Capulina contra los vampiros (1971)

‘The fat man has put me in a bad mood.’

An overweight layabout finds a job as the caretaker at a mansion reputed to be owned by a vampire. As part of his duties, he removes a lance embedded in the entrance hall floor and revives the undead nobleman. Aided by the building’s caretaker, he takes on the supernatural threat, hoping to claim a hidden treasure…

Comedic vampire hi-jinks from south of the border, courtesy of writer-director René Cardona and popular Mexican funnyman Capulina. Together, the two mine the well-worn tropes of horror-comedy pioneered by old dark house mysteries of the 1930s and the slapstick tendencies of ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ (1948).

Idle timewaster Capulina (Gaspar Henaine) is happy to while away the hours in bed reading about vampires, but the need for food sends him reluctantly to the local employment agency. There, he snags a job doing light maintenance work at the Castle De Frontenac, but dropping the name of his destination at the village tavern run by Carlos Agostí sends the locals into the expected panic. Arriving at the castle (even calling it a ‘mansion’ would be pushing the definition a bit), Henaine is greeted by black dwarf Carbonato (Aurelio Pérez), who informs him that the walls hide a fabulous treasure. The catch is that the master of the house is a vampire.

Fortunately, Count Drac de Fontenac (Juan Gallardo) is currently ‘resting’, impaled by a lance stuck in the floor many years earlier. His wife Pampita (Rossy Mendoza, doing her best ‘Lily Munster’ impression) has been bringing men to their home ever since, trying to find one who can remove the offending weapon and bring her beloved back to life. Of course, that man turns out to be Henaine, and he does the deed. Then it’s up to him to turn the tables on the undead with the aid of the trusty Pérez.

The history of cinema is littered with lame, bloodless attempts at horror-comedy. For every ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (2004) and ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975), there are dozens upon dozens of almost plotless escapades leaning heavily on stock humour, signposted gags, laboured situations and endless repetition. Unfortunately, Cardona’s film ticks all those boxes with some enthusiasm, replacing wit and timing with frenetic action, mugging and a great deal of running about on its cheap sets. Part of the problem is that some horror conventions offer obvious targets for parody and attract the sort of predictable, lazy scripting in evidence here.

Cardona’s screenplay has a few scattered ideas, but they are never developed beyond their original setup. The notion of Mendoza’s search to find someone to pull the lance from the floor echoes the Arthurian legend of the ‘Sword in the Stone’, but this interesting concept goes absolutely nowhere. Similarly, Mendoza is obviously less than pleased when Gallardo wakes his harem of vampire brides from their long sleep. However, the opportunity to poke fun at their domestic situation is ignored in favour of Gallardo getting a custard pie in the face and other such creative shenanigans.

Henaine was known for his ‘family-friendly’ comedy, and although the film does not seem targetted toward children, Cardona plays it safe at every turn. Events are never allowed to become scary for even one second, and, despite the vampire brides’ appropriate nightwear, not one inch of naked flesh ever makes it to the screen. Such elements aren’t strictly necessary to make a successful horror-comedy, of course. However, the complete absence of even a suggestion of them removes a great deal of the potential for laughs.

If there is one bright spot in all this, it’s on the technical side. Sure, the sets are limited in scale and scope, but Cardona compensates with the lighting, soaking the interiors with splashes of lurid, primary colours. This look partly evokes the feel of Hammer Horror but is also reminiscent of the gothic flourishes of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava! It’s not on that level of expertise or quality, of course, but it’s interesting to speculate on whether Cardona was familiar with Bava’s work or if it’s simply a coincidence.

Henaine began his career in show business as a successful singer and musician in the 1940s. He formed trio ‘Los Trincas’ in 1946, whose combination of country stylings with boogie-woogie has been credited as a pioneer of the 1950s Rock’ n’ Roll explosion by some commentators. In the mid-1950s, he formed a comedic partnership with Marco Antonio Campos known as Viruta and Capulina. They worked extensively in theatre, radio and television, culminating in their first feature film, the horror-comedy ‘Se los chupó la bruja’ (1957). Henaine thought the film was awful, but it proved a box-office smash, and the duo went on to make a further 25 movies over the next 11 years.

The duo split somewhat acrimoniously in the late 1960s, but Henaine went from strength to strength. Sources vary, but he starred in another 40 films at least, even starring with legendary luchador Santo, the two pairing up for ‘Santo contra Capulina’ (1969), again directed by Cardona. Other fantastical projects included ‘Capulina vs The Mummies /The Terror of Guanajuato’ (1973) and ‘Capulina contra los monstruos’ (1974), which pitted him against versions of Universal’s classic monsters. He also worked with Cardona when the director stepped out from behind the camera to play the ‘Bond Villain’ opposite his incompetent hero in spy spoof ‘Operación carambola’ (1968). Henaine also enjoyed highly successful careers as a stand-up comedian, television star and recording artist.

Cardona was a veteran filmmaker with over 120 previous directorial credits before this film and more than another 20 afterwards. His work often included horror and science-fiction subjects, and he was responsible for some of Mexico’s most notable films in those genres. Examples include ‘Wrestling Women vs The Aztec Mummy/Las luchadoras contra la momia’ (1964), ‘Santo vs the Strangler/Santo vs el estrangulador’ (1965), ‘Night of the Bloody Apes’ (1969), Santo in the Vengeance of the Mummy/Santo en la venganza de la momia’ (1971) and ‘Blue Demon and Zovek in The Invasion of the Dead/Blue Demon y Zovek en La Vasion De Las Meurtos (1973). He was also responsible for the bizarre Christmas classic ‘Santa Claus’ (1959).

A weary, somewhat tiresome doodle of a comedy that’s unlikely to provoke many laughs.

La Llorona (1960)

‘I just stepped on a cat that didn’t exist.’

A young woman marries against her father’s wishes and gives birth to a son. However, as the child approaches five years of age, she becomes over-protective to such a degree that it threatens her marriage. It’s then that the husband learns of the curse that hangs over her family…

Remake of the 1933 Ramón Peón movie based on the folk myth of the same name prevalent throughout Latin America. There are multiple variations on the original tale, but it remains so popular that it appeared recently in ‘The Conjuring’ film series as ‘The Curse of La Llorona’ (2019). However, this take by director René Cardona stays close to the story told in Peón’s original film.

Pretty blonde Margarita (Luz María Aguilar) is tired of the single life. She wants to marry handsome Felipe Arnáiz (Mauricio Garcés) but her father, as Don Gerardo Montes (Carlos López Moctezuma) objects to their union. Father and daughter both know why, but keep Garcés in the dark. The couple goes ahead anyway and returns to live at the family home after their honeymoon. Young son Jorgito (Marina Banquells) arrives shortly afterwards, and everything should be perfect. However, Aguilar refuses to leave the child’s side and, as he approaches his fifth birthday, her mania seems to intensify. By this time, Garcés has had enough and delivers an ultimatum; they start behaving like a typical family or get a divorce.

Seeing that things have reached a crisis, Moctezuma takes his son-in-law to one side and explains the danger that threatens the family. Back in the 16th Century, their ancestor Don Nuño de Montes Claros (Eduardo Fajardo) was a soldier attached to the staff of the local Viceroy. He began an affair with a mixed-race woman, Luisa del Carmen (María Elena Marqués) that led to the birth of two children. However, his promises of marriage faded when he saw that the children took after their mother. Instead, he planned to wed noblewoman Doña Ana (Erna Martha Bauman). The news sent Marqués over the edge, and she murdered their children with a dagger after cursing Fajardo and Bauman’s children and their firstborn descendants.

Garcés remains unconvinced of the threat, even after a gust of wind from a closed window and the sudden manifestation of a black cat. So, Moctezuma follows up with more recent information. His first son drowned mysteriously in a pool as a toddler and his older brother in a riding accident at the same age. Nevertheless, Aguilar decides to put her fears aside, and she and Garcés start a more conventional life, leaving the young boy in the care of a mysterious new nanny, Carmen Asiul, who bears a surprisingly close resemblance to you-know-who.

Cardona’s film is almost a straight re-telling of the 1933 story, so inevitably, it shares some of the same strengths and weaknesses of that movie. Again, the second act flashback is very lengthy, which makes the drama feel disjointed. Cardona achieves a better balance with that, but it’s also the most substantial part of the narrative. In comparison, the climactic events are somewhat bloodless, especially as they take place when the hero and heroine are offscreen on a romantic night out! The racism angle is interesting, though, and a departure from the original where the faithless soldier’s choice of wedding partner is political rather than based on prejudice. It’s unusual to address such a theme in a genre picture of this vintage, and it’s handled with surprising subtlety, being reflected in Fajardo’s face when he sees his new son for the first time, rather than being explicitly stated.

The film also deserves credit for sticking to its guns; the new nanny is the spirit of La Llorona, and the legend is not explained away in rational terms. A little clarity about the curse would have helped, though. Yes, the firstborn must die, but why must it seem like an accident? Nanny Marqués is alone with the child on multiple occasions but, instead of just finishing off the job, she contrives to place him in harm’s way through various devices, such as rolling his ball out into traffic, tripping him up when he’s running with scissors, etc. Why is this necessary? It’s not as if she has to fear any reprisals from the authorities; she’s an evil spirit from the otherworld! Inevitably, it feels as if all this has been included simply to pad out the final third.

The main reason for tuning in is the performance of Marqués. At first, she’s swept off her feet by the dashing Fajardo, becoming his devoted partner and mother to his children. She remains steadfast in her loyalty even during his increasing absences. The scene where he tries to pay her off with jewellery, and she still thinks it’s just a gift, provides critical psychological insight into her character and lends credibility to her sudden collapse into vicious hatred and madness. She’s also appropriately sinister as the black-garbed La Llorona, conflicted by her thirst for revenge and the apparent charms of her youthful charge. Without her performance, the film would probably seem twice as long.

After almost twenty years in the business and many leading roles, Marqués must have been a familiar face to the contemporary Mexican audience, but several of her fellow cast members are also worthy of note. Fajardo was a Spanish actor who moved to Mexico in the 1950s and quickly established himself in featured supporting roles and had graduated to some leads by the end of the decade. He moved back to his home country in the 1960s, where he became almost a fixture in Spaghetti Western productions, both from Spain and Italy. He appeared in prominent character parts in ‘A Coffin for the Sheriff/Una bara per lo sceriffo’ (1965), ‘Django’ (1966), ‘Seven Pistols for a Massacre/7 pistole per un massacro’ (1967) and ‘Pistol for a Hundred Coffins/Una pistola per cento bare’ (1968), among many others. He also appeared in horror maestro Mario Bava’s ‘Lisa and the Devil’ (1973).

Moctezuma’s film career began in 1938 and, by the time he died in 1980, he’d appeared in over 200 features. These included roles opposite luchadors like Neutron in ‘Neutron vs the Karate Assassins/Los asesinos del karate’ (1965) and as the police inspector on the case during El Santo’s two run-in’s with ‘The Strangler’. He was also one of the leads in director Cardona’s rather tatty ‘Night of the Bloody Apes (1969), a film banned in the UK during the media-created ‘Video-Nasty’ scandal of the early 1980s. Bauman appeared more prominently in a trio of vampires in the immediate years following this production. There’s even a small role here for David Reynoso, who would become back-up for luchador Blue Demon during a couple of his most memorable cinematic adventures. He also appeared in many other genre and fantastical films of the 1960s.

Although improving the country’s first cinematic take on the legend, this is still a minor entry in its supernatural filmography. La Llorona herself wasn’t finished, though. Not by a long chalk. Three years later, she returned again for ‘La Maldicion De La Llorona/Curse of the Crying Woman (1963).

Santo and the Vengeance of the Mummy/Santo en la venganza de la momia (1971)

‘Since they started making those plastic glasses, I’ve had so many embarrassments.’

Following the translation of an ancient codex, an archaeologist assembles a team to enter the Mexican jungle and locate the tomb of an Aztec warrior. The expedition is successful, but the Mummy disappears from the crypt, and group members begin to die one by one…

Riffing on Universal’s classic monster films of the 1930s and 1940s was hardly a new approach for Mexican Horror cinema by this point. Pitting legendary luchador Santo against another iteration of the Aztec Mummy, who had already had his own series of films beginning in the late 1950s, was hardly going to win director René Cardona any awards for originality.

Jumping straight into the square ring for some grappling action, the film’s opening finds our hero in the Silver Mask in some serious tag team action. His partner, the red-masked Rebel, is out for the count, thanks to the dirty tactics of opponents Angelo and Casanova, those ‘famous Italians.’ However, dealing with these upstarts proves a minor inconvenience, and he’s on time for his meeting with archaeologist Professor Romero (César del Campo). Other delegatres at this brief discussion are anthropologist Professor Jiménez (Carlos Ancira), photographer Susana (Mary Montiel), engineer Sergio Morales (Eric del Castillo) and del Campo’s secretary Rosa Bermúdez (Alma Rojo). Everyone agrees to come along, of course, and, less than two minutes after Santo’s victory in the arena, we join them all in the jungle.

The expedition has linked up with Chief Guide Carlos Suárez, and he’s recruited a bunch of rather shifty locals to act as porters, who are not at all interested in the rumours of hidden treasure at the burial site. Also joining the group are the elderly Plácido (Alejandro Reyna) and his grandson Agapito (Niño Jorgito). Reyna is initially reluctant to give the interlopers the benefit of his local knowledge. However, Montiel promises they will pay for Jorgito’s education after the old man is gone (which isn’t a red flag at all). In what must have been a major disappointment for fans of the previous entry ‘Santo vs The Head Hunters/Santo contra los cazadores de cabezas’ (1971), endless hours of our heroes trekking through the undergrowth does not follow. Instead, we flash forward to everyone safely encamped at the dig site. What’s more, engineer del Castillo has already sorted out any necessary excavations, and all that remains is the final breakthrough to the funerary crypt.

Its occupant turns out to be Nonoc, an Aztec noble who was buried alive a thousand years before. He wiled away the initial hours of his entombment by writing out some exposition on a parchment, which is helpful for everyone, especially as Reyna can translate. It turns out to be the same old story; man loves virgin, man kidnaps virgin from the shadow of the sacrificial altar. Man and virgin run off into the jungle but are captured just before he can disqualify her from her religious duties. Virgin is sacrificed, man is buried alive. It’s a familiar tale to anyone with a passing knowledge of Karloff and Chaney Jr’s adventures in bandages for Universal. It’s also hardly earthshaking that the would-be lover put a curse on the descendants of those that condemned him. This is bad news for Reyna because he happens to be one of them!

Those familiar with the original Aztec Mummy series may recall that the creature was brought back to life by removing the ‘Holy Breastplate’, and Nonoc is similarly non-plussed when the idiotic Ancira relieves him of the ‘Necklace of Death.’ That night the Mummy goes for a little walk that ends up at Reyna’s tent and exit one team member, the deadly deed witnessed by grandson Jorgito. The kid wakes everyone up, and they find the Mummy is gone from the tomb. Faced with this evidence, everyone believes his story, however impossible it might seem. Five minutes later, they find Nonoc having a quiet lie down in the girls’ tent, and the boy’s tale becomes ‘scientifically impossible’, and no one believes him. To prove that the creature is dead, del Campo drives a dagger three times into its mummified chest, thus displaying a sound knowledge of scientific protocol and an appropriate respect for ancient cultures and their dead. Nice one Professor, pick up your Nobel Prize on the way out.

The Mummy begins a reign of terror with his bow and poisoned arrows while our heroes endlessly vacillate between believing in his resurrection one minute and then dismissing the possibility as nonsense the next. Of course, the porters try to desert, so Santo gives them a sound thrashing. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t prove to be an effective man-management strategy, and they all head for the hills the moment his back is turned. Worse still, his budding romance with Montiel is derailed by a call to dinner, and he’s obliged to take care of the orphaned Jorgito. Given the number of boys he’s adopted over the series, it’s a wonder the local social services haven’t paid him a visit! Meanwhile, Nonoc displays a surprising grasp of the 20th Century by burning down the supply tent and wrecking their radio! Not bad for someone who’s been out of the loop for a thousand years.

None of this qualifies as great cinema, of course. Still, it’s undeniably entertaining, with director Cardona infusing the proceedings with far more pace and incident displayed in some of the other entries in the series. Screenwriter Alfredo Salazar can perhaps also be forgiven for straying rather close to the plot elements and scripts of the old Aztec Mummy series. It wasn’t plagiarism, after all, because he co-wrote those original films! On the debit side, he saddles us with Ancira as the tiresome comic relief. The character wanders into the movie somewhat like the ‘wacky egghead’ who dragged down many of Jules Verne’s literary escapades.

Nonoc is not too impressive as a movie monster. He gets the quiver of arrows on his back caught up in the paraphernalia inside a tent and takes some moments to extricate himself. Cardona uses the take, of course. I mean, who needs another? At the risk of engaging in spoilers, the creature’s behaviour and some of the plot’s more ridiculous developments are explained by a late twist in the tale, even if it does raise its own questions of credibility.

Jorgito’s adoption by Santo takes on an interesting twist when you check the boy’s other movie credits; two appearances under the name of Jorge Guzmán, both in other films of the series. Twelve years later, he attempted to revive his film career playing one of the title roles in ‘Chanoc y el hijo del Santo contra los vampiros asesinos/Chanoc and the Son of Santo vs the Killer Vampires’ (1981). Yes, he was Santo’s real-life son and, although his screen career never amounted to more than a couple of films, he had far more success following in his father’s footsteps in the square ring.

Cardona was in the director’s chair for several of Santo’s more outlandish adventures, such as ‘Santo and Dracula’s Treasure/Santo en El tesoro de Drácula’ (1968) and was one of the leading figures in Mexican cult cinema for several decades. His career began in earnest in the 1930s, but it was more than a quarter century before he joined the horror boom with supernatural folk rale ‘La Llorona’ (1960). From there, it was a short step to ‘Doctor Doom/Las luchadoras contra el médico asesino’ (1963), ‘Wrestling Women vs the Aztec Mummy/Las luchadoras contra la momia’ (1964) and ‘The Batwoman/La mujer murcielago’ (1968) and many others, often involving Salazar on scripting duties. He also birthed a directing dynasty with son, René Cardona Jr and grandson, René Cardona III also taking up the megaphone.

One of the breezier and more enjoyable of Santo’s monster mash-ups.

Santo vs the Head Hunters/Santo contra los cazadores de cabezas (1971)

‘It seems impossible that such a thing could exist in the space age.’

A lost tribe of head hunters kidnap a young woman who is the direct descendant of the conquistador that almost wiped them out, planning to sacrifice her to their gods. Her father calls in a famous masked wrestler, and they form an expedition and head into the jungle in hot pursuit…

Legendary luchador Santo goes on a jungle movie adventure, courtesy of co-writer and director René Cardona. By this point in the long-running series, the masked wrestler had successfully tackled the Mafia, witches, Dracula and aliens, to name just a few, so how hard could an excursion through the interior to fight some tribesmen possibly be?

After near extinction at the hands of the conquistadors, the Hibaro Indians have kept firmly under the radar. Lately, however, they’ve touched base with bad man Tirso (Guillermo Hernández), who has convinced them to take action to restore their rightful place in the world. However, before they can do that, they must take their vengeance on pretty blonde Mariana (Nadia Milton), a direct descendant of their original nemesis. Conveniently, her family’s butler Husca (Enrique Lucero), is one of the tribe, and they contrive to send her a black orchid and a legendary amulet called the ‘Golden Anaconda’. Her father, Don Alonso Grijalva (director Cardona), has the relic pronounced as genuine by expert Professor Castro (Enrique Pontón), who values it beyond price. Rather than put in a museum, however, Milton wears it out on a date with boyfriend Carlos (Freddy Fernández) and is promptly kidnapped and whisked off into the jungle.

The distraught Cardona wastes no time forming a safari to run the miscreants down, bringing in guide Pancho (Carlos Suárez) and none other than Santo to lead the party. The tribesmen have a good head start already and Professor Pontón thinks that Milton is headed for a date with the sacrificial knife, but he also believes the ceremony won’t take place for some time yet. A long chase through the jungle ensues with the tribe’s witch doctor using his magical arts to place obstacles in the way, such as a river crocodile and a jaguar. Warriors also carry out a series of attacks, and the rescue party become rapidly diminished.

Santo on safari like a modern-day Jungle Jim is not, of itself, a flawed concept for a film, and the first half-hour that sets up the adventure is entertaining enough. There’s a decent pace and an opening scene of our hero seeing off some criminal types that later ties into the story, albeit somewhat vaguely. Unfortunately, a couple of minutes into their rescue mission, our heroes run out of road, and the film runs out of plot. An audience gains little satisfaction from scenes of people walking, and Cardona’s film has them in abundance. Occasionally, there’s a little bit of business to break them up, but these events come across as contrived and serve no real purpose other than to slowly whittle down the numbers of Santo’s group and place more of the heroic burden on the great man’s shoulders.

The action, such as it is, is relentlessly underwhelming. Santo makes like Johnny Weissmuller with the crocodile in the river and also wrestles the jaguar to two falls and a submission. However, both creatures look a good deal smaller and less animated when sharing the frame with our hero than they appeared initially. There’s also a ‘blink, and you’ll miss it’ attack by vampire bats and a traitor in the camp. Santo deals with the latter by throwing him into the river, where he immediately explodes because it’s filled with electric eels. Scientifically plausible, of course. Best of all, the villain’s hat meets the same fate, only for it to reappear a few seconds later, floating down the river behind the Man in the Silver Mask, looking completely undamaged. There’s also a wonderful moment when the group builds a defensive stockade. A couple of poles begin to slide slowly to the ground and collide gently with Cardona along their way. Ever the consummate professional, the actor-director simply pushes them back into place and uses the take anyway.

If it doesn’t seem like there’s much here for even hardened fans of the series, then there’s a minor payoff during the last ten minutes when our heroes finally reach the tribe’s headquarters. Santo puts the hurt on various warriors, of course, as everyone panics, but then he’s joined by Cardona. So we get a wonderful moment where the two are fighting off head hunters standing back to back on the sacrificial altar. Given that Cardona directed many of Santo’s earlier and subsequent cinematic adventures, it’s kind of an iconic moment. I guess. There’s also some amusement to be had watching the faces of the extras playing the tribe as they troop past the camera. Never in the history of showbusiness have movie stars looked so bored.

Not only was Cardona responsible for more than half a dozen of Santo’s films, but his filmography is littered with other examples of fantastical Mexican cinema. ‘La Llorona’ (1960) opened the floodgates, quickly followed by the trio of films starring Lorena Velázquez and Elizabeth Campbell, which included the classic ‘Wrestling Women vs The Aztec Mummy/Las luchadoras contra la momia’ (1964). Other projects followed such as ‘The Panther Woman/Las mujeres panteras’ (1967), ‘The Batwoman/La mujer murcielago’ (1967), ‘Night of the Bloody Apes/La horripilante bestia humana’ (1969) and ‘Blue Demon and Zovek in The Invasion of the Dead/Blue Demon y Zovek en La invasión de los muertos’ (1973). He also has over 100 acting credits, which stretch all the way from 1928 until his death in the late 1980s.

Not Santo’s finest hour; this is one for the die-hard fans only.

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.

El Tesoro De Moctezuma/The Treasure of Montezuma (1968)

El Tesoro de Moctezuma (1966)‘lt’s a uranium-powered, electronic video transmitter of great strength.’

A sinister criminal organisation plan to use the lost treasure of the last Aztec Emperor Montezuma to fund their diabolical schemes. A map hidden in a statue held in a museum holds the secret to its location. Unfortunately, the drawing needs to be decoded and the key to the cipher is hidden in an emerald ring which is in the possession of an Interpol agent…

Direct sequel to ‘Operacion 67’ (1967) that finds legendary silver-masked wrestler El Santo and his compadre Jorge Rivero still running around like ‘Bonds On A Budget’ tackling guns, girls and (very few) gadgets. They’re up against supervillain Miguel Gomez Checa and his evil minions again, and this time the crooks are after nothing less than Montezuma’s treasure! Rather predictably, this involves collecting a couple of MaGuffins in the time-honoured tradition of Hollywood Serials of the 1930’s and 1940’s; on this occasion an ancient statue and an emerald ring.

Heisting the first item from a museum proves to be rather easy, their night-time operation aided immeasurably by the main job of all the museum’s guards: popping outside alone for a quick smoke. A few quick shots of ‘freeze gas’ later and the statue is in the bag! Unfortunately, Checa and his main lieutenant Suki (Noé Murayama) find their second object somewhat harder to obtain, mainly because ex-employee Elizabeth Campbell passed it to agent Rivero in the first film. So, inevitably, a lot of the running time involves various goons trying to knock off Rivero and his partner El Santo.

El Tesoro de Moctezuma (1966)

‘…and don’t forget the extra garlic bread…’

The villains try to run down the legendary luchador in an underground car park using multiple vehicles until they eventually remember they have guns too! However, after letting off a few rounds, they just get bored and give up. Rivero is targeted behind the scenes of a bullfight, but he’s never in any serious danger as he can still throw a mean left after being shot in the shoulder. A few moments later, he re-joins date Amadee Chabot with just some blood on his suit and no other apparent consequences!

Talking of Chabot, Rivero meets the statuesque ex-Miss California on the street and enthusiastically runs her off the road after she repels his initial advances. Obviously, this brilliant seduction technique is a complete success and they retreat to Rivero’s bachelor pad where they start getting up close and personal in his private swimming pool. All this time, El Santo is watching them on his private TV because all agents wear magic cameras that allow them to be filmed as if by a third person! Santo does turn off his TV before they have sex, though, so it’s all fine and not creepy at all. Anyway, the next scene finds Rivero making eyes at a dusky brunette in the crowd watching El Santo fight, because…it was the 1960s, I guess. Santo ends up with this new girl’s twin sister anyway, so it’s all fine and not creepy at all. Again.

In the last 20 minutes everyone remembers that the film is supposed to be about Montezuma’s treasure, and Santo is lured to a rendezvous at the local pyramids. In a badly missed opportunity, he does not encounter our old friend, the Aztec Mummy, but just more of Checa and Murayama’s goons, who fail to kill him again with their usual ruthless inefficiency. Supervillains just can’t get a decent standard of help. Having said that, Interpol’s backroom boffin Dr Androna does get himself strangled to death (in a few seconds) but, when our heroes arrive, he has managed to leave them a last-gasp explanatory message on his tape recorder nevertheless. He even includes information about the villains’ plans that he can’t possibly have known!

El Tesoro de Moctezuma (1966)

‘All you have to do is fly the kites from the top of the tower…’

This project obviously had a slightly higher budget than most of El Santo’s cinematic adventures and the father and son directing team of Rene Cardona and Rene Cardona Jr deliver a competent, if rather uninspired, production. Proceedings are enlivened a little by the early appearance of the lovely Maura Monti as an enemy agent, but the emphasis on Rivero’s romantic escapades are likely to be a little tiresome to fans of our silver-masked hero.

It was a busy year for El Santo as he’d already flexed his ‘Indiana Jones’ muscles going after Dracula’s treasure in the cunningly titled ’Santo and Dracula’s Treasure’ (1968). Rivero was actually more of a bodybuilder then a wrestler and, although he’d played a luchador in his debut feature, he’s fairly obviously doubled in his scenes in the square ring.

Passable, if slightly anonymous, spy games for El Santo. Not the worst of his efforts by any means, but lacking the wackier elements that make some of his other adventures so memorable.

Operacion 67/Operation 67 (1967)

Operacion 67 (1967)‘As the chief of our organisation, I would like to say that our plan for world domination will proceed.’

After duplicating U.S. currency plates whilst in transit, a secret organisation plans to wreck the world economy by flooding the market with millions of new bills. A team of two top secret agents are assigned the task of foiling the scheme and taking down the villainous group once and for all…

So, who is this week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’ running around the glamorous capitals of continental Europe, tangling with guns, girls and gadgets? Why it’s our old friend, the silver-masked Mexican wrestler El Santo! Only his travel itinerary is limited to Hong Kong, the gadgets are just exploding wrist-watches and the babe action is mostly left to Jorge Rivero. Yes, our silver-masked hero has a partner, and it’s clear that he’s no sidekick, the two being equals throughout. This means that Rivero gets as much solo screen time, something which probably didn’t sit too well with fans of the great man.

Our two heroes are the best Interpol has to offer but, as the film opens, they’re just catching some rays on the sun terrace with their respective girlfriends. El Santo keeps his mask on throughout, of course, which I guess saves on sunscreen, but probably wasn’t all that comfortable. An emergency call comes in, the babes exit stage right never to be seen again, and a hip 60’s soundtrack blasts into action (just dig those cool horns, man!)

Operacion 67 (1967)

‘Don’t worry, Annette will never recognise me like this.’

In charge of the organisation’s dastardly plot is Elizabeth Campbell, keeping her minions in line via the medium of the afore-mentioned exploding timepieces. These are somehow ‘welded’ to her agents and can’t be removed (unless its convenient for the plot). In the closing stages, she sets out to seduce Rivero and falls in love with him! This development really looks as if it’s been tacked on at the last minute, maybe so more glamour shots could be included in the film’s trailer.

As per usual in these kinds of shenanigans, the villains target our heroes right from the get-go (even before they’ve been briefed on their mission) and their frequent efforts at assassination provide the clues required to break the case. After all, Santo and Rivero weren’t getting anywhere on their own. Their brilliant investigative strategy revolves around the inevitability that two of the gang will put their funny money into circulation by betting on major sporting events; specifically, the tag-team bout in which they are taking part! I have to acknowledge that this is an original plot development, if just a tad implausible.

Operacion 67 (1967)

‘You and whose army?’

Unusually for a Santo film, there’s full frontal nudity (a dancer doing a ‘geisha girl’ routine in a nightclub) and seemingly a more substantial budget than usual. Father and son directing team Rene Cardona and Rene Cardona Jr even throw in a vague homage to Hitchcock’s ‘North By Northwest’ featuring Rivero in a car, that comes with a handy bazooka.

Rivero’s handsome looks, good physique and an easy screen personality eventually landed him a plumb role opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawks’ ‘Rio Lobo’ (1970). Later, he co-starred with Charlton Heston and James Coburn in ‘The Last Hard Men’ (1976), but his star faded quickly, and, by the start of the next decade, he was top-lining Lucio Fulci’s dreary sword and sorcery adventure ‘Conquest’ (1983). Although American by birth, Campbell acted almost exclusively in Mexican cinema, finding national recognition for her role as the Golden Rubi, one of the ‘Wrestling Women’ in the popular series that also starred Lorena Velásquez. After a series of other leading roles in films of the 1960s, including ‘The Chinese Room’ (1968) for Albert Zugsmith and Mexican ‘Eurospy’ film ‘Peligro…! Mujeres en Acción’ (Danger Girls) (1969), she left the country to pursue her career in New York and dropped off the radar completely.

This is one of El Santo’s more technically accomplished and well-presented features, although it does suffer from a very poor, small-scale climax. But, for all that, it’s more engaging that some of his other efforts at the spying game.

El Santo and Rivero were paired again in direct sequel ‘El Tesoro De Moctezuma’/The Treasure of Montezuma’ (1968).

Santo Vs The Strangler/Santo Vs El Estrangulador (1965)

Santo Vs The Strangler (1965)‘But what they don’t tell you is that I habitually yell at artists.’

A notorious, masked serial killer lurks around backstage at a small variety theatre, targeting some of the performers appearing in a musical revue. Unable to apprehend him, the investigating police inspector calls in silver-masked wrestler El Santo to break the case!

Yes, it’s Santo Vs The Phantom of the Opera! Or ‘The Phantom of a Small Musical Variety Theatre’ to be completely accurate. But I guess that wouldn’t haven’t looked very good on the poster, would it? In his ninth movie outing, everyone’s favourite luchador carries on the tricky task of juggling his dual careers as Mexico’s top wrestler and crimefighter extraordinaire. And they say men can’t multi-task!

Our story opens backstage at the theatre during a performance. Artiste Odette (Mayte Carol) is only too glad her turn is over. She’s had enough, what with this ‘Strangler’ chappie on the loose and is clearing out after her final bow. Unfortunately, she goes back to her dressing room alone (as you would) and ends up croaked while the show goes on. But what’s happening? The film is 8 minutes old and we haven’t seen any wrestling! Time to sort that out and cut to the square ring to catch our silver-masked hero El Santo mid-bout against some blonde geezer in stripey shorts. But we don’t stay long. It’s quickly back to the theatre stage for a musical number with a South Sea Island vibe. It turns out to be ingénue Begona Palacios making a decent stab at Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’. But enough of that, let’s have some more wrestling! But let’s not stay too long because here comes young heartthrob Javier (Alberto Vazquez) performing Tennessee Ernie Ford’s ’16 Tons’ (mostly in English!)

Santo vs El Estrangulador (1965)

‘Seriously, you’ve got some serious dry rot up here and I haven’t even started looking for woodworm yet…’

So, with a quarter of an hour gone, we’ve had a few minutes of grappling, 3 complete musical numbers and a few lines of dialogue delivered backstage by members of the company. Oh, and that murder, of course. Mustn’t forget that. But we haven’t identified any of the main players, established their characters, or bothered with any plot. Apart from that murder, of course. Did I mention that? Around the half hour mark, hopeless copper Inspector Villegas (Carlo Lopez Moctezuma) calls in El Santo to help the solve the case, but first…more wrestling! Yes, it’s back to the auditorium for another match!

As per usual, Santo hangs out a bit in his secret lab and talks to the Inspector by TV, although the hideaway doesn’t seem all that secret, considering that The Strangler seems to have its phone number! Perhaps Santo is listed in the yellow pages under ‘Wrestling Crimefighters’? Talking of our mysterious villain, his long record of dastardly crimes is often mentioned, but no details are ever provided so the audience gets no context. His attempts to kill El Santo are a little puzzling too, as the only headway our muscular hero makes in the case are the direct result of these botched attempts on his life.

This is actually more of a ‘whodunnit’ than anything else, with plenty of suspicious characters for El Santo to throw his spangly cape at. There’s temperamental Scenery Director Marcos (Eric Del Castillo), a sinister hunchbacked porter (Guillermo Bravo Sosa) and shifty theatre manager Claudia (Emma Arvizu). Also muddying the waters is bitchy Ofelia Montesco who wants her dumb ass wrestler boyfriend (who fights as Jerry Muscles) to kill star of the show Laura (Maria Duval) so she can take her place on stage.

Santo vs El Estrangulador (1965)

‘Get lost before I call the cops.’

A very strange development is the sudden appearance halfway through the picture of annoying brat Milton Ray who pops up from the back seat of Santo’s car and wants the grappler to adopt him! It comes completely out of left field and has nothing to do with the rest of the film. What’s weirder is that Santo simply agrees to it and policeman Moctezuma goes along for the ride. No need to bother with all that pesky paperwork then!

Later on, the kid even gets to sing ‘Blame It On The Bossa Nova’ on stage at the theatre! It’s kind of baffling, until you start to suspect that a lot of the featured supporting cast were probably pop stars south of the border in the early 1960s. It’s the only thing that really makes any sense! Although perhaps that’s not a quality we should bother seeking out in Santo’s universe.

Director Rene Cardona made far worse films than this; many of them with El Santo and, to this film’s credit, the resolution to this mystery isn’t too bad. Although I do wonder how these villains always happen to have access to a secret escape passage? l mean, who builds these things for them? Perhaps they’re just handy with a spirit level and a hacksaw, I don’t know.

More joyous goofiness with El Santo. It’s an odd mixture, and some of the musical numbers are an endurance test, but it has considerably more entertainment value than some of his later adventures.

The Night of a Thousand Cats/La Noche De Los Mil Gatos (1972)

Night of A Thousand Cats (1972)‘Dorgo is a great cook, and meat is his speciality.’

A rich playboy picks up beautiful women in his helicopter. After some sessions of casual sex, rather than go through a break up, he strangles them instead, adding their heads to his collection and feeding their remains to his large number of pet cats.

Mexican exploitation filmmaker Rene Cardona Jr really was a chip off the old block. His dad had given the world delights such as ‘Night of the Bloody Apes’ (1969), ‘Wrestling Women Vs The Aztec Mummy’ (1964), ‘Neutron Traps The Invisible Killers’ (1965) and ‘Santo and Dracula’s Treasure’ (1969). But these were just the jewels in the crown of many other titles featuring monsters, wrestlers, cowboys and killers over a career lasting almost four decades. He was also responsible for the distinctly unfriendly children’s film ‘Santa Claus’ (1959), which often appears on ‘worst film of all time’ lists and rightly so. In short, Junior had a hell of a lot to live up to!

And it’s pleasing to report that he certainly gave it his best shot. Hugo (Hugo Stiglitz) is independently wealthy; his days spent in playing golf, flying around in his helicopter, playing chess with sinister butler Dorgo, looking after his cats and adding to his collection of severed heads. lt’s a hard life, to be sure. When the film opens, he’s also romancing blonde Christa Linder, who seems perfectly ready to give up everything for our humourless leading man, probably because he hardly ever removes his cool shades. Anyway, he gets her in a boat and then kills her on a deserted beach. Oh, hang on, is she the one he kills later on after he shows her his collection of pickled heads? Hmmm. l’d have to go back and watch it again to be certain.

Because that’s the entire plot of the film right there. Boy meets girl, boy and girl have sex, boy kills girl, puts her head in a jar and feeds the rest of her to his cats. Again and again. Absolutely nothing else happens. The story is not the only thing that’s mindlessly repetitive. Stiglitz’s preferred pick up method is to buzz women in his helicopter. In a film only about 80 minutes long, literally about 15 minutes of it just consists of bits and pieces of that. Now, I realise that hiring a helicopter must have been an expensive item on the production budget so they couldn’t afford not to use it, but even so! What doesn’t help these sequences is that exactly the same piece of music plays on the soundtrack every time he’s airborne. lt’s seriously tedious at best. There’s little here for gorehounds either as all the kills are relentlessly uninventive and almost bloodless.

So why is Stiglitz doing all this? Well, we do see a flashback sequence to his romance with another pretty blonde, who it seems he intends to marry. Unfortunately, Dorgo’s a bit slow on the uptake and she ends up as dead as the rest. In other words, it’s just more scenes of a woman in peril that conclude in exactly the same way as all Hugo’s other relationships, only this time he’s not the actual killer. Dorgo’s still around so obviously it wasn’t all that big a deal anyway. Unlike when he finally beats his master at chess, which turns out to be a serious tactical error on his part.

Stiglitz actually co-produced this-project, which is a bit of a puzzle considering his DOA performance. Our main heroine (sorry, prospective victim) is played by Anjanette Comer whose career nosedive would probably make for a far more interesting story than what we’re given here. She’d got her big break in Tony Richardson’s black satire ‘The Loved One’ (1965) and followed it up by starring opposite some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. There was Marlon Brando in ‘The Appaloosa’ (1966), Robert Wagner in ‘Banning’ (1967) and Anthony Quinn and Charles Bronson in ‘Guns of San Sebastian’ (1968). She’d even appeared as a guest on ‘The Johnny Carson Show’ in 1969! How on earth did she end up in this?

Night of A Thousand Cats (1972)

The judges on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ should have been more encouraging…

Cardona Jr probably reached the height of his career with cheap ‘Indiana Jones’ knock-off ‘Treasure of the Amazon’ (1985) because that had Donald Pleasance, Bradford Dillman, Stuart Whitman and John Ireland. Ok, they were all at the end of long careers by then but it was a starrier cast than he’d assembled for ‘Jaws’ wannabe ‘Tintorera…Bloody Waters’ (1977) or ‘Zindy, the Swamp-Boy’ (1973) which starred his dad and his son!

Being charitable, there’s just about enough script here for a 25 minute TV episode. The decision to just to recycle events over and over again instead of actually trying to come up with more story proves predictably disastrous.

A very boring experience indeed.