lead story playboy late-breaking stories el santo dark elvis
(Santo Versus Death, 1969)

Santo el enmascarado de plata (1917-84) is one of the greatest heroic showmen the science of cinema ever uncovered. Being the premiere masked Mexican wrestler in history was all in a day's work for el Santo. So from 1958 to 1982, he moonlighted as the greatest movie star in Mexican wrestling, making 26 features through the 1960s (Elvis did 28). Santo had seven of his features released in 1966 alone.

"Santo vs. Death" has the big man on the road in Colombia and Spain. While wrestling around the Spanish-posterspeaking world, Santo routinely teams up with local detectives, enforcing justice and throwing down a comprehensive catalogue of wrestling movie conventions. Here Santo forgoes any supernatural elements, opting for a straight program of TV-friendly urban crimefighting (bring me the title where Santo literally wrestles Death — please!).

After a truly amatuerish scene between suits in some interpol office, we get down to business: Santo's ritual heroic descent from the Aeromexico jet that's landed him in mountainous Bogatá. After being warned by his cop friend about the suspicious hot blond on the tarmac, Mexico's greatest wrestler is shuttled downtown.

The filmmakers simply crank up their Bolex and turn Santo loose in the streets. Picture him pacing like a jaguar through the brown and gray avenues, a hero popular, trailing an excitable cloud of Colombian teens. Santo, in Bogatá. There's heat on the street that can't be manufactured on the back lot with central casting. The documentary shooting style depicts a youth scene marked by mocha skintones, black hair, black eyes, sharp cut jackets and straight leg pants, doo wop pompadours and pencil mustaches, with skinny new wave ties.

Then come the formal wrestling sequences, the anchors in the narrative. No music, no fast cutting, just wrestling and crowd shots that put you inside the evening match. This is the basics, preferably with Santo vanquishing some kind of ruffian, Caucasian or adversary of equally low character.

In short order we get introduced to some Mexican soap opera-style villains. The ultimate baddy, the Number One ring cutoutleader, is called Mysterious Unknown One. He always sits with his back to the camera in a big hat at a luxury desk. Number One is also actually Number Two, which we find out after several reels of watching him run around on orders from himself. Number Two is a smooth soap opera acting-type guy. He makes phone calls and says things like, "We are leaving Hideout #1, and proceeding to Hideout #2."

This gives our hero a chance to wear cool red jerseys that set off his silver mask while he's riding on the roof of cable cars carrying crooks an eye-popping 2,500 feet up the mountain side.

There's some intrigue at the bellydancing club, shot in Spain, giving us some Syrian gyrations before the dancer gets backstabbed. Then Santo has to wrestle the murderer — a bad guy disguised perfectly as el Santo! We get the doppelganger battle twice in this picture. There's also a cat fight between the two Latina hotties.

Everything culminates in Santo performing parachute manuevers with the Colombian Air Force! Soon after that, he jumps from a police helicopter into a boat cruising fast along the river Magdalene in the jungle.

After a fight, Santo throws the villainous #1 overboard.

"Will he survive?" the blond chick asks.

Santo says, "No, there are too many crocodiles."

Then comes the best part. Santo lets the blond go like he's pardoning her because he's honorably bound to give a lady the chance to go straight. So she leads him right back to the stolen emeralds that are the object of this entire run-around. Then he has her thrown in the can.

"Take her away." Right there in the Bogotá airport. Santo is the mack.

So my one friend Cisco was the only one I could get to go downtown in the middle of the night to see Mexican wrestling on film. I go, what is it about this phenomenon? They had no money. They had no script, and no talent for acting. Nevertheless, it's the greatest story ever told. What gives?

His answer? "The Santo cinema style is like play acting, like what we used to do when we were kids playing out movie plots, war games, fights and chases. And watching is like being in the group playing along. It's fun."

"Fun." There's something in that. And the way the Santo movie echoed in lo-fi mono Spanish inside that dark, big ass, ancient vaudeville cavern? Pure Aztec gold. It's what Saturday night local TV posterstation wrestling used to be in America as late as the 1970s, before the truly un-fun, unfunny, money-mad steroid overdose of Smackdown.

Thanks to E. Michael Diaz and everyone at the Cinemateca of Los Angeles: L.A. needs los Luchadors! Keep these screenings coming!

Five-O Out.

DJ Bostich

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