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Yes Virginia, there is a Santo

I don’t do this for a living, you know. I used to (sort of) but nowadays I work in the Marketing Department of Leicester University. And one of the things a job like that affords a person is access to a whole lot of university events. Last year, the School of Modern Languages and the Students’ Union Latin American Society organised a season of classic Mexican films from across the decades (including Guillermo del Toro’s wonderful Cronos). I commented at the time that the one type of Mexican cinema not represented was wrestling movies.

      So you can imagine how much I screamed with delight when I opened an e-mail from LatinSoc telling me that throughout March 2012, they were teaming up with ModLang again to present more Mexican films - and the whole lot would be wrestling pictures! Or ‘lucha libre’ to use the technical term. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with lucha libre, let me explain why this is (a) relevant and (b) utterly brilliant in a way that can make your eyeballs explode.

      Wrestling was for many years massively popular down Mexico way (still is, I guess, to some extent). The most successful wrestlers were mega-stars on a level we can barely comprehend and it was only natural that this theatrical ‘sport’ should topple over into cinema, with the wrestlers playing themselves. And the greatest Mexican wrestler of all time, a man whose career extended across five - five! - decades from the 1940s to the 1980s, a man who never once showed his face in public or revealed his true identity was... el-l-l-l-l-l-l Santo-o-o-o-o!!!!!

      Santo - el enmascarado del plata! Santo - the man in the silver mask! Not the hunkiest slice of beefcake on the block, certainly not the youngest towards the end of his career. Probably, on a technical level, not the actual best wrestler in the world (I know it’s all an act but there’s still a theatrical skill to it). Certainly not the best actor in the world, or even in Mexico. But far and away the most popular wrestler, the most famous human being, in the country. Imagine a mash-up between Johnny Depp, David Beckham and Shirley ‘Big Daddy’ Crabtree but more popular than all three combined. With a face no-one ever saw and a physique that would be very much on the borderline of any BMI analysis.

      Okay, but what has this got to do with sci-fi, fantasy and horror, Mike? You see, Mexican wrestling films aren’t just about wrestling, they also require a plot, and a plot needs a villain, a threat. And what better threat can there be than a monster? Or a mad scientist? Or an alien? Or occasionally gangsters but they were usually mixed up in some way with monsters or aliens. Mexico has a long history of horror movies, and for many years had one of the busiest domestic film industries in the world, but it was when the wrestlers faced the monsters that something magical happened. A combination of astoundingly cheap special effects and production design, poker-faced acting, loopy plots and shoehorned-in grappling bouts made the lucha libre films a culturally unique, utterly unforgettable genre. And there were hundreds of these things! Santo himself made at least 50 pictures.

      None of these movies were ever shown in British cinemas, although a few were picked up by enterprising US distributors and dubbed into English for kiddie matinees in the States. They did however play right across Latin America and in some European territories. The Turks loved them for some reason.

      We kicked off the Leicester University Mexploitation Season with Santo vs the Vampire Women, a relatively early outing from 1962. Astoundingly, it takes about half an hour for Santo to even appear in this one. There are some hideous old female vampires in stood-up coffins in a cave under a castle who magically become sexy young vamps. They have a queen and she has some sort of heiress who will inherit her position as queen of the vampires, or something. But there is another possible heiress who threatens this one. Except she’s not a vampire. She’s Santo’s girlfriend, daughter of a brilliant scientist.

      And eventually, after lots of stuff with the vampire women and lots of stuff with the scientist and his daughter, eventually the Prof uses a videophone to try and contact Santo, who can’t actually come to the phone right now as he is in the middle of a wrestling bout. This videophone, with its wall-mounted screen and contra-rotating aerials, will crop up repeatedly in the films, used by a succession of scientist fathers of Santo girlfriends. The Mexican producers were thrifty and they never let a good prop go to waste. Or a good set. Most of the villains in these films live in castles but do all their dirty work in a network of caves because cave sets are easier to build than cellars.

      There is also a strong Universal influence in these early black and white lucha films, with lots of Lugosi-style eye close-ups. Though this film was made at the start of the swinging sixties, it was only 14 years after Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein so the Universal monster aesthetic was still pretty current. Later films would have more of a Hammer vibe. Anyway, Santo finishes off the vampire women by burning them, thrusting his flaming torch into each coffin in turn in a surprisingly nasty finale. This was an early entry in the lucha genre, and clearly the rules were not set yet.

      Next up was an early colour entry in the series, 1971’sSanto vs Frankenstein’s Daughter. This one is a bit more way out, although it has the same video phone and possibly the same cave set, this time turned into a lab by Dr F’s offspring. She has kept herself alive using a serum made from the blood of the most amazing man in the world - el Santo! Now she needs more blood so she kidnaps his current girlfriend, forcing the masked one to come looking for her. Of course she has daddy’s old monster ready to help her, a passable imitation of the Universal design but not so close that lawyers might come calling.

      Of particular interest is her other creation, a sort of Neanderthal ape-man whom Mexploitation buffs will recognise as the human-gorilla monster from Night of the Bloody Apes. That notorious non-Santo lucha film ironically has had more and better releases in the UK than any other, by virtue of the early 1980s VHS version being slapped onto the notorious video nasties list. La Frankenstein’s ape-creature isn’t explicitly the same one as seen in Night of the Bloody Apes - that would make no kind of narrative sense! - but it’s the same actor (Gerardo Zepeda) in the same make-up.

      We were supposed to watch Santo and Blue Demon vs Draculaand the Wolf Man in the third week but the disc wouldn’t play so instead we watched Santo and Blue Demon vs the Monsters which, amazingly, is a completely different movie! Gerardo Zepeda is in this too, inside a goofy-looking Cyclops costume which somehow also manages to be a Mexican take on the Creature from the Black Lagoon. This 1970 entry in the series is a real low point (or high point, depending on how ironic you’re feeling). Santo has yet another girlfriend and her uncle is planning to take over the world (somehow) using his own Monster Squad.

      There’s a vampire: sadly not Latin bloodsucker star German Robles but just some dude in a top hat and cape with joke-shop teeth and inexplicably pointed ears. There’s a wolfman who doesn’t look anything like a wolf because the producers had this brilliant thought: "Hey Carlos! Instead of spending money paying a make-up artist to stick hair all over the face of an actor, why don’t we just hire a guy with a beard?” Seriously, it’s just a dark-skinned old coot with a bushy beard and some more of those joke-shop fangs. The only way we know he’s not a vampire is because he growls and doesn’t wear a cape.

      There’s the world’s skinniest, campest mummy. There’s a couple of vampire women. There’s Frankenstein’s monster and this time there’s no messing about. Copyright lawyers be damned: this one looks exactly like the Universal version. If you’re an obsessive Frankenstein-spotter, you can see that the design is specifically modelled on Glenn Strange in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. And the reason it looks so much like Glenn Strange is because this is a Glenn Strange mask, as made and sold by the legendary Don Post Studios! That’s right: "Hey Carlos, another idea! Instead of paying a make-up artist yada yada yada, who don’t we just buy one of these Don Post Frankenstein masks advertised on the back cover of Famous Monsters of Filmland?”

      The cyclops from the black lagoon (he does actually swim under water at one point) was an alien costume left over from a sci-fi movie called Ship of Monsters and there is a second alien in the lab scenes of this film, a weird-looking thing with an enormous, exposed brain. It’s played by a child actor and does nothing except stand around adding to the weirdness. The actual plot involves Santo’s wrestling pal Blue Demon being kidnapped and replaced with a clone or robot or something. Ah, who cares?

      Of all the Santo films, probably the best-known, certainly until recently, was Santo in the Wax Museum which was hawked around US theatres as Samson in the Wax Museum and even played some US TV stations. The reason for its atypical North-of-the-border success was because this is one of the most accessible Santo films, with a story that almost makes sense and no random, stupid monsters. It’s the usual wax museum plot about people being turned into exhibits but this particular nutter has a small army of beast-men in his underground lair, apparently inspired by Dr Moreau’s experiments in Island of Lost Souls. There’s a Frankenstein monster, for completists, but it is just a dummy and never comes to life or anything. Made in 1963 before the craziness set in, Santo in the Wax Museum plays almost like a film noir. Even the wrestling bouts are narratively coherent rather than just bolted on. And there’s no videophone.

      Finally we got to see Santo and Blue Demon vs Dracula and the Wolf Man, from 1972. This a formulaic, cheapo affair about the two monsters trying to take over the world or somesuch. Admittedly the Wolf Man actually looks like a wolf man and not just some hairy hobo with big teeth, but the production is otherwise threadbare. Of particular note is that by this stage absolutely no attempt whatsoever was made to incorporate the wrestling into the story. The film just starts abruptly with Santo battling an opponent for three full rounds. And whereas earlier films shot in real arenas with audiences full of extras, here there is no audience, not even stock footage.

      There is a second arbitrary bout, featuring Blue Demon, halfway through the film. Then after the story finishes, we jump back to the ring for a final tag-team match of Santo and Blue Demon vs their previous two opponents. It’s boring, lazy film-making, a mockery of what these films should be about, the lucha equivalent of Carry On Emmanuelle. But ironically progress had been made in one area. When Santo battled the vampire women and Frankenstein’s daughter, those ladies could only look gorgeous and issue commands to hulking henchmen, while Santo’s girlfriends were a succession of damsels in distress. Women in those movies were purely for show: props with cleavage. However, the arguable highlight of S&BD vs D&WM is a scene where the two wrestlers are trapped in a warehouse by Dracula’s goons but rescued by Santo’s girlfriend’s sister who commandeers a fork-lift truck. Feminism finally reaches Mexican cinema!

      And that was that. Five Fridays, five films, five fantastic slices of Latin weirdness. Friday nights don’t get any better than that, do they?



MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.