Monday, October 12, 2015

Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro

Hollywood's Hispanic Heritage Blogathon es un evento dedicado a celebrar los logros de los latinos en la industria del cine a lo largo de la historia, organizado por Once Upon a Screen. Para obtener una lista de bloggers que participan, por favor visite los enlaces en cualquier sitio.

Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro (AKA Samson vs. the Vampire Women)
YouTube viewing

Long before the Rock, Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura or Rowdy Roddy Piper, there was El Santo - a professional wrestling legend from Mexico who parlayed his success in the ring into the movies and other media, as part of a career that spanned almost five decades. Was he any good as an actor? Nope - but this is one of those cases where acting ability was kinda beside the point.

A brief history of Mexican wrestling: Lucha libre ("free wrestling"), as it's known in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, dates back to the mid-19th century, but the modern version began in 1933 with the founding of the Mexican Wrestling Enterprise (Empresa Mundial de Lucha Libre), the first national league for wrestlers, or luchadores, in Mexico. It grew bigger in the fifties thanks to television. Los luchadores became known for their aerial acrobatics and more sophisticated holds. Faces and heels - good guys and bad guys - are known, respectively, as tecnicos and rudos.

El Santo was born Rodolfo Guzman Huerta in 1917 and started wrestling professionally in the mid-30s. He first donned his trademark silver mask in 1942 as part of a team of wrestlers all dressed in silver, at the Arena Mexico in Mexico City. He won an eight-man battle royal, and his career took off from there. Masks, by the way, are a big deal in Mexican wrestling, evocative as they are of the ancient Aztecs. Legend has it that El Santo didn't even remove his mask in private, though he did remove it on Mexican television in 1984, a year after his retirement. He died a week later (and yes, he was buried with it, too). Make of that what you will.

Within the Mexican Wrestling Enterprise, El Santo was a four-time middleweight champion and a two-time welterweight champ, as well as a two-time tag team champion with Rayo de Jalisco. He also won the light heavyweight championship. Within the National Wrestling Alliance, he was a two-time world welterweight champ as well as a world middleweight champ. His son Jorge, one of eleven children, has carried on his father's tradition and wrestles as - what else? - El Hijo del Santo. That's "Son of Santo" to you.

In 1952, the same year that a comic book featuring El Santo debuted in Mexico - and would continue for the next 35 years - a movie inspired by the luchador was made called The Man in the Silver Mask. This should've been his film debut, but he backed out of it, thinking that it would bomb. Six years later, El Santo was enticed into giving movies a chance, and he'd go on to make over fifty of them. Like his comics incarnation, he'd fight all manner of bizarre SF/fantasy/horror characters, and his fans ate it up like candy.

The vampires do this arm-spreading thing throughout the whole movie.
Maybe it's meant to justify their capes?

Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro is one of his best-known films outside of Mexico. It was one of a number of his films that were imported to America by producer K. Gordon Murray. In dubbing the film into English, "Santo" became "Samson." Decades later, it would find new life on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I understand that El Santo was the Elvis of Mexican wrestling, and he was revered as an cultural icon for generations, but as a movie, this is horrible. It's tediously slow, and there's not as much actual Santo/vampire fighting action as I was expecting. in fact, there are just as many scenes of Santo in the ring fighting regular luchadores - though he does fight a vampire in a ring thinking he's a regular opponent, which was cool.

The plot, such as it is, involves the queen of the vampire women and her pals trying to nab the young woman who's supposed to be her heir. Santo has some manner of Batman-like hideout with computers and stuff, and the heroine's professor father has his own secret direct line to Santo, video screen and all, like he was Commissioner Gordon. No one questions Santo's ability to fight vampires without powers or weapons of any kind, and indeed, he's only able to avoid getting killed through pure chance. Santo wrestles and fights bad guys simultaneously, it seems; when the heroine gets kidnapped, everyone's searching for her, but is Santo on the case? Hell no, he's got a match to wrestle in first! Some hero!

But Mexicans do regard him as a hero, one whose identity in the ring carried over into his personal life, to the point where the two were inseparable. In this, I'm reminded somewhat of Mr. T, during his heyday in the 80s, except there was a bit of disconnect between his tough-guy roles in film and TV and his real-life "persona," which was more family-friendly. This is the same guy who had his own Saturday-morning cartoon and breakfast cereal, after all. Santo was different because there was no disconnect, as this article about El Santo makes clear:
...Masked wrestlers are not all that uncommon in American wrestling. There have been a host of them over the years. But when they leave the arena after the matches are over, the slip out of their character and assume their real identities. 
As soon as Huerta put on that silver mask his life literally changed. He was no longer Rudolfo Guzman Huerta; he was El Santo.  
"He didn't have a secret identity. He was always El Santo," offers David Wilt, a Santo expert who runs the Santo, el Enmascarado de Plata website, celebrating the career of El Santo. "He wasn't just a fictional character, he was an actual person. He wasn't like George Reeves playing Superman and making a few public appearances, he was actually El Santo." 
Not to be a Debbie Downer or anything, but I can't help but be a tiny bit put off at the notion of a guy in a mask and tights who wrestles people being raised to such lofty heights - it's not like he developed the cure for cancer or saved lives in a war or anything like that (I've talked about idol worship of athletes before). I'll concede that there may be cultural nuances in the adoration of El Santo that I'm not aware of - Mexico, after all, is not America, by any means. Still, even if I can't get behind the idea of El Santo as an action movie hero, I can appreciate the impact he had on pro wrestling, which extended beyond both his time and place and still resonates today.

Your Humble Narrator as a luchador. Sort of.
Nosotros amamos Ricardo Montalban


  1. OK. This is a fantastic entry that's both upsetting and insightful. Upsetting simply because my older brother was prone to usurping the only TV in our house to watch Lucha Libre. I was never a fan. Insightful because I had no idea El Santo was so revered or that his multi-media presence was so expansive. THANK YOU, Rich for submitting this to the blogathon - a fantastic choice! Few are as invested as you even becoming a luchador. You look like you'd have kicked major butt, by the way.


  2. I think the only way I'd ever even get into a ring is by wearing a mask! But thanks for the vote of confidence.

    I watched wrestling as a kid. I've seen a few Wrestlemanias over the past few years, but my interest has waned. I knew nothing about Mexican wrestling prior to this, so this post was a revelation for me too. I wonder how Santo would stack up against today's wrestlers?

  3. Really interesting and, in an odd way, timely. I recently read a short story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine that had the background of the post WW2 wrestling game and, for the first time, started wondering about those elaborate, hockey goalie type masks. Now that you have enlightened me they can bring on those crossword clues and Jeopardy! answers.

  4. From what I've seen in preparing this post, today's masks have gotten way more complex and elaborate. Santo's was pretty basic by comparison.

  5. My film buffs group watched a Santo movie ages ago...I can't remember which one. It was a fun watch, only because we gave it he MST3K treatment ourselves, as we do when we knowingly watch bad movies. :)

    That picture is priceless!

  6. I'd imagine watching any Santo movie would inevitably lead to the MST3K treatment.

  7. I can totally understand a guy in mask and tights being so adored—look at the fascination with superheroes. We all need our escapes! I think we can be fans of pop culture heroes and ALSO respect people who save lives. Thanks for this look at El Santo. I think the fan base surrounding the character is as interesting as he is.

  8. I think so too. It's just a matter of degree.

    I thought about talking a bit more about Santo's fans, but I didn't wanna get too far off track. That might make for a different post.


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