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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Reel Bad Cinema: Santo Faces Death (1969) review


Santo (Himself; an uncredited Jaguar of Colombia), Mara Cruz (Lina), Angel Menendez (Dr. Igor), Elsa Cardenas (Alicia), Cesar Del Campo (Lt. Valle), Frank Brana (Mario), Fernando Oses (Assassin), Antonio Pica (Igor's henchman), Johana Aloha (Agent X-25)

Directed by Fernando Orozco

The Short Version: There are only two sure things in life -- death and Santo; and Santo faces it (somewhere) in this confusing, plodding, yet hysterical movie that brazenly wastes an enormous amount of potential. Director Orozco's lack of focus sabotages his own movie at every turn, transforming his tale of Colombian based spy intrigue into anything but intriguing. The PLAN 9 of the Santo series, it's a monumental mess filled with plot holes, sloppy action, nonsensical plot devices, and a disinterested Santo played by multiple stand-in's. Ironically, the Saintly One faced Death in a more literal sense in SANTO VS. THE VILLAINS OF THE RING and WORLD OF THE DEAD--two infinitely more entertaining features. If this James Bland isn't the worst entry in the long-running series, it's not for a lack of trying.

A Colombian band of gangsters led by a Luchadora named Alicia is hired by the mysterious mob boss The Great Unknown to appropriate a vast consignment of jewels, the valuable Southern Cross (Cruz del Sur) emerald among them. Santo, wrestler and secret agent extraordinaire, is scheduled to wrestle in Spain, and while he's there, is assigned to investigate and retrieve the jewels before they can be sold off to a Doctor Igor whose main headquarters is in New York. Forced to comply with the criminals, Alicia's father, a diamond cutter, is held captive to ensure the precious emerald makes it out of the country. Meanwhile, The Great Unknown's lead henchman, Mario, keeps tabs on Santo, ordering attempts on his life, and making sure none of the planted agents live to give the crimefighting wrestler any clues as to the location of the coveted and pricey rock.

The Lucha Libre movies of Mexico are a special breed of cinema. If you've an open mind, and can put the genre into perspective with the culture and economy of the time, you'll find some unique surprises. Even the worst entries (although many may lump all the films into the 'worst' category) have some level of cheap thrills to offer. SANTO FACES DEATH is one such picture; a film whose shabbiness, in some ways, was unavoidable. 

The Holy was still starring in good films in the 1970s, but if the likes of SANTO VS. THE HEADHUNTERS (1969), SANTO VS. THE RIDERS OF TERROR (1970), and ANONYMOUS DEATH THREAT (1972) were anything to go by, it was clear the Silver Masked Man's best days were behind him. Still, whereas most performers often try to forget their bad film heritage, those wrestling heroes of Mexico embraced and took great pride in having done them, as well as having had a great time making them.

And yet, it's difficult to find anything truly good to say about SANTO FACES DEATH. Vying for the title of Worst Santo Movie, it remains consistently wretched from start to finish, made all the more disappointing in that the components for a moderately engaging thriller are on hand, but summarily wasted. There are scripting gaps where an action sequence is supposed to take place--and it either never happens, or is realized in the most unimaginative way possible. Whatever happened behind the scenes, blame is usually placed at the feet of the director; and this director had a relatively short career, going down in the annals of Lucha cinema as the man behind two of the least impressive Santo productions. America has Ed Wood. Italy has Demilio Fidani. And Mexico has Fernando Orozco. 

Not Santo
Out of everything wrong with SANTO FACES DEATH, the most glaring faux pas is The 'Strange Case of the Missing Santo'. The real Silver Masked Man is only in portions of this movie, replaced by what appears to be a small army of Saintly Stand-in's. Reportedly, Santo's wife became ill, and instead of putting the film on hold, he entrusted another famous wrestler, The Jaguar of Colombia, to take his place in a number of scenes. Actually, had that been weaved into the plot of the movie, it might of made for a more interesting adventure. The disappearing Santo act creates problems that only fans of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) will fully appreciate; and in Mexican Lucha cinema, the saying 'The Show Must Go On'  has little regard for continuity.

Not Santo
Santo was an athletic, barrel-chested man, yet was never overly muscular. The Jaguar, on the other hand, looked like he'd lifted a weight or two. In many instances, the Jaguar and Santo Switcheroo occurs in the exact same sequence! For example, in one scene Santo is discussing the gangsters activities with the police. The moment he exits and the film cuts to an exterior shot, Santo has suddenly sprouted a toned musculature in the span of a couple seconds. This happens a lot during this movie. Ironically, it succeeds in keeping the viewer more interested in picking out the mismatched Santo shots than any of the underdeveloped characters and half-baked action scenes that make this films 85 minutes. If you're a dedicated fan, and can take it, you will see a much less excessive use of the Santo Swap in the other Colombian shot, Orozco misfire, the patchwork production of MYSTERY OF THE BLACK PEARL (1971).

Mystery Santo
Incredibly, there appears to be a THIRD Santo-alike in this movie that turns up approximately 50 minutes in right after Santo (seemingly the real one) stows away aboard a plane to locate Dr. Igor's hideout. So there's a stand-in for the stand-in. What's even more outrageous is this other, noticeably flabbier Santo seems to possess evangelical healing skills in that he barely touches people, causing them to simply collapse into unconsciousness.

Santo and Fernando Oses, maybe
Santo and Fernando Oses, maybe
Orozco, who also wrote this disaster, does find a way to integrate an Imposter Santo into the narrative, even though he is about as successful at clarifying the reasoning behind this addition as he is for everything else. Possibly this FOURTH Santo is Fernando Oses underneath the mask since he plays the assassin working for Mario (Frank Brana) who makes multiple attempts on The Holy's life. Oses's turn as the Imposter comes during a scene in a club where Santo is meeting a belly dancer who happens to be a secret agent. Dressed in the clothes he was wearing when he tried to snuff out Santo in the wrestling arena, Mario orders him to silence the curvaceous female spy. Why the hell he is suddenly dressed like Santo in the next scene, and apparently has an identical mask in his pocket is yet another scripting snafu that goes unexplained, has no impact, nor any reason for being there. Both Santo and his imposter tussle once more later in the picture--again, the question is asked why does he need to disguise himself as Santo to assassinate Santo?

Definitely Fernando Oses
Oses was a familiar face in Lucha cinema, having been a professional wrestler, and faced Santo on numerous occasions in his movies, delivering some of the best brawls of the Saint's career. This might explain why the two fights between Santo (the real one) and this imposter are the most energetic of all the varied action scenes in the film.

In a really cool, yet probably unintentional in-reference, a sign is visible displaying a roster of wrestling matches featuring Santo, Oses, and the Jaguar of Colombia against the likes of Count Dracula and King Kong.

The Jaguar of Colombia reportedly did stand-in duties on a total of four Santo pictures (in as many months). The other three Jaguar/Santo films were the above-mentioned MYSTERY OF THE BLACK PEARL (1971/1974), ANONYMOUS DEATH THREAT (THE ASSASSINS OF HITLER [1972/1975]), and SUICIDE MISSION (1971/1973). Unless the scenes with The Jaguar were shot and not used, there doesn't appear to be any sign of him in the last two titles. In addition to his popularity as a mat technician, the Colombian wrestler had a brief cinematic run of his own during this time period. If nothing else, SANTO FACES DEATH gave the Jaguar (see above and insert) a unique opportunity to test out the filmmaking waters before diving in on his own with KARLA VS. LOS JAGUARES (1974) and LOS JAGUARES VS. EL INVASOR MISTERIOSO (1975).

El Santo and The Jaguar of Colombia
Enamored with The Saint after reading the exploits of the Silver Masked One in a comic book, The Jaguar decided wrestling was for him, and his path was set. Like most who stay focused and persevere to achieve their goals, The Jaguar encountered issues with family over his chosen profession. Not letting that stop him, the young man's intense study of Greco-Roman wrestling led to his first match at 14 years of age. A serious head injury that left him hospitalized for a few months failed to sideline his career. By the time he was 15, The Jaguar had met his idol, Santo. Eventually, the high-spirited Colombian Cat debuted at Madison Square Garden in the early 1960s, and by the end of the decade, he was subbing for Santo in the movies. The two partnered in Colombia in 1968, so this coincides with Santo's films he made there. Starring in two productions of his own in the early 70s, The Jaguar maintained a successful wrestling career that not only brought him to America (again in the late 70s and 1980s), but global recognition as well.

Shot in Colombia in the city of Bogota and Mount Monserrate, SANTO FACES DEATH was the first of three co-productions with Spanish companies. This film (including its follow-up, MYSTERY OF THE BLACK PEARL) has a confusing history. Known in Spain as SANTO CONTRA LOS ASESINOS DE LA MAFIA (SANTO AGAINST THE MAFIA KILLERS), its advertising in that country features a woman with dark hair in what looks like the Raquel Welch pose from Hammer's ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966). On the Mexican poster, it's basically the same, but with a blonde haired woman. In the film, Elsa Cardenas is a blonde, but wears a brunette wig in the ring so both countries had all the bases covered in that case. Credits are different on this Spanish version, and made even more confounding in that director Orozco is listed only as a producer. A Manuel Bengoa and Enrique Eguiluz are credited as directors on the Spain print. Orozco's screenplay credit on the Mexican version is replaced with Manuel Bengoa, which could be a pseudonym for Orozco. Likely the confusion of the credits was due to contractual reasons.

Another DEATH in the masked canon, SANTO VS. DR. DEATH (1973), the last of the co-pro's with Spain, is far and away the best of these collaborations; bearing the best production values and many familiar faces to European film fans. According to the man himself, The Holy considered it his best effort.

Mystery Santo
Taking the Santo Swap out of the equation, SANTO FACES DEATH falls way over onto the opposite of that spectrum for many other reasons. There's a decent plot here, with the potentiality for some fine set pieces, but it's all undermined by the most pedestrian approach imaginable. The lazily choreographed (if you can refer to it as having been rehearsed) raid on the emerald mine that opens the film is the first indication the filmmakers have less enthusiasm than the budget they have to work with. The lack of financing, while glaringly apparent throughout, takes a cue from the Roger Corman playbook during the finale. When the Colombian military intervenes to help stop Dr. Igor, some of the shots from the opening ambush are recycled, but flipped to make them appear new. This set-up for a big finish with an attack on Igor's hiding place is another cheat; ditto for the meeting between Santo and Igor in a river that is supposedly filled with crocodiles that, like a lot of things in this movie, are never seen.

Santo and Antonio Pica
A sword fight between Santo and Antonio Pica (see above) is yet another example of this films variance in the action department, yet feels like it was done in a rush and on the spot. The lack of choreography sees Santo simply use the same blocking motion over and over to hold off his attacker. Pica's maneuvers are basic thrusts with the bulk of this sword "duel" consisting of the two men pushing each other away and struggling around the room.

Even the wrestling is less than stellar. There's four matches in this one--two with Santo and two with luchadoras--one of which is supposed to be Elsa Cardenas. The other women's match (one of the ladies has bandages covering her head) isn't seen in its entirety. The two Santo bouts are integrated into the plot, utilizing the familiar plot device of the assassination attempt. To match the productions lackadaisical storytelling, even Santo appears tired during his matches. Not only is he not in the whole movie, but his heart isn't altogether in it, either.

Elsa Cardenas (right) and Celia Roldan
One of the wrestling segments does offer the sole shining moment of ingenuity found in SANTO FACES DEATH; this comes when a cat fight breaks out in Alicia's dressing room after her match. This fight with Mario's jealous girlfriend is intercut with the second, totally uninteresting women's arena bout. Alternatively, it affords us a nice look at Elsa Cardenas in her wrestling tights, showing off those curves. 

Not Elsa Cardenas

Elsa Cardenas
Cardenas is a strikingly beautiful actress who featured in some major Hollywood productions and a slew of Lucha films. She co-starred with Elvis in FUN IN ACUPULCO (1963), was one of Mapache's women in THE WILD BUNCH (1969), and played a multitude of roles in assorted Santo and Lucha team movies as the 'La Chica Bella' in such grande epicos as THE CHAMPIONS OF JUSTICE (1970), THE MUMMIES OF GUANAJUATO (1972) and SANTO AGAINST BLACK MAGIC (1973).

Not Santo and Cesar Del Campo
The Santo Swap notwithstanding, the intentional tone of seriousness is scuppered by barrages of unintentional comedy. One of the more hilarious bits is the scene where Santo and Lt. Valle (see insert) are tailing the crooks and their courier played by the adorable Mara Cruz. Santo is especially conspicuous with his mask and bright red shirt. No attempt is made at crowd control as the wrestler draws floods of gaping onlookers. This "chase" scene, that seem to go on interminably so we can listen to the grade school filmstrip music on the soundtrack, fail to derive any sense of tension, resultant from an absence of editing prowess.

This co-pro between Mexico and Spain may not deliver much in the way of thrilling action, but it does unleash a finishing hold level of incompetence that will be as priceless for bad movie buffs as the sought after emerald in the movie.

Santo and Mara Cruz
Not Santo and Mara Cruz
SANTO FACES DEATH is arguably the World Champion of bad Santo movies, and it defends that title admirably. Only the most battle-ready of Lucha fans need step in the ring with it. As awful as this Santo adventure is, it's both entertaining in its clumsiness and frustrating in what it fails to deliver. In its defense, DEATH inexplicably manages to show up at various film festivals in honor of Mexican genre cinema and the wrestling/superhero icon, so it's obviously admired in spite of its poor qualities--most likely because of them. Fans of terrible movies might find the constant Santo swapping giggle-worthy, but there's much better "bad" Santo movies, and far better examples of the Man in the Silver Mask worthy of exploration.

This review is representative of the Rebel Crew Films DVD. Spanish language only.

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