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Combining his worldly wrestling celebrity with a mythological aura, Santo ascended to another plane altogether. He was that rare entity, a living legend. Beloved throughout Latin America by the time of his death, he was born in Mexico in 1917, Rodolfo Guzman-Huerta. By 1942, after several years of working as a professional wrestler, he adopted the moniker Santo (“The Saint”) and the guise for which he is so well known: a silver mask.
In 1943, he won both the Mexican welterweight and middleweight wrestling titles. But, while Santo continued to compete and gained increasing fame as a wrestler, he went on to celebrity outside the ring, first as a comic book character, and then, starting in 1958, in movies. Santo’s film career spanned 24 years; he starred in more than 50 movies, in which he fought 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.
Arguably, a major reason for Santo’s popularity was his mask. He wore it in all his films, wrestling matches, and TV interviews. (In some of his films, he even appears sleeping in the mask.) For more than 42 years, he zealously kept his true name a secret, creating a mystery that lasted until his death in 1984. Such was the association of Santo with his costume that he was buried in his silver mask.
Because he never removed the mask, Santo always played himself in his movies. Unlike most U.S. comic book superheroes, such as Batman and Spiderman, Santo had no secret identity per se: he was Santo, always. In his films, he never questions his actions as a crime fighter and never worries about being discovered. The fact that nobody knew details about his private life undermined the distinctions among Santo the sports celebrity, Santo the actor, and Santo the fictional superhero. In Mexican culture, they were all, and still are, the same.
Although Santo is a well-known figure among horror and cult film fans worldwide, most of his movies have never been officially released in the U.S. Fortunately, Rise Above Entertainment has recently mended this oversight by offering some of his films on DVD. The first batch includes Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dracula & the Wolfman (1971), Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein (1973), and Santo: Infraterrestre (2001). If they’re not the performers’ best films, they effectively represent the trajectory of the image.
Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dracula & the Wolfman starts as many Santo films do, with a wrestling match between Santo and a rude opponent. It’s filmed simply, a few long shots taken from a single camera outside the ring, similar to the view one would have from a front seat at the arena. As wrestling was banned from Mexican TV, these sequences were a highlight for Santo aficionados, and before film’s end, two more matches are presented in their entirety. Although these time-consuming scenes serve no purpose for the plot, one cannot ignore their importance. They remind the audience that Santo on screen is the same as Santo in the wrestling ring.
The film’s plot involves Eric (Wally Barron), caretaker of the remains of Dracula (Aldo Monti) and the Wolfman (Agustin Martinez Solares). He’s been waiting for the right astrological moment to reanimate his masters. However, the resurrection incantation requires the blood of a descendent of the Magician Cristaldi, who killed both Transylvanian creatures 400 years ago with a mystical dagger. Therefore, Eric kidnaps Professor Cristaldi (Jorge Mondragon), who happens to be the uncle of Lina (Nubia Marti), Santo’s love interest. When the local police are unable to find the doctor, Santo asks for assistance from his longtime friend and crime-fighting buddy, Blue Demon (another famous Mexican masked wrestler, played by Alejandro Cruz). Together they fight Eric and his henchmen, an assortment of vampires and werewolves, and, eventually, the Transylvanian monsters.
Likewise, Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein starts with the obligatory wrestling match, then introduces Dr. Irwin Frankenstein (Jorge Russek), a descendent of the notorious monster-maker who not only has mastered the art of cadaver reanimation, but has also found a youth serum. He appears in a modern laboratory, with two young ladies asleep on operating tables in front of him: his ultimate goal is not to create a monster, but to resurrect his wife, who died of brain cancer and now needs a new brain. The operation fails and both girls die. In a rage, Dr. Frankenstein reanimates the two dead bodies and sends them to kill their corresponding relatives.
In a moment of true inspiration, Dr. Frankenstein realizes that he needs the brain of Santo in order to succeed with his experiments. In order to set a trap for the silver-masked hero, Dr. Frankenstein sends his henchmen to kidnap Irma (Sasha Montenegro), Santo’s current love interest. Needlessly to say, Santo recruits Blue Demon to help him find Irma and stop Dr. Frankenstein’s reign of horror. This is not an easy task, as Dr. Frankenstein has a muscular zombie at his service.
Both these plots are plainly absurd, and both films offer enough goofs and narrative holes to please any Ed Wood fan, which may explain why, to this day, they remain so entertaining. At the same time, Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dracula & the Wolfman and Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein are premised on very particular class politics. This makes sense, as Mexican wrestling, much like the WWE, commonly appeals to working and underclasses. The mighty Santo may dress fancy and drive a nice car, but he remains a member of the working class. His body is his means of labor and suffers from having a work schedule. In Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein, Santo complaints to Blue Demon of having to go to the arena while they are still trying to find his girlfriend. Blue Demon replies, “We don’t have a choice.”
One can also argue that, at the metaphoric level, Count Dracula symbolizes aristocracy. Similarly, the prominent and wealthy Dr. Frankenstein epitomizes bourgeois culture, while the ineffective police force stands for the government. Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dracula & the Wolfman and Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein thus portray class conflict, with the underdog winning.
While Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dracula & the Wolfman and Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein speak to an early 1970s Mexican society, Santo: Infraterrestre reflects a “new millennial” culture. Sort of. Seriously abusing what low-budget digital effects might be able to accomplish, the mise-en-scène of Santo: Infraterrestre resembles a videogame environment. Perhaps more interestingly, Santo: Infraterrestre alludes to replication and cloning through the image of Santo, as the film does not feature the original Santo, but his son, who took over the silver mask shortly before his father’s death. If Santo is the silver mask, and the silver mask is Santo, then father and son become one and the same.
In Santo: Infraterrestre, as usual, a series of mysterious disappearances forces the police to request Santo’s assistance. Eventually, he discovers that a race of extraterrestrial creatures have been living in underground caverns since thousands of years ago. It may appear that Santo: Infraterrestre is more original than the previous Santo films, but this is not the case. If Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dracula & the Wolfman and Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein borrowed from the Universal monster classics, more recent films inspire Santo: Infraterrestre. For example, some of the underground aliens look like Arnold in Terminator, while the postmodernist city seems to have dropped out of Blade Runner.
Although Santo: Infraterrestre is as bizarre and disjointed as Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dracula & the Wolfman and Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein, in a very subtle way it feels as a less satisfying film. In a departure from the original films, the new Santo does not win the opening wrestling match, and later, he ponders why he was not able to defeat his opponent (who is eventually revealed to be an extraterrestrial). The new Santo appears to be more self-aware and self-conscious about the legend he represents. Maybe the filmmakers thought that it was a good idea to give Santo an extra layer of psychological complexity. However, part of Santo’s larger than life reputation resided in the fact that his personality was as ambiguous as his true identity.
A more dramatic change involves the new Santo’s reliance on technology. While the original Santo used only a few gadgets to fight crime, this one has a flying BMW and even his own communications satellite. The metaphorical class conflicts so prominent in the old Santo films are completely shifted in Santo: Infraterrestre. Here, he’s more like a capitalist entrepreneur, while the underground dwellers symbolize the oppressed working class. This puts him on the wrong side.
Still, after more than 60 years, the legend of Santo and his silver mask continues. Although a few details of Santo’s private life have come to light since his death, most of his followers prefer to think of him as the mysterious crime-fighting superhero he portrayed in the movies. These DVD releases allow old fans to revisit Mexican classics, and invite new viewers to see how grand a fusion of fact and fiction can be.