Santo vs. Black Magic Woman/Santo contra la magia negra (1973)

‘I will meet you at the graveyard after the wrestling.’

Two scientists have died in mysterious circumstances while working for a professor in Haiti. The trio have created a formula for a new explosive of devastating power, so Interpol sends a masked wrestler to obtain it before it falls into the wrong hands…

It’s another mission for legendary luchador and folk hero Santo under the watchful direction of veteran Alfredo B Crevenna. Some other familiar faces are in front and behind the camera in what was approximately the 40th entry in a film series that began in 1961.

Top scientist Professor Jordan (Guillermo Gálvez) is a rational man. He’s happy to accept ‘natural causes’ as the reasons behind the recent deaths of two of his colleagues. Interpol isn’t satisfied, though, suspecting that enemy agents are trying to obtain the egghead’s secret formula for a brand-new explosive. Rather than send in a task force of experienced agents to secure it, they call on Santo and pack him off on assignment to Haiti, where the Professor lives.

Unfortunately for the forces of justice and truth, the opposition doesn’t need spy satellites, double agents or fancy surveillance gear to follow their moves. They have voodoo priestess, Bellamira (Sasha Montenegro), instead. After a few choice words to serpent spirit Damballa, she can simply watch Santo’s briefing in her psychedelic pool. So it’s no surprise when Santo is attacked soon after being picked up from the airport by contact man Jorge (César del Campo). Fortunately, the great man can fight off half a dozen zombies without breaking too much of a sweat.

Santo has more trouble with obstinate scientist Gálvez who has no time for all this supernatural malarkey. Despite the arguments of daughter Lorna (Elsa Cárdenas), who is also engaged to del Campo, he doesn’t think he’s in any danger. However, Montenegro has targeted him for death at the behest of foreign agents Fernando Osés and Carlos Suárez. Can Santo persuade rival voodoo priestess Michelle (Gerty Jones) to help, or is the formula doomed to fall into the hands of the enemies of the free world?

By this point in the series, it was hardly likely that anyone was going to mess with the tried and trusted Santo movie formula. Send the great man to an exotic location, and put him against an outlandish villain (possibly with supernatural powers) who controls a gang of thugs/headhunters/vampires or whatever. Santo has to protect an old scientist/archaeologist/academic with a beautiful daughter who happens to be in love with whatever sidekick the script has landed him with this week. Everyone is after a treasure, an amulet, a formula or some McGuffin, which will mean disaster for the whole world if the villain gets hold of it. Oh, and Santo has to wrestle in the ring a couple of times. There are variations, of course, but that’s the basic story framework, and it’s usually just a case of what variations on this theme each movie can deliver.

Happily, there are more than a few points of interest in this example, the most obvious being the location. Cast and crew travelled to Haiti, and the production spent significant time there. It’s possible that some pick-up shots were filmed back home in Mexico, but more than likely that the entire shoot happened on location. The cast interacts with the locals and their ceremonies and festivals, which provides a lot of local colour. This brings a surprising level of authenticity to the proceedings, but Crevenna does let it affect the pacing. Too much of this background footage appears late in the second act when the film should be building towards a climax. Worse still are the obvious implications of showing what are clearly genuine voodoo rituals. Offerings made to the spirits, known as Iwa, are often accompanied by animal sacrifice. Although Crevenna does not allow his camera to linger on these aspects, what is shown is highly likely to upset those of a sensitive disposition.

Elsewhere, proceedings are considerably elevated by the presence of Montenegro, whose ice-cool arrogance makes for one of Santo’s most memorable antagonists. Wisely, she chooses to underplay her part, adopting a very matter-of-fact approach to her evil machinations. She’s simply a bad girl carrying out items of business, albeit with supernatural assistance. There’s also an undercurrent of ruthless joy to her subtle smirk, which is very effective because it’s so understated.

However, there’s little remarkable about the rest of the cast or their performances. Cardenas, a series veteran, was probably a little too old to play the damsel in distress and would have been better employed in a more proactive role. It is good to see old standbys Osés and Suárez, though, and, as was often the case, the former was involved with the writing, here receiving a story credit.

Santo gets to strut his stuff in the square ring twice (as per his Interpol cover story!), and it’s highly possible these bouts were staged on location. Most of the footage is grainy and shot from the edge of the ring, with the crowd only dimly visible. There are some inserts of Montenegro in the front row, probably shot separately, as she wills his opponent to kill our gallant hero. But, given the occupants of the seats around her, again, the likelihood is that it was shot on location.

Although this fight looks genuine, unfortunately, someone decided to speed up some of the action outside the ring. This tweak in the editing suite is only slight, but it’s still noticeable enough to give Santo’s initial combat with the zombies a sillier edge than it probably deserved. However, it is a nice touch when he unwittingly scares them away by holding up a cross-shaped tyre iron.

It is perfectly acceptable for tourists to attend a voodoo ceremony in Haiti (more accurately termed ‘Voodou’). However, it’s interesting to note that the practitioners here allowed the cast to act as a little more than just passive observers. Cardenas is tied to a stake as a potential human sacrifice (not a part of their religion at all), and she’s dressed in white, a highly significant colour and usually only worn by those leading the ceremony. The actress deserves a lot of credit for the scene as it’s clear that some participants have entered the ‘possession trance’, a state demonstrated by dilated eyes and violent, erratic body movements. She was in no danger, but given that she was standing alone in a crowded temple filled with sincere believers during an actual voodoo ceremony, she probably had some pause for thought.

Montenegro was born Aleksandra Aćimović Popović in Italy to parents of Montenegrin descent. Raised in Argentina, she relocated to Mexico, where she debuted as an actress in musical comedy ‘Un sueño de amor’ (1972). The following year she appeared in ‘Santo vs. the Killers from Other Worlds/Santo contra los asesinos de otros mundos’ (1971) before taking centre stage as this black magic woman. She returned to the series for ‘Santo in Anonymous Death Threat/Santo en Anónimo mortal (1972) and ‘Santo y Blue Demon Contra El Doctor Frankenstein’ (1974) and also appeared in other genre films such as ‘Los vampiros de Coyoacán’ (1974). More significantly, in the public mind, she began a relationship with Mexican President José López Portillo around the time of his election. Unfortunately, he was already married with three children. Long after he departed from office, Portillo obtained a divorce from his first wife and married Montenegro in 1995. The couple had two children but separated in later years and were in the process of divorce when he passed away in 2004.

Another episode in Santo’s long film journey, this example considerably enlivened by the unusual location and a memorable villain.

El pueblo fantasma (Ghost Town) (1965)

‘Where I put my eye…I put the bullet!’

A young cowboy is looking for information about his late father, hoping to discover evidence to contradict his reputation as a vicious bandit. Tracking one of his old gang down to a border town, he finds the residents in the grip of a much deadlier terror…

An offbeat amalgamation of Western and horror from Mexican director Alfredo B Crevenna. The film was apparently cut together from a three-episode television show, but, for once, the small scale and appropriate budget are a help, not a hindrance.

Manuel Saldívar Jr (Rodolfo de Anda) is a man on a mission. Sick of hearing stories all his life about his late father’s murderous deeds down on the border, he is determined to find evidence there to the contrary and set the record straight. Unfortunately, it’s an uphill battle; peasants sing corridas in the street detailing his old man’s crimes, and he has to travel as ‘El Texano’ rather than reveal his true identity.

Crossing the desert, he saves the life of ex-convict Néstor Ramírez (Carlos López Moctezuma), who is returning home to the border town where his family still live. When they arrive, the new friends find a community living in fear. Moctezuma is surprised to find that his old nemesis, the Rio Kid (Fernando Luján), is still in residence and that a steady stream of outlaws and bandits are still arriving to test his mettle. But what’s worse than that, the corpses of the defeated gunfighters vanish after death, and the locals believe that these dead men walk the streets at night.

Mixing the supernatural and the Old West on the big screen was hardly new by the mid-1960s. Real-life ‘ghost towns’ had provided atmospheric backdrops for many a Hollywood Western in the studio era, and some had even featured fantastical elements, although these were always explained away. However, Edward Dein’s surprisingly effective B-Film ‘Curse of the Undead’ (1959) delivered an actual gunslinging vampire, and the concept was familiar enough that in the next few years, John Carradine was cashing his paycheque from ‘Billy the Kid Versus Dracula’ (1966).

The action opens in the local saloon of Crevenna’s unnamed border town where fast gun El rapido (Jorge Russek) is chugging whiskey and out to make his reputation as the man who bested the famous Rio Kid (Luján). Unfortunately for him, Lujan has a hidden ally in the film’s editor, and one quick jump cut later, Russek has been outdrawn and is on a one-way trip to Boot Hill. The same fate also awaits the brutal Rivera Brothers, Hermano (José Chávez) and Atenógenes (Guillermo Hernández), but what has the townsfolk spooked is the regular disappearance of the corpses of Luján’s victims.

A couple of factors really assist the drama in Crevenna’s film. The first is the restraint that is evident throughout. Proceedings are low-key for the most part, perhaps dictated by the limited production resources available, but ensuring a somewhat grounded result. The word ‘vampire’ isn’t even mentioned until the final act, although the bloodsucker’s physical appearance is pretty laughable, with his prominent canines more accurately described as tusks rather than teeth! A little goofy it may be, but it’s still a welcome change from the usual dinner-suited, aristocratic Lugosi template almost exclusively favoured by Mexican horror cinema since the box-office breakout of Abel Salazar’s ‘El vampiro’ (1957).

The director also knows how to marshal his resources to their best effect. There are very few location shots, with most of the drama taking place on studio sets, but it’s all quite convincing except for a couple of out-of-town scenes in the desert. It helps that most of the action takes place after dark, of course, and Crevenna can wreathe the pueblo’s narrow streets in heavy, atmospheric shadows. It also helps that we have a quietly compelling performance by Luján, who exudes a sense of evil while being rather a small, physically unimposing man.

Some of the story elements are a little trite, though, with a completely pointless semi-romance between de Anda and Moctezuma’s pretty daughter, Marta (Elsa Cárdenas). Instead, the heroine’s duties are split with singer Carmen (Julissa), who travels with her father, blind guitarist Don Beto (Rubén Márquez). Their inclusion also allows for some musical numbers, including a couple of takes of the corrida about de Anda’s bandit father, which drives our somewhat uptight hero to distraction.

As is usually the case with Mexican horrors of the era, there is little to no production information available for the film beyond its apparent genesis as a TV show. The finished product partially bears out this assertion as probably being the case. The introduction of Julissa and Márquez is rather sudden, and the three musical numbers are all clustered together in the middle of the film, which throws off the pacing. There’s also a complete lack of information regarding the vampire’s origins and only a scant explanation of what happened to all those corpses. It’s possible that those issues were more fully addressed in the original show.

Intriguingly, the film also appears to be a sequel to a more straightforward Western called ‘El texano’ (1965), which featured much of the same cast. Although sources list Moctezuma, Russek, and Cárdenas in different roles, de Anda again played Manuel Saldívar Jr, and the prolific Alfredo Ruanova is credited as screenwriter on both projects. Given those credits, it’s likely the projects were filmed back-to-back. However, there’s no production information available to suggest the exact circumstances or if the former film also originally appeared on the small screen.

Crevenna was a workhouse of a director who delivered around 150 films in a career that lasted half a century. Along the way, he was involved in many interesting genre projects, inevitably some featuring legendary wrestler Santo, including ‘Santo vs. The Martian Invasion/Santo el Enmascarado de Plata vs’ La invasión de los marcianos’ (1967) and ‘The Beasts of Terror/Las Bestias del Terror/Santo Y Blue Demon En Las Bestias del Terror’ (1973). He first embraced science-fiction with the highly professional ‘Invisible Man in Mexico/El hombre que logró ser invisible’ (1958) and went on to deliver ‘Adventure In the Centre of the Earth/Aventura al centro de la tierra’ (1965). Space operas ‘Planetary Giants/Gigantes Planetarios’ (1966), and sequel ‘Planet of the Female Invaders/El planeta de las mujeres invasoras’ (1966) followed shortly afterward. Other horror projects included ‘Bring Me the Vampire/Échenme al vampiro’ (1963), ‘La huella macabra’ (1963), another tale of vampires written by Ruanova, and ‘La dinastía de Dracula’ (1980). He passed away in 1996 at the age of 82.

Of the cast, it’s Julissa who is likely to be best known to a modern audience. She was a rock singer and performer originally signed to the Mexican arm of CBS records. She was also successful in producing, directing and starring in many stage musicals, such as ‘Grease’, ‘The Boyfriend’ and ‘The Rocky Horror Show’. Most fans of genre films, though, will remember her for appearing in three of the infamous quartet of Mexican films Boris Karloff shot in 1969, which were completed after his death. Fortunately for her, she does not appear in ‘The Incredible Invasion’ (1971), which is undoubtedly the worst of the bunch.

Surprisingly effective, quiet little vampire movie, which is worth catching if you’re a fan of Mexican horror cinema.

The Beasts of Terror/Las Bestias del Terror/Santo Y Blue Demon En Las Bestias del Terror (1973)

‘Your energy and blood will be used to give life to that cadaver and so discover the mystery of the central neurons.’

A small-time criminal kidnaps the sister of a millionaire with the aid of his ruthless girlfriend. Unfortunately, they cross paths with a mad scientist who wants to use the women in his experiments with resurrecting the dead. An agent investigating the case calls on the assistance of famous luchadores El Santo and the Blue Demon…

Misleadingly named Lucha libre outing for our favourite wrestling crimefighters, Santo and the Blue Demon. Rather than tackle the monsters implied in the title, their mission here is to unravel a kidnapping plot, albeit complicated by the presence of a mad scientist and his somewhat obscure mission statement.

Pedro (Aropnio de Hud) is in a spot of bother. Owing a lot of money to crimelord, Lucky (Quintin Bulnes) isn’t a good idea if you can’t pay it back, and he’s only saved from having it taken out of his hide by the intervention of pistol-packin’ girlfriend, Nora (Elena Cárdenas). Together, the two plan to pay off by kidnapping blonde bombshell Susie (Alma Ferrari), sister of millionaire Laura (María Antonia del Río). She agrees to pay the ransom but engages top investigator Tony Carelli (César del Campo) to find her sibling.

All goes well for our modern-day bandits before they are undone by that most fickle twist of fate: the plot contrivance. Stopping at the roadside to take a leak, de Hud finds himself at the wrong end of a gun barrel wielded by Sandro (Fernando Osés), who is not only a henchman of mad scientist Professor Matthews (Victor Junco) but also used to be Bulnes’ right-hand man. It seems the good Prof’s corpse wagon has a flat just down the road after a late-night expedition to puck up some raw material. Junco likes what he sees and takes the unfortunate trio back to his boiler room laboratory. You have to feel sorry for Ferrari – kidnapped twice in one day!

Fortunately, del Campo has several aces up his sleeve; first, his girlfriend Alma (the statuesque Idania del Cañal) happens to dance at Bulnes’ cabaret. She’s good at eavesdropping and provides some helpful intel, which I suppose makes a change from her job, which seems to involve wriggling her hips a little when the club is empty, which, apparently, is all the time! Better still, de Campo is on friendly terms with both Blue Demon and El Santo, and both are happy to help out, although old Silver Mask does seem a bit busy with other things.

This is an unusual hybrid of the two genres most associated with Lucha libre films and emerges as a pretty standard crime thriller with a few outlandish elements. Most of the run time is taken up with de Campo playing detective (his official status is never really established), aided from time to time by the muscles and brains of our grappling heroes. Switch out Junco’s scientist for a crime boss, and it would make little difference to the story development. His experiments are almost incidental and cheerfully vague; they involve bringing beautiful young women back from the dead by infusing them with the life force of living girls. The resulting zombies have no memory, are obedient to his will and therefore can be sold on to a sinister man in a turban. Yes, our mad scientist is not planning world domination apparently, just sex trafficking with corpses.

In line with this development, which is covered in a couple of brief scenes, the film attempts to adopt a more adult (i.e. sleazy) tone at times. Junco lusts after Cárdenas, having her whipped by Osés before declaring his undying devotion to her. His deformed assistant also feels frisky, but the object of his attention is Ferrari, and she has to play up to him as part of an escape plan. Add to this the fact that both actresses are in hot pants throughout, and director Alfredo B. Crevenna chooses to end the first scene with an unapologetic zoom into Cárdenas’ chest area, and you get the idea. Neither Santo nor Blue Demon is involved in any of that, of course, but producers were making a conscious effort to try and broaden Santo’s appeal since the late 1960s and were attempting to target a more mature audience.

The film also demonstrates why Blue Demon fostered a bitter resentment towards his silver-masked colleague. Once again, he gets more screen time but is portrayed as incapable of resolving anything without the great man’s help. Early on, the clueless de Campo walks into a trap and is beaten up by the crime lord’s goons, but, never fear, Blue has his back. Only there are too many of them for him, and he gets the tar kicked out of him too until – you guessed it – Santo arrives like the proverbial cavalry and drives the thugs away. Seconds later, he blithely announces he’s off to get a plane to Mexico, leaving the picture for most of the second act and dumping the whole mess into Blue’s lap. Thanks, mate! Of course, he returns for the climax because God knows you can’t trust Blue to resolve anything without his help. Also, despite far less screentime, we see Santo in the ring twice and Blue only once. These sequences are pretty obviously real matches edited in because of the difference in picture quality and the fact that, during Blue’s bout, a title card pops up announcing the second round!

Osés, a former wrestler himself, not only appeared as Sandro but wrote the screenplay (as he did for many of these films) and served as executive producer. Cárdenas, who appeared with Elvis in ‘Fun In Acapulco’ (1963), guest-starred on Ron Ely’s ‘Tarzan’ TV show and had a small role in Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969), was also a familiar face in the series. She had leading parts in ‘Santo Faces Death/Santo frente a la muerte’ (1969), ‘Santo vs. The Vice Mafia/Santo contra la mafia del vicio’ (1971) and ‘The Mummies of Guanajuato/Las momias de Guanajuato’ (1972). In 1973 alone, she appeared in two further entries before switching to television, where she enjoyed a highly successful career of more than four decades. Mad scientist Junco starred in one of the films that started it all; ‘El enmascarado de plata’ (1954), which was originally intended as Santo’s big-screen debut. Of course, he also turned up in several other legitimate entries in the series and alongside Blue Demon in a couple of his solo ventures.

Unsurprisingly, director Crevenna was also closely tied to the series and had a long career in Mexican fantastic cinema anyway, taking a bow with the surprisingly sober ‘Invisible Man In Mexico’ (1959). Before his first assignment with the man in the silver mask, he worked with rival luchador Neutron in a series that included the wonderfully titled ‘Neutron Battles the Karate Assassins’ (1965). His science fiction pedigree also included ‘Adventure at the Centre of the Earth’ (1965) and ‘Planet of the Female Invaders’ (1966), but he’s best remembered for his work with El Santo and some of Blue Demon’s solo outings. These included the much loved ‘Santo vs The Martian Invasion/Santo el Enmascarado de Plata vs ‘La invasión de Los marcianos’ (1967) and ‘Blue Demon Versus the Infernal Brains/Blue Demon contra cerebros infernales’ (1966).

A rather makeweight entry in the series but enjoyable nonetheless, although the title is inaccurate unless you want to apply it to our two grappling heroes!

Island of The Dinosaurs/La lsla De Los Dinosaurios (1967)

La Isla De Los Dinosaurios (1967)‘The tests of the liquids are also abnormal.’

A disgraced academic recruits a trio of his former students to join him in an expedition to a remote region of the Atlantic Ocean where he believes they will find the remnants of the lost continent of Atlantis. After their plane crashes on an uncharted island during a storm, they find their new surroundings positively prehistoric…

The late 1960’s were a hard time for many of the forgotten stars of old Hollywood. The studio system that had provided regular work and security was long gone and many were forced to freelance in low budget, independent productions, even travelling to foreign shores in order to survive. And it was no different for the fighting lizards who had made such a memorable debut in United Artists’ big hit ‘One Million B.C.’ (1940) opposite Victor Mature, Carole Landis and Lon Chaney Jr. Perhaps unfairly typecast, they still enjoyed steady work throughout the next couple of decades, appearing in ‘Tarzan’s Desert Mystery’ (1943), ‘Two Lost Worlds’ (1950), ‘Untamed Women’ (1952), ‘Robot Monster’ (1953), ‘King Dinosaur’ (1954), and opposite a young Robert Vaughan in ‘Teenage Caveman’ (1958) among many others. But they were finally defeated in the early 1960’s by an opponent that could not be overcome: colour. But all was not lost for our stock footage heroes as they enjoyed one last death roll, thanks to Mexican director Rafael Portillo, whose chosen medium was still glorious black and white!

Wannabe Professor Challenger (Manolo Fábregas) has been ridiculed by the respectable scientific community for his rather vague (but obviously entirely plausible) theories about Atlantis and dinosaurs but sets out to prove the fools wrong! This means putting the band back together. The members are three former students, now scientists in their own right; Elsa Càrdenas (minerals), Genaro Morena (animals) and Alma Delia Fuentes (big hair and chemicals – no, not those kind). Off they go in their tour van (sorry, small 4-seater plane) to hit the hot spots around the likely location of this lost world, but it all goes pear-shaped when they forget to check the weather report. One off-screen crash later, and they’re stranded on a mysterious island. They set up camp and get to work, trying to ignore the distant animal roars and smoking volcano (cliché alert!)

La Isla De Los Dinosaurios (1967)

‘I told you that we should have left that second ping pong table at home!’

Surprisingly, they’re quite well-fixed what with their racks of test tubes, rifles, two tents, cameras, big iron cooking pot, and wooden furniture (including a table and two chairs). How they managed to fit all that gear into their small plane is a bit of a mystery, but all the extra weight probably explains why they crashed in the first place. The women also remembered to bring their swimming costumes, which proves a double-edged sword for Fuentes when she is kidnapped by cave man Molo (Armando Silvestre) while out for a dip.

The second act of the film focuses almost exclusively on our new golden couple. Initially Fuentes is a reluctant prisoner, but it’s barely five minutes before she starts to get seriously interested in the muscle-bound Silvestre, even if his conversational talents are a bit limited. Before long, she’s wearing the trousers in the relationship (or the skimpy ‘Carole Landis cave girl dress’ to be exact.) She teaches Silvestre to honour his mother and shows the rest of his tribe the value of sharing. She invents new weapons for the men and shows the girls how to do their hair (do it like Carole Landis!) and generally interferes in a massive way with their natural cultural development.

Along the way, they encounter various giant lizards, at which points Fuentes’ adoption of Carole Landis’ fashion sense and personal grooming tips prove a godsend for director Portillo. Proceedings wrap up with the expected volcano eruption, but rather brilliantly it only seriously effects the 1940 part of the island, leaving the 1967 part untouched, apart from making the camera shake a bit. The rest of the expedition suddenly turn up after remembering they’re supposed to be in the film, and there’s a hilarious laugh out loud moment when Silvestre dispatches a man in a joke shop gorilla suit, which fails spectacularly to match the stock footage of a man in a much better-looking (but still completely unconvincing) gorilla suit.

La Isla De Los Dinosaurios (1967)

The natives took their Morris Dancing very seriously…

Director Portillo is best remembered now for helming the first three films in ‘The Aztec Mummy’ series, of which ‘The Robot Vs The Aztec Mummy’ (1960) is a must-see for fans of car crash cinema. Fuentes starred in ‘Blue Demon: Destructor of Spies’ (1968) and joined Mexican Eurospy Alex Dynamo as one of the ‘Danger Girls’ (1969).

Càrdenas had already appeared in a small role with James Dean in ‘Giant’ (1956) and went onto Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969). Even more notable is Fábregas’ major role opposite Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine in Don Siegel’s ‘Two Mules for Sister Sara’ (1970).

Mexican cinema of the 1950’s and 1960’s was a glorious place to be, what with is proliferation of werewolves, wrestlers, brainiacs, vampires and space aliens, all mixed together with a wonderful ‘anything goes’ attitude. Sadly, this effort betrays little of that sensibility, being merely a repositioning of lots of old footage from ‘One Million BC’ (1940) into a desperately conventional story. Proceedings are only kept off life support (barely!) by the efforts of the lively Fuentes and the imposing Silvestre.

lf you’re a fan of wild and wacky South of the Border shenanigans, you’ll probably get a bit of a kick out of this (I know I did!) but it really is one of the less interesting examples out there.

Santo Faces Death / Santo Frente A La Muerte (1969)

Santo Faces Death : Santo Frente A La Muerte (1969)‘It looks like Dr Igor has diabolical plans.’

A female wrestler is blackmailed into organising the theft of a fabulous emerald in Columbia by the mysterious leader of a criminal syndicate. International police agencies call in top agent El Santo to investigate and it’s not long before he’s in the crosshairs of an assassin…

Good afternoon grapple fans! This film finds everyone’s favourite luchador during the time when his activities alternated between full-blooded wrestling action and running around the Americas as Mexico’s answer to James Bond. Here he’s swapping holds with the evil Dr lgor and his gang of thugs on the streets of Bogota for writer-director Fernando Orozco, with distinctly underwhelming results.

The film opens with the jewel heist. Rather than a split-second, complex plan involving smarts, tactics, gadgets and stealth, this operation features blonde wrestler Alicia (Elsa Càrdenas) storming a few old buildings with the aid of some goons and their machine guns. Bullets fly, bodies fall, and the gem is secured. Delivering the booty to cloaked super villain The Grand Stranger seems far more problematical though, and, for some reason, it involves dealing with another criminal gang who want to buy it. The plot isn’t exactly clear, even if we do know that Càrdenas is being forced into the life by evil Dr Igor (Àngel Menéndez) and his sexy lieutenant Lina (Mara Cruz), who work for this sinister kingpin.

Santo Faces Death / Santo Frente A La Muerte (1969)

Santo still hadn’t quite the grasped the concept of going undercover.

But the bad guys days are numbered, thanks to the arrival of El Santo, although his options as an undercover agent seem somewhat limited, given the shiny silver mask and worldwide reputation. Still, at least he doesn’t have to contend with any vampires or werewolves this time, although he does take his spot on a wrestling bill that includes ‘Dracula’ and ‘King Kong’! Odd, considering he’d already defeated the vampire king a few movies back in ‘Santo and Dracula’s Treasure’ (1968) (in which, lest we forget, he invented a time machine).

Another puzzling aspect to the action in the square ring is that blonde Càrdenas fights in a black wig. Presumably this was to match the existing wrestling footage available to the production, so that’s understandable. Or it would be If she wasn’t a brunette in real life!

The musical score is probably the film’s most noteworthy element. Although credited to the prolific Daniel White, it does sound suspiciously like selections have been sourced from a music library, rather than written for what’s actually on the screen at any given time. Demented xylophones accompany lots of the hand to hand action and the frequent use of Bobby Hebb’s ‘Sunny’ is definitely a little curious. Sure, the song’s been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Marvin Gaye, Cher to Electric Flag and Boney M to Robert Mitchum, but what it’s doing in a film about a masked wrestler tangling with the underworld is anybody’s guess!

This was a Spanish/Mexican/Columbian production and writer-director Orozco also served the same function on ‘Santo En El Misterio De La Perla Negra’ (1976) as well as producer for ‘Santo Contra Los Asesin Os De La Mafia’ (1970). Unfortunately, without any monsters or goofy elements, this is a dreary trudge through almost 90 minutes of interminable chases, dull dialogues scenes and damp plot twists. There is a hilarious ‘dummy down a cliff’ moment when the Great Stranger hides his face behind the arm of his cloak like a villain from the silent days, but sadly such moments of joy are few and far between.

Santo Faces Death / Santo Frente A La Muerte (1969)

Their new choreography to ‘La Macarena’ was not an unqualified success.

Surprisingly, Càrdenas turned up in some genuine Hollywood classic films, with small roles in Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969), and James Dean’s Oscar-winning swan song ‘Giant’ (1956). She also made a far more substantial appearance opposite Elvis in ‘Fun ln Acapulco’ (1963). Subsequently, she carved out a long and successful career on Mexican television and was still appearing regularly up until 2015.

This is not one of Santo’s most memorable adventures; just a collection of half-baked ideas that culminate in an odd twist in final scenes which are so clumsy and hurried that it’s a puzzle why the filmmakers bothered with them at all.

You really do need monsters for the authentic Santo cinematic experience.