Viva los Luchadores!
Incredible as it may sound, the masked wrestler is one of the most important icons in Mexican culture, inside and outside the ring. This is particularly true in the case of Santo, Blue Demon, and Mil Mascaras, three of the most important masked wrestlers in Mexican history. All of them combined their worldly wrestling celebrity with a mythological aura, and ascended to another plane altogether. They became living legends and symbols of national pride. As someone who was born and raised in Mexico City, I can attest to that.
But, while these real life masked wrestlers often competed and gained increasing fame and championship titles, they went on to celebrity outside the ring, first as comic book characters, and then, starting in 1958, in movies. Over the past five decades there have been more than 200 movies in which these intrepid characters fight the mafia, drug dealers, space invaders, werewolves, vampires, zombies, mummies, ghosts, and even the devil himself. Though these films feature largely incoherent plots and particularly low production values, they continue to be audience favorites in Mexico.
For such an important topic in popular Mexican culture, not much has been written about it. In spite of their immense esteem, their genre bending structures and audaciously outlandish plots, even in their native Mexico these films lack the critical and academic attention that they deserve. In correcting this oversight, Robert Michael “Bobb” Cotter offers an exhaustive filmography, as well as an unpretentious history of the genre, in his book The Mexican Masked Wrestler and Monster Filmography.
One of just three books published about Mexican wrestling films, Cotter’s excels in providing the most information and the best laid out history of the genre so far. It is certainly more detailed than Nelson Carro’s El Cine de Luchadores, the undersized book published by the University of Mexico’s Cinematheque in the 1980s, and while not as lavishly illustrated as Rogelio Agrasanchez’s Mexican Horror Cinema—Posters From Mexican Fantasy Films, Cotter’s book offers a deeper analysis and criticism of the genre. Also, even though each film discussed by Cotter can easily be found in the indispensable The Mexican Filmography, 1916 through 2001 (David E. Wilt, McFarland, 2004), his list of cast and credits is more complete, and his plot synopsis are much more elaborated.
Nevertheless, at times one gets the impression that Cotter has not seen all the films discussed in his book, as quite often he quotes, word by word, the entire synopses included in the original press books. Not to blame the author, several of these films are thought to be lost since the fire that consumed the Mexican Cinematheque in the early 1980s, and most of them have never been available on any home video format. In this regard, one only wishes that Cotter had also included a list of those titles available on DVD, as well as mentioning those obscure online stores where it is possible to acquire bad quality VHS tapes of the most popular movies.
In any event, the obscurity of these movies should not detract potential readers. True highlights of Cotter’s book are the several movie stills and posters that illustrate it, even thought, quite unfortunately, they are printed in black and white. While these images succeed in giving an idea of the bizarre aesthetics of the genre, interested readers should seriously consider acquiring a copy of Agrasanchez’s book as a companion piece. This is greatly encouraged, specially since Cotter often describes posters not included in his book but available on Agrasanchez’s.
But Cotter’s book is more than a list of films and persons. Not really structured as a filmography, where each film is listed in chronological or alphabetical order, this book is divided into 10 different chapters that attempt to narrate the entire history of the genre according to its themes and performers. So, Santo, Blue Demon, and Mil Mascaras each gets their own chapter, while other chapters verse on wrestling women, less known assorted masked wrestlers, and even non-wrestling Mexican horror films. This arrangement provides a rewarding reading experience not usually associated to a filmography, as one is able to appreciate the structure and evolution of the genre.
For instance, reading Cotter’s book one comes to realize how a major reason for these wrestlers’ popularity was their chosen mask. They wore it in all their films, wrestling matches, and TV interviews. (In some of their films, they even appear sleeping in the mask.) For entire decades, they zealously kept their true name a secret, creating a mystery that still fascinates their Mexican fans. In particular, such was the association of Santo with his costume that he was buried in his silver mask, and his masked portrait is the image that adorns the plaque on his crypt. In a sense, for his many followers, Santo existed only as a legend and a cultural icon symbolized by the silver mask, completely detached of the person behind the costume.
Because these Mexican wrestlers never removed the mask, they always played themselves in the movies, and Cotter rightfully argues that this is the main difference between American and Mexican superheroes. Unlike most U.S. comic book superheroes, such as Batman and Spiderman, Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras had no secret identity per se. In their films, they never question their actions as crime fighters and never worry about being discovered. The fact that nobody knows details about their private life somehow undermines the distinction among the sports celebrities, the actors, and the fictional superheroes. In Mexican culture it does not make sense to make such distinctions.
Perhaps more surprising, after almost 50 years of masked wrestlers films, the legend of these real-life Mexican superheroes is not over, and continues to grow. Indeed, even though Santo and Blue Demon passed away in the 1980s, their respective sons became the bearers of the fathers’ masks. To date, they continue wrestling at the Mexican arenas and starring in films, advertisements and comics. Mil Mascaras, who recently celebrated his 63rd birthday, is still wrestling around the world and has recently completed Mil Mascaras vs. The Aztec Mummy, the first US production in this genre. Because of the continuing popularity of these films and its performers, as well as their impact on Mexican popular culture, Cotter’s book becomes required reading to those seriously interested in fantastic cinema.