‘Renato the hippie is sweating profusely.’
An elderly professor receives an anonymous death threat and asks advice from his niece’s boyfriend, the famous wrestler Santo. The academic believes the letter is linked to his family history and an ancient curse. When he suddenly vanishes, Santo calls in his old friend Blue Demon to help him investigate…
More South of the Border mayhem featuring the world’s favourite luchador tag-team, this time combining to face off against two icons of horror. Director Miguel M. Delgado referees from a script by Alfredo Salazar.
After a life spent hitting the books, Professor Luis Cristaldi (Jorge Mondragón) may have experienced the occasional difference of opinion on academic matters, but he’s certainly not used to getting threats in the mail. Unfortunately, he has reasons to take the warning seriously and is mainly concerned for his family; daughter Laura (María Eugenia San Martín), niece Lina (Nubia Martí) and granddaughter Rosita (Lissy Fields). The good news is that Martí’s current beau is none other than crimebusting, monster hunting, time-machine inventing Santo, el Enmascarado de Plata, and he’s happy to help. At a family crisis meeting, Mondragón reveals the source of his concern; 100 years ago, one of his ancestors defeated Dracula and the Wolf Man using the legendary Dagger of Boidros, which he is now gathering dust as an ornament on his bookcase.
That same night, Mondragón is kidnapped by hunchback Eric (Alfredo Wally Barrón) and taken to a subterranean cave where the disciple’s ancestors hid the coffins of Conde Drácula (Aldo Monti, reprising his role from earlier in the series) and Rufus Rex, El Hombre Lobo (Agustín Martínez Solares). Mondragón is duly hung upside down above each casket in turn, and his blood brings the monsters back to life. The deadly duo set about creating an army of vampires and lycanthropes to aid in their plot to revenge themselves against the remaining members of the Cristaldi family. Meanwhile, Santo has called in wrestling partner Blue Demon to help investigate the Professor’s disappearance, but little sleuthing is necessary. The monsters waste no time in putting their plans into action.
There’s little production information readily available about Santo’s film projects. More than 20 are credited as hitting the big screen between 1968 and 1973, but specific release dates are incomplete, even contradictory, making it nearly impossible to establish a clear order of production. It does seem, however, that there was an effort made at some stage during this period to market the great man as a star of serious horror films, beginning with ‘Santo and Dracula’s Treasure/Santo en El tesoro de Drácula’ (1969), which was even released in a version with nudity. ‘The World of the Dead/Land of the Dead/El mundo del los muertos’ (1970) and ‘The Vengeance of the Vampire Women/La venganza de las mujeres vampiro’ (1970) were in a similar vein, but subsequent projects took on a softer approach. One of the problems with trying to present Santo’s adventures in horror as dark and edgy was rooted in Mexican cinema’s obsession with the classic Universal Monster cycle of the 1930s and 1940s. Vampires in capes and dinner jackets work in a fairytale Eastern Europe of gothic castles wreathed in creeping shadows, but not so much in the sunny streets and pueblos of modern-day Mexico.
The film opens, unsurprisingly, with Santo grappling in the square ring with a white-masked fighter called Ángel Blanco, supervised by international referee Roberto ‘Güero’ Rangel (playing himself!) The commentator (Enrique Llanes) cheerfully informs us that the bout is taking place in a ‘great arena in the capital city of Mexico’, which is ‘filled up to maximum capacity’. Unfortunately, all we get is a fixed shot of the entire ring from one side with a plain blue backdrop, and the vast crowd appear on the soundtrack only. International referee Rangel can’t prevent Ángel Blanco from fighting dirty, but Santo beats him down anyway. At one stage, we cut to Barrón in a shirt and tie, carrying on in his underground cave where two stone heads belch flames at regular intervals. These fireworks are always accompanied by heavy bursts of a church organ, which often emphasise the comedy of the situation. Sorry, I mean the horror. Obviously.
Santos girlfriend Martí has an uncle who received a written death threat from a group calling themselves ‘The Avengers’ (perhaps they’re going to bore him to death with endless CGI fight scenes?) This connects (somehow?!) with the usual generational curse because, of course, one of the Professor’s ancestors tangled with Dracula and the Wolf Man and defeated them, and his descendants will bear the brunt of the king vampire’s revenge. Santo takes the news in his stride, of course, because something like this comes up in his life every second Tuesday in the month, even more often when there’s a full moon. The dagger of Boidros will deal with the monsters, so Mondragón puts it on his 8-year-old granddaughters’ bedside table for safekeeping. Nothing could possibly go wrong there. The dagger works a little like a crucifix in a standard vampire film, although the script never fully commits to this idea.
Barrón hangs Mondragón upside down above Dracula’s coffin and uses his blood to revive the vampire in a ‘homage’ to Hammer’s ‘Dracula, Prince of Darkness’ (1966). The same procedure restores his werewolf lackey, Rufus Rex. The gore is all offscreen, but Mondragón’s blood-spattered corpse is still hanging there later on, which is the only time the film approaches Santo’s more serious excursions into horror. The evil duo begin recruiting an army of vampires and lycanthropes, Barrón lining them up for the operation in the caves of their underground lair. None of the recruits looks particularly happy about it, but then no one likes to queue, do they? Surprisingly, their grand plan to target the Cristaldi family doesn’t involve a full frontal assault but stealth and strategy. Post resurrection, werewolf Solares has reverted to his handsome human form, complete with a silk shirt, and the undead Monti assigns him to romance San Martín while he goes after Fields. One would like to think that’s because the 8-year-old is obviously a much more significant threat, rather than anything else, but the implications are far creepier than the filmmakers intended.
Most of the time, Monti’s Dracula turns out to be curiously passive, with Solares doing all the heavy lifting. The wolfman makes San Martín’s acquaintance by seeing off some supposed muggers in the street in a staged fight. Why not just kidnap her then and there? Well, because that ‘would be too easy’, of course! His oily charms soon won her over, though, and she’s not even phased by the fact that his name is Rufus Rex (yes, he doesn’t bother changing it!) Unfortunately for her, Solares is no Larry Talbot, instead being fully committed to the hairy lifestyle. Soon, San Martín is sacrificed offscreen beneath a fixed shot of the most unconvincing full moon ever committed to film, accompanied by some screams on the soundtrack. Although Santo’s cinematic adventures aren’t noted for their high production values, this effort does look better financed than most. However, this brief sequence and the bargain basement wrestling bouts feel very cheap and distinctly out of place. Also, given that blood-soaked shot of Mondragón’s hanging corpse, it is possible that the film initially also leaned toward serious horror, but these elements were removed in post-production.
Elsewhere, director Delgado displays a surprisingly acute visual sensibility. He creates some decent visual compositions rather than just pointing the camera at the action and letting it run. Unfortunately, there are still some goofy moments with rubber bats and a sequence where an old, scrawny vampire turns chatty family maid Josefina (Lourdes Batista). Presumably, this balding bloodsucker is one of the Count’s minions, but this is the first time we’ve seen him, and he doesn’t appear again. Logically, it should have been Monti carrying out the attack, and it’s interesting to speculate if the sequence was originally shot that way and later replaced. After all, he really has very little to do in the finished film.
By contrast, Martí is probably Santo’s most proactive girlfriend in the entire franchise. When the great man and Blue Demon are trapped in a warehouse and badly outnumbered, she rides in to save the day on a forklift! Mexican cinema was often ahead of the curve in portraying women in action roles, but the heroines in this series were usually little more than kidnap fodder and subjects for rescue. Also, shock horror, Santo actually gets to kiss her at one point, although, more often than not, the lovers prefer to bump noses (damn that mask!)
It’s pleasing to report that the film also has enough familiar elements to please hardcore fans of the legendary luchador’s cinematic antics. Monti and Solares show a blatant disregard for Health and Safety by having a giant pit of spikes in their cave headquarters because that seems like a good idea (clue: it isn’t!), and their army of the dead only numbers about a dozen. Mondragón and San Martín are part of this infernal task force because they are now zombies, which makes perfect sense. Barrón’s hunch and terrible facial scar both come and go and the latter moves around his face on command. Santo hilariously fails to convince us that he’s drinking a cup of coffee (damn that mask!), and events conclude with a tag team match where Santo and Blue take on El Blanco Angel and Renato the hippie, supervised by international referee Rangel. Renato fought Blue earlier in the film (against a red backdrop) and looks about as counterculture as a Sunday morning trip to your local garden centre. Both sides blatantly cheat, but the bad guys started it, and they cheat worse, so that’s ok.
Santo remains a legend in his native Mexico almost 40 years after his death, revered as a folk hero and champion of the common man. His wrestling career stretched from 1934 to his retirement in 1982, during which time he appeared in more than 50 films, battling monsters, spies, and international crimelords. Despite allegedly being the better wrestler, Compatriot Blue Demon never quite attained the level of Santo’s popularity. As well as backing up the great man on the big screen, he appeared in his own series of feature films from 1965 to 1979, often assisted by other famous luchadors of the day such as Mil Máscaras, Superzan and La Sombra Vengadora. In later life, he concentrated on passing his grappling skills on to younger fighters. Sadly, Rangel was forever typecast as an international referee and never acted again.
Truly a box of delights for the dedicated Santo fan. Everyone else? Well…just get with the programme, ok!?