‘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.