Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Big Muscle Tussle: Las Vampiras (1969)

aka The Vampire Girls

(This write-up is based on the original Mexican, Spanish language version of the film, which - as far as I've been told - differs considerably from the English language one.)

Throughout February, the members of M.O.S.S. have decided to bring some meat onto their exoskeletons by taking a look at film's most beefcake-y heroines and heroes. After the agents of M.O.S.S. have - among others - already descended into bloody pits of horror, examined the abs and pecs of Italian versions of Greek and biblical demi-gods, and put Dara Singh under a microscope, what better next point of investigation is there than a film featuring the most stylish Mexican luchador, the incredible Mil Mascaras?

Mil Mascaras (Mil Mascaras!), wrestler, pilot of small airplanes and masked fighter for good, makes, as is his habit when not fighting mummies, accidental contact with the world of the Weird. First, he nearly crashes into a driving car that lacks a driver, unless it was driven by the bats that fly from its window when Mil investigates. Then, a bit later, the African wrestling champion - subtly dubbed Black Man - Mil was supposed to fight disappears from his locked dressing room without his clothes, with a few bats fleeing the scene of the crime once Mil has broken down that pesky locked door.

While his manager/assistant/boyfriend (I dare you to watch the scene where Mil and the guy are driving around looking at each other with corny lovebird eyes and not think "boyfriend") and a frightfully incompetent cop (Dagoberto Rodriguez) mock and laugh even when the plot-relevant news show the cop insists on watching while sitting in Mil's living room shows a report about a downed plane from Transylvania that was left by a bunch of bats instead of a pilot and passengers, our hero knows what's up: the vampire threat has returned to Mexico, and if the police won't do anything, a luchador will.

Mil Mascaras is all too right with his analysis too. There are in fact vampires at large, or, to be more precise, vampire women dressed in leotards lead by Aura (Marta Romero) who are out to take revenge on humanity for all the killed male vampires, which, I have to say, is pretty good motivation. If they can get new male blood in the process - preferred is the blood of athletes, it seems - it's just icing on the cake.

The only male vampire left is Branus (John Carradine), a doddering old fart Aura keeps in a golden cage in her throne room, so it's understandable the vampirettes are seeking more pleasant male company.

After the audience has learned a bit about vampire politics, it's back to Mil, who - after some research that costs his secretary Alicia her life, but teaches us that vampires need a specific sort of blood and a fitting climate to survive, has found a graveyard once suspected of vampiric activity (it's one for atheists and evil-doers, you see, so there are no crosses there). There he meets roving reporter and wearer of felt hats Carlos Mayer (Pedro Armendariz Jr, for no good reason given higher placement in the credits than Mil). Carlos has come to the same conclusions as our hero, so they decide to unite their vampire-fighting powers. Their partnership doesn't start off too well, though, for the first thing they do is accidentally (well, kinda, for what did they expect would happen when they break down a wall with bat noises coming from behind?) freeing Veria (Maria Duval) the widow of Count Dracula himself from imprisonment.

Veria soon finds her way to the other vampires and starts a subplot about her and Aura fighting about control over vampiredom. Their big political difference: Veria wants to reinstate Branus (who, as will later be revealed, only fakes part of his dementia) as king of the vampires, while Aura really prefers to find someone a bit more attractive and less pompous. Someone, like, say, a certain masked wrestler, perhaps? He is a perfect specimen after all.

Among the multitude of Mexican masked wrestlers who have had screen adventures of varying quality and insanity, Mil Mascaras has always been my favourite, for he unites the (maybe dubious) charisma of his peers with a quite peerless dress sense. As the connoisseur of lucha cinema knows well, Mil takes his "thousand masks" moniker very seriously, and not only changes his mask regularly and to great effect (my personal favourite in the film at hand being the mask with a circle pattern - only a real hero can get away with literally painting a target on his face) but also has some incredible fashion to go with his masks. Mil's preference for things like torero jackets, glitter and blindingly intense colours either make him the dandy or the glam rocker of the lucha set; both are roles deserving admiration, and if I were in the habit of throwing underwear at beefcake-y guys, Mil would be the one I'd try to hit. Damn you, heterosexuality.

In other words, if one ever had any doubt that part of the appeal of musclemen like the heroes of our theme month is purely and simply sex, one Mil Mascaras movie will make things clear; if one ever had any doubt that muscleman can be stylish and cool, one Mil Mascaras movie will get rid of that, too.

For people less in love with lucha cinema and Mil Mascaras (barbarians, I call them), the big selling point of Las Vampiras will be the appearance of John Carradine, already right in the middle of his embarrassing phase. It's difficult to say much positive about anything the man did at that point of his career, but in Las Vampiras case, I can at least admit that he's putting so much misguided enthusiasm and scenery-chewing self-irony in, it's difficult not to approve. Carradine's interpretation (one might suspect self portrait) of the classic cape-wearing vampire as someone wavering between unruly senile wreck and dirty old man - with a whiff of the alcoholic, of course - has a somewhat disturbing effect. At times, it's brilliantly funny and fun, but in other moments, when the playing of being a senile wreck and Carradine actually being down and out become hard to distinguish, it turns into something I found difficult to watch without cringing, and that did disturb the sense of silly fun I got from the rest of the movie. In a very different film, I would assume Carradine's performance, and the whole gender set-up of the film to be consciously subversive of traditional gender roles as seen in horror movies, but really, who am I kidding here?

For this sort of consideration cannot stand up to the fact that this is first and foremost a classic lucha monster mash, just one where the producers could afford what was left of a former horror star to mug a bit for the camera.

Fortunately and of course, there's nothing at all wrong with Las Vampiras being what it is, especially since it's not just a lucha movie, but a lucha movie made by Filmica Vergara, a Mexican genre production house whose films always had especially low production values, but which also more often than not used these production values to achieve a mood of the bizarre, creating (probably accidentally) a form of cardboard surrealism that holds all of the promises the bare concept of something like lucha cinema makes, yet the genre itself not always fulfils.

So this just isn't a film where Mil Mascaras and some reporter guy have a big fight against beefy vampire slaves, but one where said vampire slaves are dressed up in (literally) red shirts and berets - for no discernible reason, yet to my great delight; a film where a big ritual to find out which of the two main vampire women are going to lead vampiredom from now on consists of a prolonged jazz dance number with a lot of wing-like arm-waving, followed by a torch duel; a film where half of the vampire women like to stand on pedestals, staring into the void, just waving their arms slowly up and down, up and down, whenever something exciting happens (now that I think about it, they are a lot like Harinam Singh's vampire women without the chairs they "fly" on); a film where the vampire king's coffin (all the coffins here look particularly comfy inside) can be recognized by the big fat golden (cardboard or wooden) bat sitting on it; a film where a masked wrestler shoots silver bullets at the fakest of fake bats. In short, a work of deep, ridiculous beauty.

I could now begin to complain about the problematic construction of the film's plot (like the way it wastes Maura Monti in a few scenes as Armendariz' girlfriend, whose only reason to exist is so that Carradine has somebody to kidnap and Armendariz somebody to kiss after the film's climax), the static direction of Federico Curiel (whose films often are shot this way, unless he had one of this creative weeks, which did happen from time to time), or the sometimes clever, sometimes jumpy and rough editing, but the film's technical flaws do nothing at all to ruin the sense of pure joy I get from Las Vampiras, so I won't.


Todd said...

Thank you for this. It was great to read a review of this film by someone who actually understood what was going on in it. So, is there really an English language version?

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

You're welcome, Todd. This time, I didn't even have to trust in my dubious Spanish, but could watch with fansubs some of the friendly people at Cinemageddon provided.

Yeah, there seems to be an English language version, but, as far as I've heard, it contains more random John Carradine (who now is supposed to be Dracula) and less Mil Mascaras. Not that I've actually seen this mythical version.