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!

Santo vs. the Killers from Other Worlds/Santo contra los asesinos de otros mundos (1971)

‘Careful, daughter, that is a very dangerous substance.’

A mysterious killer targets victims vital to the nation’s economy, and the head of National Security is told to bring legendary wrestling crimefighter Santo into the case. However, before he can begin his investigation, the agency’s private television network is hacked by a man claiming responsibility and demanding ten million dollars in gold bars…

After his last few movie outings battling the dark forces of the supernatural, headhunters and undead mummies, it was time for the Man in the Silver Mask to get back to fighting aliens. In a career of more than fifty films, Mexico’s most famous real-life wrestler favoured crime lords and monsters of horror more than he did extraterrestrials. However, when he jumped into the science-fiction arena, it was usually worth the price of admission. But not always for the right reasons.

National Security Chief O’Connor (Marco Antonio Campos) is not having the best of days. A wave of murders in the capital has claimed the lives of four citizens, one a John Doe, but the other victims are essential to the economic wellbeing of the country. His superiors demand that he call in Santo, whose first request is to see the autopsy reports. Campos is happy to oblige and sends secretary Sonia Fuentes to get them. Rather than stay with our two principals, the camera follows her down the corridor instead. She goes into an office and picks up the files from a table. Then she brings them all the way back again and hands them to O’Connor. She doesn’t interact with anyone on the way, and the sequence is entirely pointless. But it does add a precious 30 seconds to the running time!

However, Santo and Campos don’t have time to sit around and chat. The agency’s broadcast frequency gets hacked, and here’s the villainous Malkosh (Carlos Agostí) appearing on the TV with his demands. Ten million in gold bars, or the killings will continue. Neither Santo nor Campos goes for it, and the 24-hour deadline expires without incident. Then top scientist Dr Chamberlain (Carlos Hennings), his daughters and lab technicians are wiped out in another incident. The government decides to pay up, and the ransom is sent via cargo plane to a remote airstrip. However, Santo is hidden on board and plans to surprise the villain when the plane lands.

Santo’s cinematic adventures were never known for their high production values, but the sudden descent into the territory of the micro-budget here is genuinely terrifying. Agostí’s pet alien killer is brilliantly portrayed by some extras or crew members flailing about under a dirty tarpaulin. Yes, it looks exactly as bad as it sounds. The last time the Earth was in such peril was when students under an old carpet menaced humankind as ‘The Creeping Terror’ (1964). And the creature is front and centre from almost the first moment of the film. Director Rubén Galindo doesn’t even bother to have it lurk in the shadows, mitigate the effect of its shoddy appearance with some clever camera angles or just keep it off-screen for a while. Nope. This is it. This is our monster. Live with it.

There are some other wonderfully bonkers examples of bad movie hilarity too. The ten million dollars of gold bars are portrayed by a stack of mismatched grey boxes in the cargo plane fuselage. If we let that pass, I’m still worried about how Agostí intends to move them, given that all he has at his disposal are three minions and a family car! I hate to think what those bars will do to the suspension. Still, the vehicle is handy as Santo runs into it and gets knocked out, waking up to face Agostí seated on a golden throne! Our villain proposes a challenge instead of killing the great man when he’s unconscious. Because, of course, he does. Combat against three mighty warriors that Agostí conjures out of thin air with the push of a button. Nice tech, Agostí!

Santo defeats the first two, both musclemen armed with various gladiatorial weapons. More issues arise with the third one, though, who turns out to be a bloke in a hazmat suit wielding a flame thrower! Kudos to the great man for this scene, as the jets of flame look like they get mighty close on occasion, and I doubt health and safety were the production’s greatest priority. It’s also worth asking exactly where this combat sequence is supposed to be taking place. The ground looks like gravel and sand, and we see what appear to be stars in the night sky. However, if it’s meant to be outside, it would probably have been an idea not to have Agostí and his minions close to the painted backdrop. Big shadows thrown across the sky tend to make it look a little bit like an inside wall.

Eventually, we discover that the monster is the creation of Dr Bernstein (Carlos Suárez), whose experiments on a lunar rock sample activated dormant micro-organisms resembling soap suds. Some of the rock falls into the hands of Suárez’s right-hand man, Boris Licur (Juan Gallardo), who explains very clearly to his pretty blonde lab assistant (Patricia Borges) that the germs will reactivate if exposed to air. As soon as he leaves the room, she removes the cover for no apparent reason and turns her back on it to do some sciency stuff at a bench. Smart move! The soap suds are on the march again. We don’t see them transform into a tarp, though, which is disappointing.

There are a few other things worth mentioning. Santo works out Gallardo’s secret location from the types of shoes one of his henchmen wears. We get one of the worst’ dummy falling from a building’ effects you could wish for, and composer Chucho Zarzosa peppers the soundtrack with random electronic noises whenever he feels like it. There are also enough examples of flagrant time-wasting to earn a dozen yellow cards from a FIFA referee. Finally, there’s a scene where Santo escapes from a room filled with empty cardboard boxes that very nearly outsmart him. He repeatedly tugs at a half-open door, not realising that one of the half-squashed cartons is caught behind it. Come on, Mr Director, couldn’t you afford just one retake?

Rubén Galindo co-wrote this film and sat in the director’s seat, and it’s a little surprising to find that he had quite a long career in both roles, stretching from the early 1970s to the mid-90s. He even crossed paths with the star again, co-helming the far better ‘Santo vs the She-Wolves/Santo vs. las lobas’ (1976). On writing duty on both projects was Ramón Obón, who enjoyed an extensive association with Mexican cult cinema, beginning with Julián Soler’s portmanteau horror ‘Panic/Pánico’ (1966). Projects in a similar vein followed, some of which attracted American star John Carradine, such as ‘Diabolical Pact/Pacto diabólico’ (1969) and ‘The Death Woman/La señora Muerte’ (1969). His association with the wrestlers of Lucha libre ran in the family as his father had created the character of masked superhero La Sombra Vengadora (The Avenging Shadow) for a movie serial in 1954. This fictional persona was adopted, with a slight costume change, by real-life wrestler Rayo de Jalisco.

It’s a little sad to see Santo reduced to such a poverty-stricken effort, but its entertainment value cannot be denied. Essential viewing for fans of the great man.

The Witch’s Mirror/El espejo de la bruja (1962)

‘The satanic rays of the moon will return to death what belongs to death.’

After killing his first wife, a handsome doctor remarries, unaware that his housekeeper knows the truth and is planning vengeance. She invokes the victim’s spirit, and the subsequent supernatural occurrences culminate in a horrific accident to the murderer’s new wife, sending him further down the path of crime and punishment…

A rollercoaster of horror from director Chano Urueta that brings to the brew a heady mixture of witchcraft, murder, grave robbing, satan worship, animal transformations, premature burial, a mad scientist and ghostly visitations over 75 minutes of glorious madness. Although some Mexican genre pictures of the period could be accused of being a little light on plot, that’s certainly not the case with this screenplay by Alfredo Ruanova and Carlos Enrique Taboada.

The film opens with Voiceover Man doing his best to convince the audience of the immemorial existence of witches and their powers. This helpful information is relayed over drawings that look rather like they’ve been executed by Heironymous Bosch. It all proved a tad too strong for the US distributor who cut this prologue entirely, flinging us straight into the action. Concerned young wife Elena (Dina de Marco) has gone to godmother and old family retainer Sara (Isabela Corona) for some advice, knowing that she is a witch with the power of prophecy. Our first clue that the housekeeper may have moved beyond such commonplace talents is the size of her scrying glass. Rather than a shard or sliver, it’s a full-length dress mirror that fills with smoke and a weird, demonic figure.

De Marco is aghast when Corona explains that someone is trying to kill her, and things get worse when she’s shown the culprit in the mirror: her husband, Dr Eduardo Ramos (Armando Calvo). At first, she refuses to believe it but fears the worst when he prepares her a nightcap. Staring into his eyes, she drinks the poisoned milk and falls dead to the floor. In short order, he brings home wife number two, Deborah (Rosita Arenas), but the family home is still filled with de Marco’s favourite tuberoses, and Corona has vowed vengeance. Rather than just being a witch, she can hit up Satan (or one of his demons) for a quick catch-up, turn herself into an owl or a cat and walk through walls.

It’s not long before things are going bump at all hours of the day in the Calvo household with the piano playing itself, Arenas’ flower arranging plans falling prey to time-lapse photography, and de Marco going walkabout from her open grave, which is conveniently visible from the house! This all results in her manifesting to Arenas via the mirror, the increasingly frantic Calvo breaking the glass with a naked flame and his young bride being engulfed by the resulting fireball. Although this might be supposed to be the film’s climax, we’re only halfway through by this point. Arenas survives the immolation but with a hideously scarred face and hands. Then, without any foreshadowing whatsoever, the audience discovers that Calvo is a brilliant plastic surgeon and research scientist! Only he can restore Arenas’ beauty, but the road to recovery is littered with corpses, black magic and other inconveniences.

The Mexican horror craze of the mid-20th Century was spearheaded by hard-headed actor-producer Abel Salazar, who delivered a succession of such pictures after hitting box-office gold with Dracula remake ‘El Vampiro’ (1957). All contained standard horror elements and devices, inspired mainly by the success enjoyed by the classic Universal monster cycle but rarely were so many combined in one film. Early events suggest supernatural horror with Calvo’s murder foreseen by witch Corona who pleads unsuccessfully with her dark master to intercede on behalf of her goddaughter. It’s no dice, and the following scene is arguably the best in the film, at least by usual filmmaking standards. De Marco drinks her poisoned milk while staring into Calvo’s eyes, hoping it’s not poisoned but suspecting that it is and accepting her fate if he no longer loves her. She really sells this moment, and it would provide an excellent grounding for Calvo’s subsequent mental deterioration if we were in an ordinary movie.

After that, we’re quickly into ghostly goings-on as Calvo brings new love Arenas to the house, having evaded the law somehow. The film never tells us how he manages it, as de Marco’s death seemingly has no consequences except the supernatural ones that befall our main protagonists. Director Urueta doesn’t allow these shenanigans to overstay their welcome, though, as we move swiftly into ‘Eyes Without A Face/Les yeux sans visage’ (1960) territory. Yes, Calvo and new assistant Gustavo (Carlos Nieto) take regular trips to the graveyard and dig up the fresh corpses of young women so the doc can use their skin to repair the damage to Arenas.

But the film isn’t finished yet. Not by a long chalk. One convenient case of catalepsy later, and we’re on a nodding acquaintance with Maurice Renard’s science-fiction/mystery novel ‘The Hands of Orlac’, which was most famously filmed as ‘Mad Love’ (1935) with Peter Lorre. Throw in ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’ (1946), dead girls propped up in a walk-in fridge and Calvo failing to notice that large owl perched just below the ceiling of his backroom laboratory while he operates and there you have it. The plots of several different films and horror stories vigorously mixed into a mad cocktail of Gothic terror.

However, it’s not just the disparate collection of different horror plots crashing together that makes the results so enjoyable. What’s key to the entertainment value is that the film has no sense of its own absurdity; it’s all played completely straight without any trace of a wink at the audience. Urueta delivers some elegant camera moves, and he and cinematographer Jorge Stahl Jr create some quite stunning gothic imagery using little more than shadows and smoke. The score by Gustavo César Carrión is solid, and the production design is excellent, cluttering Corona’s satanic altar with an impressive array of folk art and curiosities, including a large, slow-moving spider that provides no story function, only atmosphere. Rather than being a product of factory filmmaking, it seems some genuine technical care and attention was given to the project.

Similarly, the cast is all good. The stand out is Corona, who is imperious as the witch, with a nice line in sly glances and dry humour when required. Often the essence of her character is not conveyed by the dialogue, rather the manner of her delivery and facial expression. Calvo is also fine in his role, which betrays more depth than the average movie mad scientist. At first, he appears to be a simple, heartless killer, but after the deed is done, we discover that he and Arenas were not actually lovers but in love and that she knows nothing about what he did to bring them together. His love remains constant, too, even when she is disfigured; everything he does is for her. Considering what happens to Arenas, it all seems rather unfair; after all, she’s not to blame for anything; she just has lousy taste in men. She is even disgusted when she finds out what her husband has done, although her moral outrage does take a backseat once she realises that he’s been successful and she has her looks back!

Producer Salazar liked the movie so much that he married leading lady Arenas, and she left the big screen the following year. Before his death after a long illness in 1995, she appeared in several roles on Mexican television, beginning in 1987, but retired permanently afterwards. Calvo was the son of award-winning Spanish actor Juan Calvo and split his career between Spain and Mexico. He’d already appeared as the Police Inspector in ‘The Hell of Frankenstein/Orlak, el Infierno de Frankenstein’ (1960) but became most familiar in Spaghetti Westerns such as ‘Ringo’s Big Night/La grande notte di Ringo’ (1966), ‘Two Crosses at Danger Pass/Due croci a Danger Pass’ (1967) and ‘Django Does Not Forgive/Mestizo’ (1971). There were also notable supporting roles in films based on Italian fumetto (so-called ‘black’ comics) that included ‘Kriminal’ (1966) and, as another Police Inspector, in ‘Satanik’ (1968).

For sheer extravagance in plotting and some surprising technical accomplishments, this is one of the most entertaining Mexican horrors of the period and is thoroughly recommended. Great fun.

El pantano de las ánimas/Swamp of the Lost Souls/The Swamp of the Lost Monster (1957)

‘I’ll give you a hand; you’re wetter than soup.’

A victim of cholera is ferried across a haunted swamp to his final resting place. However, his stepson arrives unexpectedly at the funeral service and demands that the coffin be opened. The corpse has vanished. The young man rides for help but is shot along the way, dying in the arms of his best friend, who vows to investigate the mystery…

A showcase for renowned horseman and bullfighter Gastón Santos, this murder-mystery comes with a dash of the outlandish, courtesy of director Rafael Baledón, screenwriter Ramón Obón and a rampaging swamp monster. Horror and fantasy were just beginning to take off at the Mexican box office, and this was one of the earliest mash-ups that placed a real-life celebrity against unusual forces of evil.

Doña María (Sara Cabrera) stands weeping by the river bank when her dead husband’s coffin is brought to their estate. She is consoled by her brother-in-law, Don Ignacio Mendoza (Manuel Dondé), and the peons look on, hats in their hands. Cabrera insists on accompanying the coffin to the remote burying ground, even though the route crosses the infamous ‘swamp of lost souls’, which the locals believe is populated by the spirits of the dead.

The journey passes without incident, and the casket is opened at the gravesite so Cabrera can get one last look at the dearly departed. The burying begins but is interrupted by Cabrera’s son, Adrian (an uncredited actor). He demands the coffin be opened once more, and the body is gone. Rather than seek help from the authorities, he tears off to get Santos instead. If this seems an odd decision, then it’s worth remembering that Santos solved the mystery of the missing rag doll belonging to his cousin Julieta (Manola Saavedra) when they were children. With a track record like that, he’s obviously the man for the job. But, inevitably, given his lack of billing, Adrian is almost DOA after being shot on the way and breathes his last in Santos’ corral.

Back at the ranch, Saavedra is worried about her aunt and living in a house ‘filled with mysteries and secrets.’ Local quack Dr Morales (Arturo Corona) is concerned about the infectious body going AWOL and enlists the help of Dondé and all the townsmen to search for it. But why does the new head of the household have a secret telegraph machine hidden in his desk, and what is Cardera’s ‘horrible secret’? Above all, why the hell is a humanoid swamp monster hanging about and knocking off some of the locals?

It’s a real three-pipe problem for Santos and ‘comedy’ sidekick Espergencio Godínez de la Macorra (Pedro de Aguillón), whose ride into town is interrupted when the former is shot by a gunman hidden by the side of the road. ‘Tis only a flesh wound, though, and doesn’t bother our handsome hero again after a quick patch up, especially during another shooting incident in the tiny neighbourhood tavern where dozens of bullets fly with deadly intent but hit no one at all.

What undercuts all this drama and intrigue is the sight of our unfriendly visitor from the swamp lumbering about, firing a spear gun at our hero, using its own secret telegraph machine and generally looking ridiculous. The plot involving insurance fraud is tired and unimaginative, and the complete lack of any police or authority figures in attendance begs an obvious question. Why bother with all these contrived shenanigans at all? There must have been a dozen simpler ways for the villains to achieve their ends. As for the swamp, well, it bears a remarkable resemblance to a stretch of open river and is about as spooky as an afternoon trip down to the supermarket.

The film’s one creative touch concerns the resolution to the mystery of the vanishing corpse at the gravesite. The explanation is very contrived, but it does make sense, and, to the best of my knowledge, it is unique. Unfortunately, the answers to everything else that’s happening are both predictable and rather silly. The fight scenes are poorly staged, and the comedy is often painful. The action culminates in an endless slapstick routine where our cut-price Shaggy and Scooby dump the villain’s gang into a cellar filled with hay one after another until it seems they must have incarcerated the entire town.

Despite a brief running time of 75 minutes, things begin to drag badly in the final act. Gustavo César Carrión’s strangely disconnected music doesn’t help either, but it may have been sourced from another production. The composer is credited with scoring ten films in 1957 and over 90 in the 1950s. Director Baledón was also responsible for seven features released during the year in question, over 30 in the decade and, when he wasn’t calling the shots, he also acted in quite a few others!

Special credit should go to the unnamed stuntman who did the underwater swimming sequences in the monster suit. It’s obviously oversized to accommodate breathing equipment, but the whole ensemble probably weighed a ton beneath the surface. Also, spare a thought for second-billed Rayo de Plata, who plays Caballo. His presence was confusing to me because there didn’t seem to be any character of that name in the film, man or woman. Why? Because it turned out to be Santos’ horse!

The son of the former governor of the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí, Santos travelled to Portugal as a young man to train as a rejoneador. This was the original form of bullfighting where a fighting animal is pitted against a man on horseback. At that time, the practice had been eclipsed by the toreador on foot with his cape, but Santos’ popularity helped to spark a revival. In the ring, he was usually accompanied by his Lusitanian horse, Rayo de Plata (Silver Ray), which, of course, explains the animal’s second billing in the film. Santos made a series of movies from 1956 to 1962 for Alameda Films, usually Westerns. He retired from the screen after a cameo in a 1971 production and turned his attention to breeding and training horses.

A vaguely interesting amalgamation of Western and monster movie from a time when Mexican cinema was still only taking baby steps into the world of the fantastic and supernatural. There’s some enjoyment to be had, but it’s really for hardcore fans only.

Kalimán en el Siniestro Mundo de Humanón/Kalimán in the Sinister World of Humanón (1976)

‘Professor Rataban is a little mutated right now…’

A superhero arrives in Rio de Janeiro to attend a congress on psychology. On arrival, he discovers that one of the delegates has been mysteriously decapitated and two other scientists have disappeared. After an attempt is made on his life, he finds himself going up against the schemes of a hooded supervillain…

Outlandish fantasy sequel from Mexico featuring the further exploits of ‘Kalimán, the Incredible Man/Kalimán, el Hombre Increíble’ (1972). Canadian actor Jeff Cooper returns in the title role, along with director Alberto Mariscal, but they could not recapture the first movie’s box office success, and a series never materialised.

Rio’s congress of psychology is in a spot of bother. Two delegates have vanished without a trace, and one has been murdered. Suddenly, regrets and cancellations are flooding the desks of the organiser, Professor Pheraul (Alberto Insua) and his blonde secretary, Shiomara (Lenka Erdos). So, it’s a great relief to welcome guest of honour, Kalimán (Cooper) and his pre-teen ward, Solin (Manuel Bravo). Apparently, their presence is sufficient to save the congress (whatever it was!) as no one ever mentions it again.

However, the duo barely have time to settle into their hotel before Cooper has been subjected to mind control by strong-arm man, Cabaledo (Carlos Cardán) and Bravo has been snatched and buried in a crypt on the other side of town! Luckily, Cooper is able to locate his burial spot using his telepathic abilities, encouraging Bravo to focus on the magnetic emanations that come from his body. Still, they need the help of a mysterious figure dressed in a skeleton costume before they can escape.

These events are the work of the fiendish mastermind, Humanón (Milton Rodríguez), resplendent in an ensemble of scarlet robes, pointy hood and sunglasses. He’s busy mutating scientists into ‘Zombie-Tronics (take that spellchecker!) These are human slaves mutated by the addition of animal brains (or something?) Anyway, they obey Rodríguez and his agents without question, roar like lions and burst out from the trunks of parked motor vehicles. Rodríguez keeps them in cages outside his HQ, where they are looked after by elderly, whip-wielding lieutenant Perfecto (a wildly over-acting Alonso Castaño).

On the docket for a future experiment is Insua’s daughter, Juarina (Angelina Fernández), and the professor is being blackmailed as a result. The same is true of his assistant Erdos, whose husband was the man who was beheaded before Cooper’s arrival on the scene. What kind of hold can Rodríguez possibly have over her then if he’s already dead? Well, his head was never found; let’s leave it at that. After the usual round of assassination attempts, escapes and captures, this ragtag group find itself trekking through the jungle under the guns of Cardán and his Zombie-Tronic troopers on their way to a deadly rendezvous.

The character of Kalimán was created in 1963 by Rafael Cutberto Navarro and Modesto Vázquez González and was the star of a popular radio show. He was a mystic and adventurer with martial art skills and mental powers such as telepathy. The show was so successful that a tie-in comic book was published that ended up running for over a quarter of a century, although it reached the peak of its sales in the mid-1960s when editions were selling around three and a half million copies. As the comic book’s title included the phrase ‘The Incredible Man’, Marvel sued the makers in 1974, alleging infringement on their ‘Incredible Hulk’ property. Marvel lost the case, but the proceedings may explain why this film has a 1974 copyright date but did not reach theatres until November 1976.

This film has all the ingredients for a cult classic, and there are some wonderful moments of hilarious insanity. Most of these come courtesy of our evil megalomaniac, of course, whose costume alone is likely to provoke laughter. The scene where he berates underling Castaño for daring to think for himself is a comedy classic, and such moments compiled into a trailer would make the film look unmissable. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many examples in the finished article, and the flat-footed direction of Mariscal lacks any dynamism or style. It’s often hard to tell whether the film is a knowing parody or a serious adventure, and there are more than a few dull stretches to get through.

Care was taken to be faithful to the accepted lore surrounding the character, though. Kalimán never had a specific origin, although it was suggested that he was an Indian foundling raised by a prince and part of a dynasty who wandered the world delivering justice for the goddess Kali. Despite this, he was always depicted as caucasian, even in the comic books. So the casting of Cooper in both films was not inappropriate, and actor Luis Manuel Pelayo dubbed all his dialogue. Pelayo had played Kalimán in the radio series, which provided continuity.

Although the previous film had been a big hit in Mexico and had enjoyed some distribution in Latin America, it seems that the sequel was never released outside its homeland. The English name given for this review is my literal translation of the Spanish title. No further episodes followed, and the character became embroiled in a series of court disputes concerning ownership rights. A third film was announced in 2011, but it wasn’t until four years later that all the legal difficulties were resolved. However, no new film has surfaced in recent years.

Cooper began his screen career in the early 1960s on network television, playing supporting roles on shows such as ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Hour’, ‘The Virginian’ and ‘Perry Mason’. A move to the big screen resulted in only a handful of assignments, such as an uncredited bit in the Western ‘Duel At Diablo’ (1966) which starred James Garner and Sidney Poitier. Work picked up a little after his Mexican exploits in the early 1970s, and he starred as the lead in martial arts film ‘Circle of Iron’ (1978) with Christopher Lee and David Carradine. Unfortunately, it did not prove to be a launching pad for greater things, but he did snag a recurring role as Sue Ellen’s psychiatrist for 19 episodes of CBS super soap ‘Dallas’ in 1981. He retired from the screen in 1986 and died in 2018.

Some great moments of cheesy insanity make for a fun watch, but it could have been so much more if the filmmakers had truly embraced the silliness of it all.

The Body Snatcher/Ladrón de cadáveres (1957)

‘And the manner in which the veins and arteries were sewn is truly surprising.’

After his mysterious death, an athlete’s corpse is snatched from the local boneyard by grave robbers. This incident is just the latest in a wave of similar crimes. Under increasing pressure from his superiors, a police captain persuades his best friend to go undercover at a local gymnasium which seems to be the centre of the strange events…

Early attempt to merge the rapidly emerging Mexican horror film with the national phenomenon of Lucha libre (literally ‘freestyle wrestling’), a mix that would become ubiquitous over the next two decades of the country’s genre cinema. Director and co-writer Fernando Méndez’s film helped establish some of the familiar tropes of this oddest of film genres and was pivotal in its creation.

His latest case is proving to be a real two-pipe problem for young Capitán Carlos Robles (Crox Alvarado). Not only are apparently fit and healthy sportsmen dropping like flies, but their bodies are also vanishing afterwards. Alvarado suspects a connection with a local gym frequented by wrestlers. When old friend Guillermo Santana (Wolf Ruvinskis) arrives from the provinces, looking to establish himself in the grappling game, Alvarado recruits him to go undercover in an attempt to break the case.

Bad-tempered wrestler The Black Wolf (Guillermo Hernández, in effect playing himself) has already taken a fatal blade in the shower, courtesy of an old man who is always hanging around selling lottery tickets. The big man’s corpse is smuggled out of the building by a man pretending to pick up the laundry. All this happens right under the nose of Alvarado and his men. This latest humiliation makes him turn to Ruvinskis, who has almost immediately fallen in love with his friend’s colleague Lucía (Columba Domínguez).

It’s not much of a surprise when the old ticket seller turns out to be our main villain, El Profesor (Carlos Riquelme), flying under the radar courtesy of a wig and a fake beard. Unfortunately, his experiment on this latest victim proves to be another failure. Meanwhile, as part of his undercover mission, Ruvinskis has reinvented himself as masked wrestler El Vampiro. Rapidly running up an impressive list of wins in the square ring, he is soon a fan favourite and, as planned, appears on the radar of the mad medico as a prime target.

Transferring heroes from the square ring to the cinema screens of Mexico was nothing new by the late 1950s, but the procedure had only enjoyed sporadic success. The serials featuring La Sombra Vengadora (The Avenging Shadow) had generated good box office returns. However, efforts like ‘El enmascarado de plata/The Silver Masked Man’ (1954) had failed to inspire an intended series, probably due to the absence of the real-life Santo. However, everything changed in late 1957 with this film and the runaway success of producer-star Abel Salazar’s ‘El Vampiro’ (1957), which was released a few weeks later. Méndez directed both, and the latter in particular launched a craze for monsters and horror that soon brought the stars of Lucha libre on board.

Méndez gives us the mad scientist as villain, a holdover from the Hollywood movie serials of its golden age and harking right back to Universal’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1931). This film even gives us a pretty faithful take on the infamous ‘God’ speech delivered by Colin Clive when Karloff stirs on his operating table. Motivations and scientific detail were always rather vague in Mexican cinema, though. In this example, Riquelme tries to bring the dead back to life by performing a brain graft with a living ape as the donor. But, even when successful, the test subject reverts to its simian roots, growing chest hair and even fangs. But this is all audience assumption; nothing is ever clearly explained.

The script isn’t great on specifics in general. When Ruvinskis first meets Domínguez, she’s working as a secretary at police headquarters. The next time he sees her, she seems to be doing the same job at the gymnasium. Obviously, we assume she’s also working undercover, but she never actively participates in the investigation at all and subsequently only appears on dates with Ruvinskis and at her flat. There’s also no backstory on Riquelme or how many victims there are on his scorecard. And why does he leave Hernández’s corpse propped up on a street corner to be discovered by a passing prostitute? Did he do that with the results of all his failed experiments?

The film’s rousing climax does mitigate most of that lack of clarity, however. When Riquelme’s final creation goes on the rampage in the wrestling arena, Méndez delivers a very well-choreographed sequence. As opposed to just a couple of dozen extras shown in tight shots, we get probably a couple of hundred fleeing for the exits in terror. The monster also gets some attention to detail here, with his makeup steadily becoming more grotesque and bestial each time we see him.

The other notable scene is the slam down in the gym early in the proceedings between the Black Wolf and El Tigre (Alejandro Cruz, again playing himself). The two are due to fight for a paying audience, but the Wolf is told he must throw the bout. In a rage, he assaults Riquelme, who is dressed as the old ticket vendor. Cruz takes exception, and the two get into it in the ring. Their fight is more physical and convincing than any other match I’ve witnessed in Mexican wrestling cinema, even the ones that are footage inserted from real-life contests. Maybe the two of them really didn’t like each other!

Latvian Ruvinskis was also a wrestler by trade and probably the only star of Lucha libre without Mexican or Hispanic roots. He was also an adept magician and tango singer who shared the square ring with the best in the business until his career was cut short by injuries in 1950. From there, his charm and good looks took him into acting, and a lead role in Chano Urueta’s ‘La bestia magnífica (Lucha libre)/The Magnificent Beast (Wrestling)’ (1952) launched his career in earnest. He went on to play masked wrestling superhero Neutrón in a series of five films from 1960 to 1965 and, although the pictures never approached the popularity of those starring the legendary Santo, they did solid box office. A couple of years later, he got to face off against the Man in the Silver Mask himself as the alien leader in the thoroughly enjoyable ‘Santo contra la invasión de Los marcianos/Santo vs. the Martian Invasion (1966). He worked consistently as an actor with another career as a successful restaurateur until his death in 1999.

An important film in the evolution of Mexican fantasy cinema.

La Bruja/The Witch (1954)

‘In this case, your claims are unfortunately not only excessive but incongruous.’

Two ruthless businessmen arrange to steal a valuable formula from an elderly scientist rather than pay him a reasonable price. But the raid goes wrong, and the old man’s daughter is killed. He vows vengeance, using a deformed young woman as his instrument after transforming her into a dazzling beauty…

Dark horror fable from south of the border directed by Chano Urueta. Although Mexican genre cinema is usually associated with the outlandish adventures of various luchadors, goofy aliens, mad scientists and monsters, instead this early example takes its premise straight and emerges as a serious, dramatic horror film.

After years of hard work and research, scientist Doctor Boerner (Julio Villarreal) has perfected a revolutionary antibiotic called Triodimicine. He offers the formula to businessmen Gunther Strecker (Charles Rooner) and Jan (Fernando Wagner). However, despite the massive profits it will bring, they decide to steal it instead of paying his asking price. Acting without the knowledge of their younger partner Fedor (Ramón Gay), they send thugs to procure it from Villarreal’s laboratory by any means necessary.

That same night Villarreal is summoned to take care of carnival huckster Paulesco (Luis Aceves Castañeda), who has been stabbed in the back during an argument over a woman. The doctor saves the injured man’s life but, back home, the businessmen’s goons have destroyed the laboratory looking for the formula and killed the scientist’s pretty daughter, Mirtha (Guillermina Téllez Girón).

Villarreal is consumed by a desire for revenge and has no problem figuring out who is responsible. Unfortunately, he includes the innocent Gay in his scheme as well. Castañeda offers assistance in exchange for saving his life, but all Villarreal will take from him is a woman known as La Bruja (Lilia del Valle). The abused and disfigured young woman is happy to obey his every command, even drinking a potion that the scientist concocts from various beakers and test tubes. The cocktail turns her into a beautiful woman. After Villarreal pulls a quick Henry Higgins, she is reinvented as Countess Nora and ready to take her place in the polite society favoured by Villarreal’s potential victims.

This is a pleasingly straightforward story of love and revenge set in a horror context. Director Urueta handles the material in a direct and unflashy manner and places the focus firmly on his cast. It’s a sensible approach as Villarreal and del Valle shoulder the burden with solid performances, and Wagner makes for an excellent slimeball, even if he is a little underused. The pace is brisk, the sets lavish or squalid as the script dictates and allowances should be made for the transformation SFX and del Valle’s ‘ugly’ makeup as being of their time.

However, the production does owe an obvious debt to stories already told and movies already made. Jekyll and Hyde, the ‘Mad Doctor’ series Boris Karloff made for Columbia in the 1940s, and numerous other Hollywood horror ‘B’ pictures. The fact that Urueta’s adaptation of Alfredo Salazar’s original story follows these well-worn paths a little too slavishly is the project’s major drawback. The plot’s development is somewhat predictable, with del Valle’s reaction to her first glimpse of the handsome Gay providing far too obvious a signpost of where events will lead. There are also a few all-too-familiar genre tropes, such as the brilliant scientist automatically qualifying as a hotshot medical doctor and living alone with his beautiful daughter.

If there is a sub-text here, it’s almost certainly an unconscious one, but it does seem to suggest that outward appearance reflects inner worth. Before the transformation, del Valle may not be mean or vicious, but she is focused more on the promise of a beautiful dress than the fate of her master, although given her treatment at his hands, it’s perhaps understandable. However, post-potion, she develops into a sophisticated woman whose finer feelings become centred on Gay. He also happens to be one of the beautiful people and innocent of all wrong-doing to boot. Pretty on the outside means pretty on the inside is a flawed point of view, of course. However, extreme looks at either end of the scale dictate at least to some extent how society treats an individual. And that is a factor in the formation of personality, attitudes and behaviours.

Whether Hammer Studios knew this film is debatable, but ‘Frankenstein Created Woman’ (1967) almost qualifies as a remake. Peter Cushing makes a gorgeous assassin out of ugly duckling, Susan Denberg, although the motivation for killing is hers, not his. The variations on the story employed by screenwriter Anthony Hinds muddle things a little and make it arguably weaker than Ureta’s film. On the other hand, it has the imperious Cushing, of course, who could take almost any project to a whole different level.

Urueta is remembered now for his various encounters with the wackier end of Mexican horror, particularly his involvement with the adventures of the legendary Blue Demon. However, his directorial career stretched from 1928 to 1974 and comprised over 100 titles. These included other horrors such as ‘The Living Head/La cabeza viviente’ (1963), ‘The Witch’s Mirror/El espejo de la bruja’ (1962), and, most significantly, the wonderfully unhinged adventures of ‘The Brainiac/El barón del terror’ (1962). In later years, he moved in front of the camera, taking character parts. The most notable for American director Sam Peckinpah in ‘Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia’ (1974) and his classic Western ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969).

Somewhat on the predictable side and a little dated, but still a solid slice of serious Mexican horror.

Santo vs the Riders of Terror/Santo contra los jinetes del terror (1970)

‘No, sir, I am not escaping from justice, nor am I a leper.’

In old Mexico, a small town is thrown into a panic when half a dozen lepers escape from a nearby sanatarium. While the Sheriff and the doctor in charge try to keep order, a gang of cutthroats take the opportunity to start a crime spree and blame the escaped patients…

Santo goes West! After battling vampires, Martians, mobsters and evil scientists, it’s time for the Man in the Silver Mask to go up against some rootin’ tootin’ bank robbers in this curious diversion in his long-running adventures.

It’s bad news for young Sheriff Dario (Armando Silvestre) when six inmates stage a midnight escape from the San Lazaro Leprosarium just down the road. The lepers raid two remote farmsteads afterwards, sending their occupants screaming into the night, and the next day, the local townspeople want an immediate necktie party. Silvestre manages to keep a lid on things with the help of Dr Ramos (Carlo Agosti), the head of the institute.

Unfortunately, things escalate quickly. After a date with Silvestre, his bride to be, Carmen (Mary Montiel), surprises a burglar, and her father is shot dead while she lies unconscious on the floor. The fugitives get the blame, of course, but it’s actually the handiwork of secret gang of cutthroats, led by local bad boy Camerino (Julio Almada). Seeing an excellent opportunity to deflect the blame, he plans a series of crimes, culminating in robbing the town’s bank. Fortunately, the clueless Silvestre happens to know a certain man in a silver mask…

Quite possibly the oddest entry in the entire filmography of legendary luchador El Santo. Director René Cardona doesn’t offer any outlandish or bizarre events over the 90 minute run time, but the film is a straight Western. Over the years, cinema has given us a long list of heroic Western archetypes; gunfighters, pioneers, lawmen, drovers, gamblers, cavalrymen, homesteaders and trail scouts. Not too many masked wrestlers, though.

Of course, the story is not entirely divorced from the tried and trusted Santo formula. Early on, there’s some square ring action as he takes on man-mountain El Toro, the main attraction of a travelling show. Triumphant, of course, the great man gives the cash prize away to three watching nuns who run an orphanage. It’s also an instant decision that the lepers are probably not responsible for the bad things happening in the area. How does he know? Because he’s El Santo, of course.

What’s open for speculation, though, is when the action is supposed to be taking place. All the characters are dressed in period or classic Western clothing, and there’s no sign of the 20th Century anywhere, not even a telegraph or railroad. So is this the late 1800s? Has Santo gone back in time? Well, I guess it’s possible, given that he invented a time machine in ‘Santo and Dracula’s Treasure/Santo en El tesoro de Drácula’ (1968).

One of the film’s few talking points is how Cardona presents the lepers. Lurching mutely out of the shadows with the camera lingering on their disfigured faces, they bear more than a slight resemblance to the popular zombie form created by George A Romero in ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968). Creepy music plays, women faint and scream and grown men head for the hills. It’s all a bit of a contrast to the scenes where Silvestre and Agosti try to explain that the lepers are just ordinary men with a horrible disease. Agosti’s words display a somewhat greater consideration of mercy than Cardona’s camera.

However, late on in the picture, when the lepers’ are allowed to appear more sympathetic, we get a strangely pointless flashback featuring the doomed romance of their leader, Jose (Gregorio Casals) and his lady love Lupe (Ivonne Govea). Perhaps this scene would make more sense when viewed in the film’s ‘sexy’ version. Yes, an alternate cut that includes female nudity did play in some territories, although no prints are currently available, and it seems lost. In another example of good taste and judgement, this version was titled ‘Los leprosos y el sexo’, which translates into English as ‘The Lepers and Sex.’

A curious and relatively anonymous chapter in the adventures of El Santo. If only he’d worn a cowboy hat.

El Enmascarado de Plata/The Silver-Masked Man (1954)

‘Just get up for a rabbit shot!’

A series of seemingly natural disasters sweep across Mexico, including a raging hurricane and flooding. These have been engineered by a masked supervillain who plans to hold the government to ransom. Fortunately, a wrestling crime fighter is out to thwart his dastardly plan…

Important early film in the development of the Mexican wrestling genre from director René Cardona and writer José G. Cruz. Originally released as a serial in the United States, it was trimmed to a two-hour feature for domestic audiences, and it’s only this version that survives today.

It’s a hard life being the ‘Man in the Silver Mask’. Fulfilling evil plans for world domination is a complicated business, after all, and it costs money, lots of it. So, not only do you have to invent and operate diabolical machines of destruction, but you also need to run a criminal gang to obtain the necessary cash. And that means planning robberies and dodging the police (not a problem) and masked wrestler El Médico Asesino (not so easy). Yes, a big, muscly man in doctor’s scrubs is his nemesis and the film’s hero. But, hang on, where is El Santo? Wasn’t the star of more than 50 movies, many directed by Cardona, known as ‘El Enmascarado de Plata’? And wasn’t he a hero? Of course he was. So what’s going on here?

Appearing in the ring as the silver-masked El Santo, by the end of the 1940s, Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta was arguably the most popular wrestler in Mexico. But his character was a villain, and it was necessary to turn him into a hero to capitalise on that success. Part of this process involved a series of comic books launched in 1952 and written by José G. Cruz. These were highly popular, and a movie seemed the next logical step. However, Santo passed on the project for reasons that seem unrecorded. Cruz was less than impressed with the decision and so tweaked his original screenplay to turn ‘El Enmascarado de Plata’ back into a villain. Another real-life wrestler, El Médico Asesino, was brought in to play himself as the story’s hero.

As we join the action, the villain’s diabolical plan is already in progress with the country devastated by his hurricane. Curiously, though, rather than blackmailing the authorities immediately, instead he focuses on masterminding a series of robberies. Perhaps forward planning isn’t one of his strengths, and operating his machines of immaculate destruction has taken him over his allocated budget. They do appear again later on, but then he only uses them to demolish a building, so I guess stories of their dreadful power may have been a little exaggerated.

These world-shaking events are followed by journalists Alfredo (Victor Junco) and Julio (Crox Alvarado), who are not only fighting over the next scoop but also the hand of the beautiful Elena (Aurora Segura). Both are strangely absent from the action every time El Médico Asesino saves the day, and the audience is invited to guess which one is beneath the mask and surgeon’s scrubs. Our grappling hero also gets himself a perky sidekick in the form of street urchin Freckles, played by the director’s son, René Cardona Jr.

But then, gasp!, things get weird when El Enmascarado de Plata dies halfway through the film! When he’s unmasked, it turns out that he’s just the head waiter from shady nightclub ‘The Paradise’. Cruz having another poke at El Santo for turning down the film, perhaps? Yes, the old silver mask was only the frontman for the real mastermind, the impressively masked El Tigre (you can’t have too many masked characters in a film). The arch-enemies lock horns for a final confrontation in the gripping conclusion. Who will win, and which of our heroes will Segura choose as her suitor (a somewhat less gripping outcome).

Leaving aside the slightly convoluted genesis of the film, this is an interesting halfway point between the US serials of classic Hollywood and the Mexican wrestling films to follow. From the former, we get the usual round of fistfights, narrow escapes and kidnappings, but there are fewer actual cliffhangers, which presumably made it easier to cut down the original episodes into a coherent feature. Fans of the Mexican films to follow will recognise the obsession with masks and secret identities (three!), although they may feel a little short-changed by the prioritising of fisticuffs over wrestling action. Despite being a real-life fighter in the square ring, El Médico Asesino seems a little slow and awkward compared to the more athletic fighters that followed in his footsteps.

Although the film does contain some genuinely enjoyable moments, it feels a fair bit longer than its two-hour running time as the story never really develops. This was quite probably down to its origins in the serial format, but the endless round of captures, escapes and repetitive fight choreography becomes a little wearing long before the final curtain.

It’s perhaps not surprising that El Médico Asesino made way for other more charismatic screen luchadors, although he did appear in all-star wrestling cavalcade ‘The Champions of Justice’ (1971). Cardona went on to a spectacularly long career in cult cinema with dozens of noteworthy features to his name, including ‘Santa Claus’ (1959), ‘Wrestling Women vs The Aztec Mummy/Las luchadoras contra la momia’ (1964), ‘Santo and Dracula’s Treasure/Santo en El tesoro de Drácula’ (1969), ‘Night of the Bloody Apes’ (1969), and ‘Santo and the Vengeance of the Mummy/Santo en la venganza de la momia’ (1972). His son soon moved behind the camera to join him and has a very similar directing pedigree. Spy thriller ‘SOS Conspiracion Bikini’ (1967) was followed by feline horror ‘The Night of a Thousand Cats/La noche de los mil gatos’ (1972), Jaws ‘homage’ ‘Tintorera’ (1977) and ‘El ataque de los pájaros’ (1987) a film about killer chickens.

A film for those interested in the evolution of the Mexican Wrestling movie phenomenon. Somewhat less than essential for everyone else.

Santo Vs Frankenstein’s Daughter/Santo vs. la hija de Frankestein (1972)

‘I’ve told you already; the red switch is there to blow up the lab if we’re discovered.’

The daughter of renowned scientist Dr Frankenstein needs the blood of silver-masked wrestler El Santo, for her rejuvenation experiments. She kidnaps the sportsman’s girlfriend so she can lure him to her secret laboratory and plans to use the creatures she has created to subdue him…

It’s time to head south of the border again with everyone’s favourite luchador as he confronts yet another mad scientist in the name of truth, justice and the Mexican way. Showing no sign of slowing down after ten years and more than 30 movies, el Enmascarado de Plata teams up with new director Miguel M Delgado to deliver the usual mix of monsters, fights and fun in a surprisingly efficient package.

Freda Frankenstein (Gina Romand) has a pretty decent work ethic. She’s stitched together one creature from the parts of seven corpses, created another by injecting a man with gorilla blood and kept herself and her colleagues alive for centuries with an anti-ageing serum. But she’s got problems. Truxon, the gorilla-man, is reverting too far to his simian roots, cut and paste Ursus won’t get up off his slab, and she needs her rejuvenation serum more and more often as she’s been using it for a very long time.

It’s this last problem that’s the most pressing, but there’s a solution at hand. Many years earlier, the doctor was ringside at one of El Santo’s matches and managed to harvest a sample of the great man’s blood. On analysis, it proved to contain the TR Factor, a super healing element that aids in the restoration of damaged tissues. Romand believes she can use it to spice up her special serum and who can argue with that after we see him despatch Argentinian opponent El Toro in the square ring? It’s an impressive victory considering that the cheat slips on an iron ring and beats our hero with it. The referee does take it from him (eventually!) but doesn’t bother with a disqualification or anything like that. Hell, he doesn’t stop the fight for a few seconds to give the man in the silver mask a chance to recover! But, no matter, Santo is unstoppable and wins the bout, which was an elimination for some world title or other.

Being an evil fiend, rather than just asking El Santo for his help, Romand kidnaps his excitable girlfriend, Norma (Anel). She plans to lure the wrestler to her secret hideout and keep him in check with Ursus and Truxon (both played by Geraldo Zapeda) and her gang of henchmen, led by One-Eye (Carlos Suárez). El Santo races to the rescue, of course, accompanied by Anel’s bossy sister, Elsa (Sonia Fuentes) and the usual madcap mixture of action and grappling follows, accompanied by the inevitable exploding lab equipment.

The Santo series had descended into a well-worn and predictable formula by this point, and Delgado’s film, written by regular contributor Fernando Osés, rings very few changes to it. However, the film possesses an energy that’s quite a contrast to tired entries such as ‘Santo Faces Death/Santo frente a la muerte’ (1969) and the rather shabby (if hilarious) ‘Santo and the Blue Demon vs. the Monsters/Santo el enmascarado de plata y Blue Demon contra los monstruos’ (1970). Delgado gives the movie a very brisk pace, and there’s plenty of incident and action. Also, there’s a sense of decent production values here, with any budgetary limitations well concealed for a change. Interestingly enough, it’s one of only five entries in the series where El Santo himself has a producer’s credit.

One of the film’s main virtues is Romand’s performance as the mad medico. She’d already made an appearance in the series way back with a leading role in ‘Santo vs The Infernal Men/Santo contra hombres infernales’ (1961), one of the two films shot back to back in pre-revolutionary Cuba that kickstarted the whole franchise. Here, she seems to be revelling in the nastier aspects of her character. Having granted her followers a much-extended lifespan, she holds the withdrawal of the serum over their heads as the ultimate threat, keeping it from one of them as an example to the others. Of course, he ages rapidly and becomes an instant mummy, being interred upright in an open coffin beside the remains of others who had presumably displeased her. She even recruits new followers by administering her concoction to old men desperate to regain their youth. Rather than chew the scenery, she plays it entirely straight throughout and, although that means fewer laughs, it does give the drama more grounding than usual (if you can use that term about a Santo movie!)

Strangely enough, the film was thought lost for many years and only resurfaced around the Millenium. Director Delgado was a veteran filmmaker who had previously specialised in comedy but went on to take the megaphone for some of El Santo’s subsequent adventures: ‘Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolf Man/Santo y Blue Demon vs Dracula y el Hombre Lobo’ (1973), ‘The Vengeance of the Crying Woman/La venganza de la llorona’ (1974) and ‘Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein/Santo y Blue Demon contra el doctor Frankenstein’ 1974). Screenwriter Osés has many ties to the series and was an ex-warrior of the square ring himself. He wrote and or acted in more than 20 of them and performed the same function for El Santo’s hombre, The Blue Demon, during his parallel movie career. Going further back, it was Osés who played masked hero La Sombra Vengadora (The Avenging Shadow) in a quartet of films in the early 1950s, which are generally regarded as paving the way for the whole Mexican Masked Wrestler movie phenomenon.

An entertaining 90 minutes in the company of everyone’s favourite silver-masked luchador. Yes, it ticks all the usual boxes in precisely the way you expect, but it has a lot of fun doing it and takes the audience along for the ride.