Saturday 23 September 2017

Santo vs. The Vampire Women (1962)

Director: Alfonso Corona Blake
Writer: Rafael García Travesi, based on a story by Antonio Orellana, Fernando Osés and Rafael García Travesi
Stars: Santo, Lorena Velázquez, Maria Duval, Jaime Fernandez, Augusto Benedico and Ofelia Montesco

Index: 2017 Centennials.

The great folk heroes of the ages are usually timeless. We don’t know when they were born and they generally don’t die; they just live on in our culture, forever young. However, we can put some dates on one of Mexico’s greatest folk heroes, El Santo, because it was the character of a man who lived and died and made a huge difference in between. His real name, not that it was well known during his career, was Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta and he would have been a hundred years old today. El Santo was a symbol of truth, justice and the Mexican way and he plied his trade as a luchador enmascarado or masked wrestler. He fought in the squared circle for almost half a century and, after a few decades, successfully took his character onto the big screen, starring in fifty feature films, fittingly taking on all comers, whether they be criminals, monsters or aliens. I re-watched two of these in celebration of his career and realised in the process how varied the quality of these films really was.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Santo movie, the last one being 1973’s Santo vs. Black Magic, which was screened at a local cinema in Spanish with live Mystery Science Theater 3000 style commentary from a local improv troupe, following a set of wrestling matches. So, trusting Wikipedia, I initially went for The Mummies of Guanajuato, a colour picture from 1972 in which Santo lends his luchador colleagues Blue Demon and Mil Máscaras a hand to save a town from reincarnated luchador mummies seeking revenge. After all, some nameless editor suggests that it was the ‘most financially successful’ Santo movie of them all and the one which fans call the ‘greatest luchador film ever made.’ Well, as much as it sounds like a blast, with not one but three legendary masked wrestlers and a script spun out of the real mummies of Guanajuato, a collection of corpses buried during a nineteenth century cholera outbreak but naturally preserved and now displayed in a museum, it sadly isn’t. This is why ‘citation required’ is so important, folks.

There’s some fun to be found in The Mummies of Guanajuato but it’s a truly awful movie. We’re treated to a variety of interminable sequences, whether they be wrestling matches with Blue Demon and Mil Máscaras tag teaming a pair of nonentities, a tourist bus driving through the city streets to get to the next destination or a young lady in a bad wig and a worse dress exercising her tonsils in an Aztec-themed nightclub. The cameraman didn’t know how to move the camera and the editor didn’t understand the idea of cuts, so the end result is a real challenge to sit through. What’s more, Santo spends the entire movie driving to Guanajuato, where he shows up just in time to save the day. That means that he misses all the magic scenes which unfold in an uncannily empty city until the mummies show up to terrorise the population, at which point that population has the good grace to suddenly appear to be terrorised. He even misses timeless lines like, ‘Girls, in case of a mummy’s attack, stay calm.’

So I dug a little deeper and pulled out Santo vs. The Vampire Women from 1962. It’s a much earlier film in the series, which fits well with the Mexican horror films I’ve seen from the sixties, titles which were often cut, dubbed and issued to late night TV in the US by K. Gordo80n Murray. In fact, he released some of the Santo movies too, renaming him to Samson for no good reason. Presumably he felt that Americans would recognise the name Samson better, just as American distributors of Italian movies featuring Maciste would understand more if they renamed him to Hercules. The originals are always better than Murray’s versions, especially with decent subtitles, even if they’re as wild and wacky as The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy. I particularly enjoyed The Baron of Terror in its original form, even though Murray’s take as The Brainiac is still a real trip. Mexican horror films at that point in time seemed to be universally well shot and well lit, usually featuring gorgeous castles or mansions, and this one is no exception.
Even before we get past the opening credits, Santo vs. The Vampire Women demonstrates that it’s in a whole different league to The Mummies of Guanajuato. There’s better music, courtesy of Raúl Lavista, better camerawork from Manuel González and much better cinematography from José Ortiz Ramos. We find our way into an abandoned building, which looks magnificent if only we can get past the hilariously bad bat effects. There’s a real sense of atmosphere here, right down to the mice on the mantelpiece. Down in the basement, a vertical coffin creaks open and we suddenly close in on the eyes of the mud-caked corpse within as the lightning strikes outside. It’s gorgeous stuff with fantastic lighting and I could feel the ineptitude of the later film fade away in my mind. In this basement are many vertical coffins but only one horizontal one with a cool crest on the top. Our vampire woman conveniently explains the situation in a neatly overblown monologue.

She’s Tundra, the Priestess of Vampire Women, and that horizontal coffin belongs to Zorina, her queen and Mistress of the Depths. They and the similarly decrepit hags who emerge from the other coffins, have been stuck there for two hundred years, ever since Tundra failed to steal away Rebeca, she of the painting upstairs with the 1761 date on it, to become their new queen so that Zorina could descend back to the depths. Clearly vampires in Mexico aren’t merely supernatural creatures, they’re associated with Satan himself, as evidenced in some gorgeous shadowplay with the Lord of Darkness himself, who’s waiting for his bride. As prophecied, of course, Tundra gets a second shot. Two centuries on, there will be a descendant of Rebeca, who will have inherited her looks, be identified by a birthmark in the shape of a bat and be ripe for the taking as she turns twenty one. If Tundra can get the job right on her second attempt, this descendant will become the new Queen of Vampires.
Yes, I know you can write the rest of the script from that introduction. You’d be right too, but let’s play along. Tundra soliloquises to Selene and is transformed into a beautiful young lady. And I’m not kidding there; the voluptuous Ofelia Montesco, Peruvian by birth but a big star in Mexico in the sixties, is gorgeous, so much so that she unfortunately lessens the impact of Lorena Velázquez when she does a similar transformation as Zorina. Yeah, the queen is beautiful but I’d take the priestess any day. Well, just so long as she doesn’t rip my throat out with her vampire fangs, anyway. So, in another part of town, young Diana Orlof, the spitting image of Rebeca’s portrait, is playing the Moonlight Sonata for her fiancé and her father, and preparing to turn twenty one. What’s that on her left shoulder, you ask? Why, it’s a birthmark in the shape of a bat. Clearly the prophecy is coming true. Fortunately for her, her father is a professor who knows all about it and plans to keep her safe. That’s what his policeman friend, Insp. Carlos, is for.

So far, so sixties Mexican horror movie. How will Santo get shoehorned into this story, you might wonder. Well, just as that train of thought strikes us, Prof. Orlof spins up the space age radio on his desk and calls Santo direct on the space age videoscreen that sits on his wall. How does he know this famous luchador? We have no idea. We can answer that question about as well as the one that asks why he’s reading the prophecy of the vampire women in hieroglyphics. Maybe that’s why we’re promptly whisked into the wrestling ring so Santo can distract us. He’s about to team up with Black Shadow in a tag match against a couple of nobodies. Sitting here in my Lucha Underground tour shirt, I enjoyed this match and far more than I did its equivalents in The Mummies of Guanajuato, partly because the camera moves, the editor knows his job and we get to see some of the match from the crowd. The only catch, of course, is the question of when Santo’s going to actually join the rest of the film, but patience, young padawan.
Much of what follows is a lot of fun. Sure, the bat effects continue to be cheap and cheesy, though not quite at the Ed Wood level. Other flaws are obvious too: the impressive stone altars on which Tundra’s male vampire slaves were shackled shift really easily when they’re accidentally bumped and the transformations from ancient crones to sweet young thangs in togas are far from state of the art. But I really don’t care! We have sexy vampire women, suitably spooky sets and Santo taking down his opponents with his trusty camel clutch. All we need is for the two sides of the story to join, which they do right after the halfway mark. El Santo, resplendent in his trunks, tights and cape, not to mention his trademark silver mask, shows up at the Orlofs to help keep young Diana safe and, of course, his work is going to be cut out for him because the professor’s careful plans apparently involve eating out in restaurants and dancing to the Blue Danube at fancy dress masquerades. Prof. Orlof is security’s worst nightmare.

It’s hard to grasp why it took three people to write this story, while one of them adapted it into a screenplay and the director did double duty as a scenario consultant. It’s relatively routine stuff, which is elevated not by clever dialogue but by its iconic action. Tundra’s hypnotic eyes are magnificent and they’re focused on so often that they should become a drinking game. Santo gets the lion’s share of the actual fighting, whether it’s in the ring against the vampire slave pretending to be Black Mask or around town wherever Tundra strikes and her slaves flit into battle. He has a habit of arriving in his sports car just in the nick of time, but hey, that’s what cliffhangers are for! If only the wrestlers playing those muscular vampire slaves hadn’t been told to hold their capes and flit around like rejects from Adam West’s Batman, I’d have thrilled to the fight. Most of this is shot superbly, one highlight of many being when one of these slaves leaps out in front of a giant cross, at which point he erupts into flame and melts away.
Santo has much more to do here than in The Mummies of Guanajuato. He saves the day in a much more believable fashion, brutally too which is very fitting for what is really a horror picture with a masked luchador in the lead, even if he’s playing the traditional hero of a western. He shows up to fight a battle that the regular folk can’t fight and he does what must be done before driving off into the sunset. Well, the sunrise, at least. Vampires, remember? But that’s who Santo was. He wasn’t merely a wrestler, he was a force for good, as is highlighted here by him being part of the same prophecy as Diana and her birthmark. Clearly, his ancestor of two hundred years hence foiled Tundra’s last attempt and he’s going to do exactly the same thing. In fact, that comes up again in The Mummies of Guanajuato, as the 7’2” wrestling mummy called Satan was beaten a century earlier by Santo’s ancestor and had to sell his soul to the devil for a rematch a hundred years hence. Guess how well that works out for him.

If you’re used to the WWE, it’s hard to imagine what Santo did. After all, the wrestler of the people changes every few years; back when I found American wrestling, it was Hulk Hogan but my sons grew up with it being the Rock because the Hulkster had turned into Hollywood Hogan, defected to the WCW and turned heel to lead the New World Order. Santo, by comparison, was the choice of the people throughout his career and that was a particularly long one. Guzmán’s first match was so long ago that nobody knows quite when it was but, whether it was 1934 or 1935, he was well established by the late thirties. He first donned his famous silver mask in 1942, when his manager, Don Jesús Lomelí, created a stable of silver wrestlers, Guzmán choosing the Saint over the Devil and the Angel. He popularised professional wrestling in Mexico, and he continued in his consistent role as Santo for four decades, retir8ing as late as 1982. His son wrestles as El Hijo del Santo, and a couple of grandsons as El Nieto del Santo and El Santo Jr.
Of course, I’m reviewing Santo vs. The Vampire Women not because Santo was a groundbreaking wrestler but because he was a huge film star. He’d actually turned down an invitation to star in The Man in the Silver Mask in 1952, thinking that it would be a flop, so it fell to another luchador, El Médico Asesino, to become the title character and, apparently also a villain. He finally reached the big screen in 1958, playing the sidekick of a masked cop called El Incognito in two features, The Evil Brain and The Infernal Men, shot in Cuba right before Fidel Castro took over. The screen Santo didn’t become the ring Santo until 1961’s Santo vs. The Zombies, at which point they became indistinguishable. The good guy masked wrestler played the good guy masked wrestler of the same name, who alternated wrestling bad guys in the ring with bad guys out of it, from all corners of the pulp entertainment playbook. His last film was The Fury of the Karate Experts in 1982, meaning that he made fifty movies in two decades, all while wrestling professionally!

Film, like all art, is a unifying experience. It removes boundaries and opens up cultures. That said, it’s impossible for people in one culture to truly grok another culture, at least without serious immersion over a considerable period of time. I love lucha libre and have since I first found the AAA federation on the Spanish language Galavisión channel, but I’m unable to quantify Santo’s impact on Mexican culture. I have to rationalise it by imagining not one but a whole bunch of equivalents and wrapping them all up into a single man. He’s the classic era Hulk Hogan, of course, but he’s also James Bond, Flash Gordon and Maciste, all hiding beneath that iconic silver mask. The first and maybe the last thing you need to know about Mexican wrestling movies is that heroes never take off their masks, whether they’re in bed or a suit. This isn’t Sylvester Stallone as Judge Dredd, where the star was more important than the mask; in Mexico the hero is the mask so, while Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta died in 1984, El Santo lives and will live forever.

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