Fifty years ago, a new movie superhero entered the national consciousness. The nation was Mexico, and its hero was the masked wrestler known as El Santo. After first gaining prominence in the ring and then in comic books, Santo next took on the challenge of film. It was in this medium that the wrestler would cement his legend as a larger than life action hero. It quickly became clear to movie producers that puny human villains no longer presented Santo with a proper challenge, and so in his first two films (a low-budget double bill), Santo is pitted against supernatural and science-fictional foes, Cerebro del Mal (Evil Brain) and Santo Contra los Homres Infernal (Santo VS the Infernal Men). The movies were hits in Mexico, and Santo’s appeal soon extend beyond his native Mexico.
Across the Rio Grande, film distributor K. Gordon Murray caught sight of the Santo phenomena and was inspired. At that time in 1962, the Italian Hercules movies starring Steve Reeves were pulling in large young male audiences. Murray bought the US rights to two Santo titles, Santo Contra las Mujeres Vampiras (Santo VS the Vampire Women) and Santo en el Museo de Cera (Santo in the Wax Museum). He dubbed the films into English, and hoping to cash in on the Italian muscleman fad, changed Santo’s name to Samson. Vampire Women soon became a local-TV horror favorite, in no small part because it is the stuff boyish dreams are made of (including mine), especially when those dreams are populated by the alluring title villainesses. Not surprisingly, hot vixens became a staple of future Santo films.
By the mid-60s, the muscleman genre gave way to the spy craze, and with this change in tastes, Santo’s cinematic adventures ceased being adapted for a US market. In his native land, however, Santo’s reign continued uabated as a Mexican movie hero. He appeared in movies with even larger-budgets, not only as a monster-alien basher but also as a suave super spy himself. In Operation 67, for instance, Santo wore a Bond-like tuxedo below his ever-present mask. Some things couldn’t change.
A hero from a more innocent time, Santo found he was unable to compete with the rebel films of the late 60s and the Altamn-esque cinema of the 70s. Santo’s pictures of that decade, although replete with monsters and sexy women, were mostly chaotic, directionless efforts that lacked the atomosphere and charm of the earlier films. Sadly, Santo himself was in something of a decline by the late 70s, a time that would usher in a resurgence of traditional fantasy heroes like Luke Skywalker, Superman, Flash Gordon, and Tarzan. The legendary wrestler would have fit right in among them, but he chose instead to retire in 1982, dying two years later in 1984. Tens of thousands of fans turned out at his funeral.
Many of us baby boomers will never forget the late-night hours spent in front of a flickering rabbit-eared TV watching the masked champion rescue a gorgeous babe from the clutches of some madman or vampire queen. Even as a kid, part of me knew this was silly. Still, years later, that didn’t stop me as a teen from going to the Spanish-language theater in DC to watch the latest Santo adventure in color. Today we’re much too cinematically sophisticated and critical to enjoy such simple fare, and yet, when ever I think of Santo, I always smile at the memory of him.
One hero. Three reviewers. The Misfits take on Mexico’s famous masked hero in one of his most well-known movies. On a scale of 1 to 15 (15 being best), the Misfits give Santo in the Wax Museum a…
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