract bizarro cinema lovers, as few as they may be these days.



Possibly what makes the Lucha movies so appealing to their clutch of fans are the cross breeding of styles. In the most popular entries you have wrestling and monsters. Wrestling was the life's blood of a great many Luchador adventure. In his first two movies, Santo is barely in the films, barely has any dialog, and nary a wrestling match in sight. SANTO CONTRA LOS ZOMBIES changed all that by merging the man and his matches while defining the character as the People's Champion. From there on out, virtually every Santo movie would feature at least one arena bout. These matches didn't always have anything to do with the plots of the films, either. 

At times -- and especially in Lucha Libre movies of the 70s -- wrestling matches were little more than a means to pad out the running time when the filmmakers were saddled with the flimsiest of scripts; such is the case with the goofy, and intentionally campy LEYENDAS MACABRAS DE LA COLONIA (MACABRE LEGENDS OF THE COLONY [1974]). Around 30 minutes is afforded to wrestling leaving approximately 45 minutes for the time travel plot that mixes sword duels, Aztec warriors, the living dead, a Crypt Keeper type host, and a sensually venomous performance from Lorena Valezquez as Dona Luisa. Some like SANTO CONTRA LOS CAZADORES DE CABEZAS (1969), and ASESINOS DE OTROS MUNDOS (1971) feature no wrestling matches at all. 


Changing audience trends on the international scene meant Lucha cinema and its champion proponent would need to evolve to remain viable. In the beginning, Santo was this clean-cut hero of the people whose sole reason for being was to save those oppressed by every sort of villain imaginable -- when he wasn't scheduled in an arena somewhere. In his early to mid 60s B/W period, he was seen many times in his secret laboratory; or zipping around in his convertible combating evil, cape flowing in the wind. In some movies Santo was defined as a symbol of religious iconography (his name is The Saint after all). For example, in ATACAN LAS BRUJAS (1964), one of the witch's tries to seduce Santo in an unusually spicy sequence; in another, he repels the villains by outstretching his arms turning his body into a makeshift cross! However, Santo became something of a ladies man as the 1970s drew closer. SANTO CONTRA LOS VILLANOS DEL RING (1966) was the Holy's last feature in B/W, ending his Saintly crusade; well, not actually closing the door, more like leaving it cracked just a bit.


1967 was a turning point for Santo. Two of his best movies were made that year. Both were co-productions (with another Mexican company, Cima Films), both were shot simultaneously, and both were directed by father and son team, Rene Cardona, Sr. and Jr. With OPERACION 67 and EL TESORO DE MOCTEZUMA Santo had officially become a secret agent while exiting the B/W world and entering the one of Eastmancolor. He retained his status as a superhero with a high-tech lab, and used his wrestling career as a front to investigate whatever diabolical plan the bad guys were hatching. From here on out, you saw more of Santo in a suit and tie, or casual wear, and less of him running around in his wrestling tights and cape. You will also see more of Santo actually kissing women as opposed to merely rescuing them before driving off into the sunset. He maintained his decor in that he never shot nudity, or engaged in sex scenes, but seeing Santo with a woman humanized him, pacifying some of that superhero aura his earlier films imbued him with. 

SANTO CONTRA LAS MUJERES DESNUDAS VAMPIROS (SANTO AGAINST NUDE WOMEN VAMPIRES)


Regarding sex, some of the Saint's movies had risque scenes added showing bare breasts and tame bedroom shenanigans. The most infamous of these is Rene Cardona, Sr's EL TESORO DE DRACULA (1969). The version with the added sexual content ran under the name of EL VAMPIRO Y EL SEXO. As the story goes, Santo never shot such scenes, and these additional unclothed moments were shot for the European market and released in that form. Unlike Paul Naschy's pictures -- clothed for local audiences and butt naked everywhere else -- these racier Lucha movies are harder to find. The most famous, and easily accessible one is Cardona's sexy version of NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (1969). This alternate cut of EL TESORO DE DRACULA was, according to Film Calderon, kept confined as an agreement between Santo and the films producer, Guillermo Calderon. Film Calderon restored the picture for a showing at a Mexican film festival in 2011 till Santo's son put a stop to it stating it would tarnish his father's name and image since he didn't participate in such scenes of carnality. The restored sexy version was shown anyways on more than one occasion that year. Allegedly, there are upwards of six such sexed up Santo movies (including the awful SANTO CONTRA LOS JINETES DEL TERROR, aka THE LEPERS AND SEX); one of them is a version of SANTO Y BLUE DEMON CONTRA LOS MONSTRUOS (see insert). It's worth mentioning that while both films were shot in color, B/W versions are the most prominent for the former, and the latter has both color and monochrome versions on the digital market.

SANTO'S SUPER FRIENDS


While there's no denying these movies have a limited audience, Santo's popularity in those days, and the burgeoning market for other Mexican wrestlers to get film careers of their own didn't go unnoticed in other territories -- particularly in Europe. Italian and Spanish producers got together for a short-lived, two film series starring stuntman-actor Giovanni Cianfriglia in SUPERARGO VS. DIABOLICUS (1966) and an inferior sequel, SUPERARGO VS. THE FACELESS GIANTS (1968). Like Santo, Superargo was a professional wrestler and crime fighter all rolled into one.

Turkey even got in on the act with their own Santo impersonator in 3 DEV ADAM (1973), aka 3 GIANT MEN. It featured not only a Santo clone, but a Turkish Captain America and Spiderman as well! Spidey is a villain in this, and it's up to Santo and Cap to defeat him and his crime syndicate.

 
Going back to Mexico, comic book heroes like Kaliman and Chanoc were two others to translate their printed page adventures to the big screen. Kaliman is a martial arts and mystical arts master that debuted on the radio in 1963, and then in comic form in 1965. There were two movies made in Mexico about him in 1972 and 1976, and both starring Jeff Cooper (CIRCLE OF IRON from 1978). Chanoc was a seafaring adventurer whose comic exploits hit newsstands in 1959. His film journey's began in 1967 for at least eight voyages including one with the Son of Santo in 1981. Neither of these two were wrestlers, but their trajectory is similar to the popular industry of the Luchadores and are possibly indebted to them.


Hispanic Houdini and feats artist Professor Zovek was extremely popular and was a real life success story that reached a pinnacle in the late 1960s. His film career came rather quickly in 1971 with the release of EL INCREIBLE PROFESOR ZOVEK in 1972. Unfortunately, his life was cut short during the filming of his second feature, BLUE DEMON Y ZOVEK EN LA INVASION DE LOS MUERTOS (1973).

Interestingly enough, there were a few Lucha heroes who were created specifically for the screen. The aforementioned superstar Tinieblas was one. Others include the bodybuilder Blue Angel (Orlando Hernandez), and the Superman styled curio, Superzan (Alfonso Mora Veytia). Both characters were created by producer Rogelio Agras√°nchez Sr. and had relatively short film careers in a string of movies (usually paired with other, bigger name stars) shot in Guatemala. A number of these were the Guanajuato Mummy sequels. Superzan was unique in that he could fly and had superhuman strength. He headlined two hopelessly ridiculous movies beginning with 1971s SUPERZAN EL INVENCIBLE (onscreen title is SSUPERZAM EL INVENCIBLE), and followed by SUPERZAN E EL NINO DEL ESPACIO (1972). Famous rock and roll singer Johnny Laboriel co-starred as Superzan's sidekick in the first movie. Superzan's career is something of an enigma. There's little available about him. According to Tito Novaro, director of THE CASTLE OF THE MUMMIES OF GUANAJUATO (1973), Superzan trained, and later became a wrestler. It's also stated his in-ring debut was cut short because of an injury during the training process. Blue Angel was a wrestling character in movies only lasting four films in a two year period. Something of a Mexican version of Captain America, he was a replacement for a busy Blue Demon on EL CASTILLO DE LAS MOMIAS DE GUANAJUATO (1973). 

The year before teaming up with Santo in two marvelous movies, famous Mexican actor, the muscular Jorge Rivero (OPERACION 67, EL TESORO DE MOCTEZUMA, SOLDIER BLUE, CONQUEST) played Golden Mask in Rene Cardona's EL ASESINO INVISIBLE (1965), AKA EL ENMASCARADO CONTRA ASESINO INVISIBLE. Unfortunately, this was Rivero's sole excursion into masked wrestling-superhero cinema. The English version of this production ties it into the Neutron series as NEUTRON VS. THE INVISIBLE KILLERS; yet the original movie has nothing at all to do with the character popularized by former wrestler, magician, athlete Wolf Ruvinskis.

 
The ring wasn't just for the men to toss their opponents around in; the women got in on the action too, much like in the real sport. The most famous actress associated with Lucha cinema, and Mexican genre pictures in general is the stunningly gorgeous Lorena Velazquez. She has ran the gamut from strong heroine, to object of the hero's rescue, to the sinister villainess. Her most famous role is in SANTO VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN (1962) as Zorina, the Queen of the Vampires. She also famously played the luchadora Gloria Venus in the first three of five lady wrestler movies directed by the wildly prolific Rene Cardona, Sr. Miss Venus first appeared in LAS LUCHADORAS CONTRA EL MEDICO ASESINO (1963); or, as it's known here in English, DOCTOR OF DOOM. Cardona the elder helmed four more films related to this series, and a graphically gory unrelated one, LA HORRIPILANTE BESTIA HUMANA (1969); or, as it's known here in English, NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES.

 
Mexican Lucha Libre movies with their pulpy plots, comic book styled villains, beautiful women, and plethora of monsters have been influential inside the ring of world cinema. With many of them shot in serialized format (for monetary reasons), they often have a look and feel of the 30s and 40s serials of old such as FLASH GORDON and SUPERMAN. They wear their own influences with pride.

14 PEL√ćCULAS DE CAMPEONES (14 MOVIE CHAMPIONS)

 
All but three of the 14 titles listed below feature fantastical elements in them. There are other films of interest in the Lucha Libre genre, but the films on this list are a good and groovy start in determining whether or not you wish to pursue further adventures of Mexico's manic tradition of masked wrestlers -- the champions of justice and the ring.

1. SANTO CONTRA LOS ZOMBIES (1961/1962)

A famous professor disappears after returning from Haiti followed by a string of robberies committed by a small army of seemingly invincible zombie slaves. Pulpy fun with Santo battling a hooded menace. 


2. SANTO CONTRA LAS MUJERES VAMPIROS (1962)

The Queen of the Vampires must choose a successor before she can join Satan in hell. Choosing a professors daughter, Santo intervenes to stop the ritual from taking place. The ultimate Santo movie, and the most well known example of the form on these shores. Santo battles an array of vampires; some of which can turn into werewolves. Reportedly the best selling Mexican export ever.

3. SANTO EN EL MUSEO DE CERA (1963)
 
Just as good as the above entry. A blend of ISLAND OF LOST SOULS and HOUSE OF WAX with some unusual twists in the mix. Mad scientist makes monsters and waxen figures out of victims. Santo to the rescue. Exciting fights and nice atmosphere enhance this film.

4. EL HACHA DIABOLICA (1964/1965)
 
Very low budget Santo film has enough ideas for a few features put together. Santo is more of a bonafide superhero in this entry as he travels through time to lay his true loves soul to rest while combating a devil-worshiping enemy that has pledged Santo's destruction.

5. SANTO CONTRA LA INVASION DE LOS MARCIANOS (1966/1967)

Santo versus martian musclemen with blonde wigs. Aliens arrive on Earth threatening to destroy it if mankind doesn't dismantle their atomic arsenal. Of course, things don't go well, and after disintegrating a bunch of people, it's Santo to the rescue.

6. OPERACION 67 (1966/1967)

Still low budget, but the most polished and best production values of the Santo adventures belongs to this, and its sequel (see below). A crime syndicate steals the currency printing plates in an attempt to disrupt various Latin American economies. Santo and Jorge Rivero are secret agents sent to stop them.

7. EL TESORO DE MOCTEZUMA (1966/1968)

Sequel to OPERACION 67 finds Santo and Jorge Rivero going after another crime ring that intends to locate and steal the vast Aztec Treasure of Moctezuma. The action seldom lets up. The gorgeous Maura Monti co-stars.


8. SANTO CONTRA BLUE DEMON EN LA ATLANTIDA (1969/1970)

The two titans of the ring clash in this goofy, yet colorfully fun science fiction silliness about a Nazi scientist ruling Atlantis with plans of ruling the entire world.

9. SANTO Y BLUE DEMON CONTRA LOS MONSTRUOS (1969/1970)

Santo and Blue Demon vs. a mad monster party of assorted famous creatures. One of the more well known masked wrestler movies, as well as one of the worst in the best sort of way. No real plot just an unstoppable amount of comic book action.

10. LAS MOMIAS DE GUANAJUATO (1970/1972)

The biggest Lucha hit of them all stars the three biggest wrestling athletes taking on a gaggle of mummies, one of which fought Santo generations earlier. Several sequels followed teaming up other Luchadores. Released in 1972.

11. THE CHAMPIONS OF JUSTICE (1970/1971) 

Influential Lucha Libre movie packs five wrestlers into a simplistic plot about a vengeful mad doctor out for the Justice Champions blood. This crime fighting quintuplet attempts to thwart his plans while battling an army of superhuman midgets. Non-stop action and about as nutty as they come.

 
12. SANTO CONTRA LA HIJA DE FRANKENSTEIN (1971/1972)

The centuries old Frankenstein's daughter stays alive with a special serum and wants some of Santo's blood that contains special properties to live even longer. Meanwhile, she's hard at work on furthering her father's experiments. Some good performances enhance this nutty movie that is one of the few that depicts Santo as more than human.

13. SANTO Y BLUE DEMON CONTRA DRACULA Y EL HOMBRE LOBO (1972/1973)

Another monster mash cult favorite.Very polished with some atmospheric sequences and a fantastic finale. Dracula and the Wolf Man want 400 years of payback on the Cristaldi family and it's up to Santo and Blue to stop them and their army of vampires and werewolves. Some brutal fisticuffs with street fighter werewolves.

14. SANTO CONTRA LAS LOBAS (1972/1976)

The most serious Santo film is this surprisingly moody horror number about a cult of werewolves reviving their king and obtaining a new queen in between terrorizing an isolated village. One of the most unusual Santo productions. A few unexpected twists are included.

 
For some, the wacky world of Lucha cinema is manna from heaven. For others, they may find the low level production values intolerable. The diabolical genius of joining a carnivalesque sporting attraction with mad scientists, monsters, and aliens from outer space is a proposition the dedicated cult film fan simply should not pass up.

FIN

Santo & the Legendary Luchadores of Mexican Fantastic Cinema Part 1 of 2



When Alien invasions, mad scientists, criminal masterminds, and legendary monsters threaten the Earth, you don't call the police, the FBI, or mobilize the military; you call a Luchador, a Mexican wrestler. Of all the cult film genres throughout cinema history, the bizarre, yet immeasurably creative Mexican horror genre is, unfortunately, on down the rung of popularity. Just below that is the Lucha Libre films, or wrestling movies. These films, particularly those featuring the legendary Santo, have an extremely niche audience on US shores. Very few of them were ever dubbed into English; and at first glance a great many more would be hard sells to even the most jaded bizarro cinema/exploitation junkie. The following article is basically a crash course on these films that not only touches on its local popularity, instances of life imitating art (and vice versa), but acts as an introduction to this fascinatingly bonkers style of movie; and one that gives you an idea of what you're in for should you wish to explore the likes of Santo, Blue Demon, Mil Mascaras, Neutron, etc, and their unique blend of wrestling and theatrical production.


MEXICAN WRESTLING'S PATRON SAINT 


The sport of professional wrestling has a long, illustrious history in Mexico. It's historical significance is unique in that the sport became just as popular on the big screen with scores of films featuring some of Mexico's most famous mat technicians; creating a few that became in-ring favorites because of their celluloid adventures; and creating a few Luchadores that existed only in the movie world. The sport was wildly popular in North America and Japan, but its favorability was entrenched within Mexican popular culture to a folkloric level not seen anywhere else. The most famous of Mexico's wrestlers was Santo, El Enmascarado de Plata (The Man in the Silver Mask); or, simply, Santo (the Saint, or Holy), alias Rodolfo Guzman Huerta.


In 1952, Lucha Libre entered the cinematic ring with the three-man tag team of LA BESTIA MAGNIFICA, HURACAN RAMIREZ, and EL ENMASCARADO DE PLATA. That third title was the first such Silver Mask film, only it wasn't the real Santo in the lead, but the original Killer Doctor (Dr. Wagner). The irony of this production is that the Silver Mask in the film is a villainous character. EL ENMASCARADO DE PLATA was a serialized motion picture made up of 11 chapters, and ran a little over two hours.


Rodolfo Guzman Huerta was asked to star in the 1952 film that bore his title, but passed on the opportunity; possibly because he wasn't ready to commit to making movies, or that making them wouldn't catch on with the public; or because the Silver Mask in the film was a villain; and there was nothing villainous about what Santo represented. It was several years before he finally did go before the cameras in two Cuban shot actioners; the first film was the peculiar CEREBRO DEL MAL (1958), or BRAIN OF EVIL. Santo featured in another movie shot right alongside this one titled SANTO CONTRA HOMBRES INFERNALES. According to some sources, neither film made much of a dent at the box office. It wasn't till the Silver Masked One's third movie, SANTO CONTRA LOS ZOMBIES (1961), that his Silver Screen career skyrocketed. 

 
For the next two decades, Santo would do battle with a variety of men and monsters. The list of the Saintly One's adversaries reads like a who's who of comic book scum and villainy including vampires, werewolves, mad scientists, voodoo priestesses, mobsters, martians, criminal masterminds, time-traveling warlocks, zombies, mummies, headhunters, old west pistoleros, Nazis, and blobs from outer space.


THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK

Masks were a popular addition to the Mexican wrestler ensemble, and Santo made the mask an iconic symbol. In his early career, he wrestled under different identities before settling on the moniker that made his name, and Lucha Libre a well known commodity the world over. Akin to Zorro, or even The Lone Ranger, the use of a mask gave men like Santo a superhero quality that elevated them to legendary status in the eyes of the public. The difference being you didn't see Zorro or the Lone Ranger regularly wrestling opponents in between movie roles; not to mention Santo had a more profound connection with his fans since he was a real person.


The mystique surrounding Santo led to him getting his own comic book series beginning in 1952, and only grew from there. Whether in the ring, in comics, or in the movies, Santo was a hero to the downtrodden -- Superman with a mask, if you will. French advertising for his movies promoted him as such. The mask was essentially an extension of the man's persona. Just like in wrestling, once a mat technicians mask was removed his career was essentially over. In some of Santo's movies, you'll see the villains attempting to remove the Saint's disguise. The mystery surrounding Santo was so palpable, suspense was derived just as easily from worrying whether he'd lose his mask than if he'd get out of whatever sticky situation he'd found himself in. An example of this is in SANTO CONTRA LOS ZOMBIES when Santo is attacked by a multitude of the title zombies (bulletproof musclemen wielding electrified rods). Instead of taking him out, one of the villains decides instead to try and take his mask off. It might seem silly to some, but it provides a striking, if goofy parallel to the wrestling world from which it sprang.


In EL HACHA DIABOLICA (1965), Santo is given an all new origin story; replacing the more down to earth one afforded him in SANTO CONTRA EL REY DEL CRIMEN (1962). In the '65 film, his mask is imbued with magical powers. His axe-slinging, devil worshiping nemesis The Black Hood wears one also, and if removed, loses his immortality; so there's a few times where both men are battling to get the others mask off. This was also one of Santo's last purely super hero adventures before spy movie conventions infiltrated the plot lines. In a case of life imitating art, the origin stories of both the above-mentioned movies reveals there's been an entire lineage of Santo's passing the mask down from one generation to the next. Santo's youngest of ten children, Jorge Guzman Rodriguez took up the mantle of wrestling's savior as El Hijo Del Santo. In true comic book fashion, the Son of the Saint never knew his dad was the iconic Holiness of the ring till he got the surprise of his life at eight years old.

Santo's mystique came to an end shortly before his death in 1984 when he unmasked himself a few times on Mexican television. He was buried wearing his famous mask. Statues have been erected in his honor since his death on February 5th, 1984.

BLUE JUSTICE 


The superhero connection with Luchadores reached its apex in 1970 with the January 1971 release of the Justice League of Mexican wrestling movies, THE CHAMPIONS OF JUSTICE. In that film, five masked wrestlers tackle a mad scientist and his army of super strong midget assassins. It garnered two sequels that rotated its heroic membership. There had been superhero movies before, but nothing like this, and certainly none were wrestlers. Santo was not in this one, but Blue Demon, the second biggest star of Lucha cinema was the leader of the band. The third member of the Big Three, Mil Mascaras (Thousand Masks) co-stars. Filling out the five man team was old school masked man The Avenging Shadow (to confuse things, another wrestler, Rayo De Jalisco used an almost identical costume), Tinieblas (Darkness, one of a few wrestlers to get his own comic book), and El Medico Asesino (The Killer Doctor). The last two were making their debuts. Tinieblas appeared in movies first, then the ring on August 20th, 1971. The Killer Doctor of this movie was a new KD, Gran Markus, who had been wrestling since 1963. This film, along with the following years smash LAS MOMIAS DE GUANAJUATO (1970/1972), popularized the plot device of cramming as many masks into one movie as possible. Some of the guys in these movies went onto successful wrestling careers, or were already known commodities, and others who came in the sequels and spin-offs never quite attained the status of some of Mexico's big guns both in the ring and on the screen.


A little bit about Blue Demon's movie career -- he was the second most popular wrestler, and the second most popular in Lucha cinema. His acting career began a few years after Santo's, and mirrored it in a few ways. Santo was something of a supporting player in his first two movies before his onscreen persona was fully realized in the third; Blue had cameos in two films prior to DEMONIO AZUL (1964), which was his official intro into the movie world. When Santo began doing full blown spy films, the Demon followed suit. In his solo efforts, the Demon battled werewolves, Satanic power, alien spiders that could take the shape of humans (see insert), mad scientists, criminal masterminds, and alien females in a reversal of Larry Buchanan's MARS NEEDS WOMEN (1967) in BLUE DEMON CONTRA LAS INVASORAS (1968). He headlined half the films of Santo.



The two, who were rivals in real life, imported that heatedly competitive spirit into the scripts of three films from producer Jesus Martinez Sotomayor that teamed them up and pitted them against each other. Those three films are SANTO CONTRA BLUE DEMON EN LA ATLANTIDA (1969), SANTO Y BLUE DEMON CONTRA LOS MONSTRUOS (1969), and EL MUNDO DE LOS MUERTOS (1969). Both athletes did a total of eight movies together. To place the Demon's filmography into context with The Saint's, his pictures were more serious, more violent, yet they seemed even cheaper by comparison. Santo's resume, as inexpensive as his films were, had more polished productions on it. Both men also had sons that followed their path into the business.

SANTO Y BLUE DEMON CONTRA LOS BAJOS PRESUPUESTOS (SANTO AND BLUE DEMON AGAINST LOW BUDGETS)


To put the Mexican fantasy film industry into perspective with the America's, they were, in some ways, between 20-30 years behind where Hollywood was in the 1960s. This isn't a bad thing, just an observation, and one of the more appealing aspects of those films. Cheaply made, they had in their favor an atmosphere akin to the old Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s. The Lucha genre fared worse, but moved with the change in trends; yet the advancement in filming techniques did not. The special effects in these movies were crude to say the least; frequently lacking in craftsmanship, while the creativity of the scripts occasionally made up for their relative cheapness. When you saw monsters, particularly those of the very popular Guanajuato Mummy movies, the extent of the makeup was generally a fright mask and maybe some gloves. Rudimentary, but effectively creepy in some cases. It was a rare occasion to see a full-body makeup in a Mexican fantasy-wrestling movie, too. The Aztec Mummy in its various B/W horror and Luchadoras (lady wrestlers) entries comes close, and was a satisfactory design. Additionally, the makeups in films like the iconic SANTO EN EL MUSEO DE CERA (1963) and the surrealist-nuttiness combo of the Mexican Yorga styled delights of LOS VAMPIROS COYOACAN (1974) are among the best seen in this genre.

Seeing stock footage from movies like TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE (1959), PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959), HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961), and MONSTER ZERO (1965) gives an idea just how destitute the production values tended to be. Who would have thought flying hubcaps would look so good in comparison. For instance, the fem-aliens of BLUE DEMON CONTRA LAS INVASORAS (1969) fly their yo-yo UFO into a fish tank disguised as a lake. You can even see the rod maneuvering it in and out of the tank! The "aerial dogfight" between two flying yo-yos at the finale defies description.



Action scenes were plentiful (not counting wrestling matches), but with such low budgets and speedy production schedules, there was scarce time for more than a single take -- and it shows in some movies. Stunts were mostly limited to fisticuffs and some decently staged falls, but you will see some impressive stunts from time to time. Dummy deaths were frequent, too, particularly in the 70s movies. On occasion you'd see a car blown up, but many times quick edits would cut away before vehicles crashed, or tumbled over cliffs. You would hear a car crash, but you wouldn't see it happen. This degree of hurried sloppiness might not do the films any favors, but it does succeed in the overall entertainment value for fans who can get into bad cinema.



Despite their popularity with paying audiences, these films received widespread critical drubbing much like the Italian variants of the Sword and Sandal genre; yet, like those mythological muscleman movies that enabled the upper echelon to keep making their artistic endeavors, the likes of Santo kept the impoverished cine-mexico afloat. The film industry in Mexico at this time was not the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. Productions were funded by the state from loans handed out through the Banco Cinematografico (National Cinematographic Bank). Depending on the type of loan acquired (an A through D system) meant how much money the producers could receive to get their project going. Sometimes this percentage was used to shoot the entire film without having any extra funds added resulting in a less than quality product. Taking into account that some of Mexico's cinematic output defaulted on the loans given to production companies, Santo's films were something of a financial phenomenon; the profits being used to pay back loans elsewhere as opposed to financing other Saintly ventures. Corruption also reportedly had its hand in the cookie jar with producers pocketing some of the budget before it was used for the making of the film. This state-run template seemed to stifle, or discourage quality productions -- which might explain why a number of Santo movies (and others) just sit there and die with little in the way of editing, sense of camera placement, or artistic merit. Things did gradually improve into the 1970s when the industry embraced a capitalist, more free market system with private investors involved. But Lucha cinema had seen its best days in the 1960s. The National Cinematographic Bank was out of business by 1978; and the singing cash registers of Santo and friends had lost their voice by this point.


A great many Mexican wrestling movies were shot in an episodic format to take advantage of the unionized system in Mexico at that time. Features were shot at facilities aligned with the STPC (Sindicato de Trabajadores de Producción Cinematográfica), while television productions, documentaries, etc, were assigned to the STIC (Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Industria Cinematográfica). The former was more expensive, naturally, so film producers wishing to save a peso or two would take advantage of the much cheaper STIC union whereby said feature would be shot in a series of episodes. An example of this would be Santo's most famous film on these shores, SANTO CONTRA LAS MUJERES VAMPIRO (1962) being an STPC production; while ATACAN LAS BRUJAS (1964), which is virtually a remake but substituting witch's for vampires, was an STIC picture. Split into three "episodes", the titles (not listed on the current DVD print) are 'The Witch's Attack', 'The Damned Witch', and 'Bloody Sabbath'. Both films are very entertaining, but the former looks far more polished than the latter. Regardless of which union was used, Mexican wrestling movies were predominantly extremely low budgeted films. Thankfully, there's a healthy amount of this insanely entertaining genre product.

CONTINUED IN PART 2...
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