A MEXPLOITATION PRIMER
Everything You Always Wanted To Know About MEX, But Were Too Afraid To Ask….
By STEVE FENTONE
When our illustrious editor Michael very kindly invited yours truly to contribute an “introduction” (phew!) to the obscure horror/action/exploitation films of Mexico, I was, needless to say, flattered; yet at the same time more than a little stumped as to the best approach to take for this intimidating task. I am assured that Mexican “trash” cinema is a virtually non-existent commodity in Australia, not too surprisingly. So,just WHERE to start? If I was to offhandedly name-drop such disparate Mexploitationeers as director Raphael Baledon (who?), actor Jorge Rivero (say wha-?) or wrestler Huracan Ramirez (huh?), chances are the vast majority of citizens of the Great Down Under wouldn’t know what (or, more specifically WHO) the flying fuck I was babbling about. Even if I was to mention El Santo, I would bet that to most of you he represents little more than a familiar but exotically-elusive character probably picked up third-hand from a reference book somewhere (the Incredibly Strange Films volume perchance?). Ditto with filmmaking senors Rene Cardona Sr. and his son. Sure, a lot of you are probably more than a little familiar with their names, but how many of their actual films can you claim to have seen? Similarly, I could rattle off movie titles like LA HORRIPLANTE BESTIA HUMANA (a.k.a. NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES) or GUYANA, CULT OF THE DAMNED (1979), both of which you may have heard of. However, I wager such lost Aztec relics as LA MANSION DE LA SIETE MOMIAS (translation: THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN MUMMIES) and LAS VAMPIROS DE COYOACAN (tr: THE VAMPIRES OF COYCOACAN) would elicit a decidedly alienated response.
In order for this shapeless jumble of Latin names to ultimately mean anything other than maddeningly unattainable statistics, they must be placed into a context that might give you blissfully virginal readers some cohesive orientation: a solid foundation from which to strike out with sturdied Anglo Saxon heart and boldly challenge the unfamiliar and mind-bogglingly undocumented parameters of Mexploitation. Call it a kind of “anthropological expedition”, if you will.
Taking into account the major dearth of such films in Australia (you poor deprived children!), I decided that my introductory kindergarten primer should serve as exactly that: an easy-to-read general guideline to give the closet Mexcentric in all of you some tangible starting point. But Hell, I ain’t no major Mexpert! A couple of lean years back, I barely knew diddly about the damn topic. It’s easy to learn though if you’ve a mind to: not to mention a desire to acquire , if necessary, fifth-generation of bootlegs of sometimes rightfully forgotten movies without benefit of your friendly neighbourhood video outlet. Chances are they DON’T stock CAPULINA CONTRA LAS MOMIAS/tr. CAPULIA VS. THE MUMMIES (1972) right alongside their multiple copies of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. Therefore a couple of reliable tape trading/purchasing connections in the old U.S of A along with access to a multi-system VCR could be definite keys to getting the most out of the following. The biggest prerequisite though is a high schlock threshold. Oh. And of course — one heck of a sense of humour will often come in mighty handy too.
I decided that probably the best way in which to break down the multi-faceted term “Mexploitation” would be to group analogous films under blanket headings and simply label these categories with a convenient catchphrase to sum up their general content. Under each heading I will then provide examples of the subgenre in question. Also, in order to casually familiarize readers with certain Mexican film personalities, I shall dutifully include the names of key folks who have been prolific within a given subgenre. If several of said personalities have been known to cross over from one subgenre to another (most “programmer” directors/actors have dabbled in nearly all popular forms of film), I may repeat their names wherever it be deemed necessary. I DON’T really think it’s necessary for me to rattle on about these somewhat trite details any further, so I’ll quit this pedantic foreword and plunge directly into the most immediately recognizable and culturally unique category of them all …..
MASKED MEX MATMEN MOVIES
Sure. Mexico’s pretty well renowned for periodically nurturing important/socially relevant “Art Film” makers like Luis Bunuel (SIMON DEL DESIERTO/SIMON OF THE DESERT, (1964), Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez (RIO ESCONDIDO/HIDDEN RIVER, 1947), Alejandro Jodorowsky (LA MONTANA SAGRADA/THE HOLY MONTAIN, 1972) and Arturo Ripstein (EL CASTILLO DE LA PUREZA/CASTLE OF PURITY, 1972). And these filmmakers are all well and good for the learned film scholar highbrow cerebros. But me, though I can appreciate an “artistic” vision as much as the next gringo, I always tend to associate the morally simplistic and often technically retard luchador (“wrestler”) films with REALLY epitomizing the common earthy spirit of Mexico on celluloid.
The Mexican grappler film genre proper began in1952 with Chano Urueta’s LA BESTIA MAGNIFICA/THE MAGNIFICENT BEAST (subtitled LUCHA LIBRE, which loosely translates as “freedom fight”). Though LA BESTIA only features non–masked ring combatants, it did co-star such future masked wrestling/Mexploitation familiars as Croix Alvarado and wolf Ruvinskis (who, besides playing Brando’s Kowalski role in a Mex stage version of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, became the masked hero Neutron for half a dozen films. BESTIA’S director Urueta went on to even better things with the well-loved Mexi-masterpiece THE BRAINIAC (see also TACO TERRORS category).
Derived from similar pulp/folk origins as BATMAN, but pumped through Mexico’s own native brand of ferocious hero worship, a subsequent spate of enmascarado (“masked man”) actioners emphasized dynamic — but often incredibly sloppy and uncoordinated — mano a mano ring action. The film’s derivative but often entertaining plots invariably embraced retro-fitted American monster/gangster/melodrama movie archetypes from the 30s to the 50s.
By far the most famous and universally loved masked luchador to ever hold Mexico’s collective consciousness in an unbreakable headlock was/is Santo, El Enmascarado de Plata, “The Man In The Silver Mask”, whose mystique attracted rabid fan worship would put the WWF’s Hulk “The Anabolic Steroid” to shame.
Exactly when El Santo made his filmic debut is open to debate. Some say it was in 1952 in Rene Cardona Sr’s EL ENMASCARADO DE PLATE/THE MAN IN THE SILVER MASK. Seeing as this film’s handle utilized Santo’s usual professional sub-title, it is not too surprising that he is identified with the movie. However, it starred, not the S-man, but a masked luchador known as El Medico Asesino (tr: The killer Doctor), not to be confused with the villainous physician of Cardona’s LAS LUCHADORAS CONTRA EL MEDICO ASESINO/THE WRESTLING WOMEN VS THE KILLER DOCTOR, 1962). Today there still exists a real life — or as “real” as it gets in lucha libre anyway — wrestler bearing that name. He also bears more than a passing resemblance to El Santo in his choice of fashion accessories, and has also sired a “junior” reincarnation to perpetuate his noble trade. Many (until recently) also believed Santo was featured in Fernando Mendez’s seminal horror/wrestling film LADRON DE CADAVARES/THE CORPSE SNATCHERS, in 1956, but this has been disproved. I contend that Santo’s movie debut came in a pair of 1958 Cuban/Mexican co-productions, CEREBRO DEL MAL/BRAIN OF EVIL and HOMBRES INFERNALES/THE MEN FROM HELL. These constitute two of El Santo’s WORST films ever, but they were a start, I suppose. Contrary to Jonathan Ross’s assertion in the otherwise excellent British Channel 4 documentary SON OF THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILM SHOW, Santo did not appear in “over 150 films”. He actually was seen in just over fifty, by my count 52 or 53, but definitely fewer that sixty. Many of these films truly personify the character and charm of raw MEXPLOITATION at its finest.
In both reel and real life, El Santo was portrayed/lived to the hilt by one Rodolfo Guzman Huerta. His true mortal identity was concealed for most of his professional and private life by a condom-tight silver full-head mask. This accessory became Santo’s eternal trademark, and he was never seen anywhere, anytime without it securely in place, although for the duration of Santo’s tenure in the public spotlight, various sneaky photographers and spoilsport myth-murderers sought to unmask him. But, in the world of lucha libre, unmasking of an “anonymous” wrestler invariably sounds the death knell for his ring career, not to mention amounting to outright symbolic castration as far as his basic machismo is concerned.
Illustrating his degree of personal devotion to his pseudo-religious aura, and in deference to his fiercely guarded anonymity, El Santo—in the best obsessive Lugosian tradition—was entombed with his mask still firmly attached after his much-mourned death via cardiac arrest in 1984. The would-be mythic aspirations of El Santo have been emulated by countless debatably equal and lesser luchadores, for instance, Mil Mascaras (Thousand Masks), El Demonio Azul (Blue Demon), El Rayo de Jalisco (Jalisco’s Lightning),and even Huerta’s own son (you guessed it muchachos: senor Rodolfo Guzman Huerta Jr.), under the assumed ring pseudonym of El Hijo de Santo (The Son of Santo, natch).
The otherwise deary turkey, CHANOC Y EL HIJO DE SANTO CONTRA LOS VAMPIROS ASESINOS/CHANOC AND THE SON OF SANTOS VS THE MURDERING VAMPIRES, 1981, featured the senior senor Santo, in his penultimate role, “handing down” the hallowed silver mask to Santo Jr. This effectively echoes the opening scene to MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957) wherein James Cagney as Lon Chaney passes on his fabled make-up kit to his son with all the sombre ritual of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments atop Mount Sinai. Keeping it in the family, the first born sons of many other long-established mat and/or movie luchadores have proven that the masked wrestling profession is apparently hereditary, being passed down from sire to sibling as readily as doctors and lawyers traditionally perpetuate their own particular “trades” through familial lineage….Hijo de Hurucan Ramirez (Son of Hurricane Ramirez), Blue Demon Jr., Rayo de Jalisco Jr. ( Jalisco’s Lightening Jr.) El Angel Blanco Jr. (White Angel Jr.), Hijo de Black Shadow (Son of Black Shadow), El Mdico Asesino Jr., Gran Markus Jr. and El Principe Odin Jr. (Prince Odin Jr.) are only some of the heir enmascarados carrying on their honourable bloodline traditions.
Within the wrestling scene (if not exactly the movie industry), Santo Junior has now ascended to heights of international Mexican/Central/South American popularity which rival those even of his father. To many, he IS el Santo reincarnate (or maybe He just never really went away….?), and is often identified by adoring idolators with zero differentiation between the Santonian son and his genetic padre. Son of Santo’s sole other lamentable filmic foray to date encompasses the “action” debacle, EL HIJO DE SANTO EN LA FRONTERA SIN LEY/THE SON OF SANTO IN THE LAWLESS FRONTIER (1983, co-starring Mil Mascaras). Sadly, FRONTERA amounts to one of the very WORST masked wrestler movies ever made. It proves that, while Junior might assume his father’s wrestling success, he sure as shit had no comparable FILM career to boast of.
There was a time when wrestling hero action adventures were among the hottest ticket-sellers in all of low budget Mexcinema. The genre finally petered out in the early 80s with such campy wonders as El Santo (sr.)’s swansong cinematic sortie. This shot back-to-back double bill was the mirror image LA FURIA DE LOS KARATECAS/THE FURY OF THE KARATE KILLERS and its companion piece/Siamese twin, EL PUNO DE LA MUERTE/THE FIST OF DEATH (both 1981). These twin mountains of pure cheese and thick guacamole co-starred the rather eye-catching Grace Renat as matching Good/Evil identical sisters. Often prone to gyrating suggestively and constantly threatening to spill from her virtually non-existent “harem-girl” attire during umpteen strictly gratuitous buxotic boogie sequences, needless to say the double-double DD attributes of these bookend Ms. Renat’s success in upstaging even Santo (who, though ailing, was admittedly in mighty chipper shape for a guy in his early 60s). FURIA AND PUNO were a last-ditch effort to revitalize the waning luchador movie trend, injecting both “topical” cheap emulations of Indiana Jones clones and attempts at reaching a wider martial arts audience with token karate action laid alongside the more traditional wrestling. These two chintzy films provide a fitting finale to the Mex-centric, Mex-emplary, Mex-otic era of Mexican wrestling cinema!
As a whole, there really are no discernible divisions between assorted relative media in the realm of Mex, at least as far as the mass lucha libre religion is concerned. In the cases of Santo, Blue Demon and others, films, comic-books, folklore and the ring are all as one. There is no discriminating between formats within the collective mind’s eye of the general public. Here, make-believe fuses with reality, mutates, blurs into fantasy and becomes TRUTH. In this naïve but necessary culture/social climate, muscley masked matmen remain potent iconic heroes: in Mexico, a beefy working-class everyman may don an enigmatic full-face mask, assume the colourful alias El Superbarrio (a real-life, self-appointed champion of justice), then stride into city hall, proclaiming himself a makeshift politician-cum-defender representing the interests of the Common People….all this and still find time to hit the squared circle for symbolic grapple with the overwhelming forces of adversity( i.e.—the social blight of domestic poverty and homelessness). All in a day’s work for a bona fide superhero one would suppose.
Other wrestlers adopt less of a rasslin’ Robin Hood persona, preferring a mock-ecclesiastical pose, mostly out of wishful thinking one gets the distinct impression. Mascara Sagrada (“Sacred Mask”) is a current popular luchador whose aka more audaciously invokes the holier-than-thou godly connotations lurking behind El Santo’s mask and title (his name literally translates to “The Saint”; nil relation to Leslie Charteris’ creation, Simon Templar). Within the Mex culture, a 43 year old San Juan Roman Catholic priest named Father Sergio Gutierrez can adopt the rather bombastic alter-ego and obligatory golden mask of Fray Tormenta (“Brother Storm”). He may then leap into the ring to bodyslam “evil” opponents into the turnbuckle, not to mention raise money for the orphans of Xematta, Mexico, all in the name of God. After some dozen years in his capacity as devout Christian champion, Fray Tormenta has recently suffered accusations of alleged child molestation at his orphanage (charges of which he is reputedly innocent). Apparently, French director Eric Duret based his 1991 film L’HOMME AU MASQUE D’OR/THE MAN IN THE GOLDEN MASK upon Brother Storm’s crusading career.
Some have been known to criticize the common Mexican people’s fanatical devotion to their “masked Messiahs”. A British press review pertaining to Franco Rosso’s Mex-wrestling documentary, TRUE STORIES: LUCHA LIBRE (1990) claimed: “(The director) puts such faith down to the ‘wild imagination’ of the Mexican people, but shouldn’t he really be questioning their grasp on reality?” But I say, if it brings them some kind of relevant social catharsis, who’s to say it is not a good thing?
Despite token pretentious “symbolic” references in heavy Art films like Argentinian Gaspar Noe’s French-made short CARNE (1991), there have been other Mexican films of late dealing with a pronounced wrestling theme. Perhaps none as affectionately and effectively as director Jose Buil’s exquisite feature debut, LA LEYENDA DE UNA MASCARA/THE LEGEND OF A MASK (1990). Buil came to this project honestly, having previously helmed a short subject in 1981 along similar lines, called ADIOS, ADIOS, IDOLO MIO/GOODBYE, GOODBYE, MY IDOL. This was essentially a nostalgic filmic tribute to El Santo, made, ironically, three years before his death. Clearly, Jose Buil is a man with a pronounced love for old-time wrestling/horror actioners, and LEYENDA is a fitting and thinly veiled homage to El Santo’s lasting and seemingly inviolable legacy. It is a film resonant with a strange and infectious optimism that appropriately reprises and touchingly keeps alive the black and white idealism of the cheap B-films it lampoons, yet, at the same time, pays its sincere respects. LEYENDA hopefully ushers in a new era of masked wrestler films: ones that combine nostalgic sentiments with profound underlying allegorical textures and succeed in elevating the “lowbrow” origins of lucha libre to the status of legitimate High Art (luchadores put in brief cameos even in Alejandro Jodorowski’s SANTA SANGRE/SAINT BLOOD (1989), which, interestingly enough, was co-produced by Rene Cardona Jr.
The enduring enmascarado mystique, though it is mostly absent from severely underfunded modern Mexcinema, is still very much alive within the wrestling arenas and hearts of common Mexican paisanos (tr. countrymen or women).
- El Santo (Rodolfo Guzman Huerta)
- Blue Demon aka El Demonio Azul (Luis Rabadan)
- Mil Mascaras (Aaron Rodriguez)
- LADRON DE CADAVERES/THE CORPSE SNATCHERS(1956)
- LOS AUTOMATAS DE LA MUERTE/NEUTRON AGAINST THE DEATH ROBOTS (1960)
- SANTO CONTRA LAS MUJERES VAMPIRO/SAMSON VS THE VAMPIRE WOMEN (1962)
- LAS LUCHADORAS VS EL MEDICO ASESINO/DOCTOR OF DOOM (1962)
- SANTO CONTRA EL RESPECTRO DEL ESTRANGULADORS/SANTO VS THE GHOST OF THE STRANGLER (1963)
- LAS LUCHADORAS CONTRA LA MOMIA/THE WRESTLING WOMEN VS THE AZTEC MUMMY (1964)
- ATACAN LAS BRUJAS/SANTO ATTACKS THE WITCHES (1964)
- SANTO CONTRA LOS VILLANOS DEL RING/SANTO VS THE VILLAINS OF THE RING (1966)
- SANTO EN OPERACION/SANTO IN OPERATION 67 (1966)
and its sequel EL TESORO DE MOCTEZUMA/MONTEZUMA’S TREASURE (1966)
- MILMASCARAS/THOUSAND MASKS (1966)
- LA HORRIPLANTE BESTIA HUMANA/NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (1968)
- SANTO Y BLUE DEMON CONTRA LOS MONSTRUOS/SANTO AND THE BLUE DEMON VS THE MONSTERS (1969)
- LAS MOMIAS DE GUANAJUATO/THE MUMMIES OF GUANAJUATO (1970)
- SANTO CONTRA LA MAGIA NEGRA/SANTOVS BLACK MAGIC (1972)
- CAMPEONES DEL RING/CHAMPIONS OF THE RING (1972)
- SANTO CONTRA EL DR. MUERTE/THE SAINT VS DR. DEATH (1973)
- ADIOS, ADIOS, IDOLO MIO/GOODBYE, GOODBYE, MY IDOL (1981)
- LA LEYENDA DE UNA MASCARA/THE LEGEND OF A MASK (1990)
This article was originally published in Fatal Visions #13, November/December 1992.