Friday, June 29, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Santo Vs. Las Lobas (1976)

aka Santo vs the She-Wolfs

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Santo's (El Santo!) sweet life of wrestling fools in the ring and getting kissed by the White Wolf Queen of the lycanthropes  (something that will not be important later on) is rudely interrupted by a sleazy private eye who tells our hero some random stuff about lycanthropy and hands him an envelope containing place and time for a meeting with a certain Cesar Harker (Rodolfo de Anda), werewolf hunter. Santo, after having fought every supernatural creature you'd care to name, and some others too, is still the great sceptic at heart, poo-pooing the whole lycanthropy idea and shrugging that strange visit off. One imagines Santo gets visits like that so often he has learned to be choosy whom to believe.

His opinion changes when our sceptical hero is repeatedly attacked by a pack of dogs with the awesome abilities to a) make the great El Santo very very afraid, and b) to disappear into thin air. Clearly, something supernatural is going on here, so the luchador decides that meeting up with Cesar will be just the thing to do.

At their very leisurely meeting (it's still the 70s) Cesar explains to Santo that the Harkers have a long tradition of werewolf hunting, helped by their freakish immunity to the curse of lycanthropy; quite unlike Santo, who will - thanks to his "dog" bites - have to do something against the lycanthropy problem or turn into a lycanthrope himself before the next Great Red Moon (whatever that is) rises. Fortunately, there's an old prophecy foretelling either the end of the world through a lycanthropocalypse or the end to the hairy menace by the hand of a legend or symbol of silver. That latter symbol, Cesar is pretty sure, would be Santo.

Practically, Cesar knows the lycanthropes are based quite close to the small village (still with its own doctor and chief of police) he and his family are living in, so he invites Santo to his home. After dispatching one of the incredibly ineffective lycanthrope assassins who seem to hound Cesar's every step (a random flashback shows he can't even play a relaxing round of golf without being attacked), Santo agrees. But being the responsible chap that he is, the luchador is first going to fulfil his contractual obligations and have a wrestling match; he'll be with Cesar a bit later. After all, possibly turning into a wolf person in the near future is no reason for the idol of the masses to not show up to a fight. My protestant work ethic is ecstatic.

The situation will be quite changed once Santo arrives in Cesar's home village, though. The werewolf hunter and the White Queen have killed each other off, leaving behind some very angry lycanthropes in need of a new queen, Cesar's twin brother Eric (Rodolfo de Anda without glasses), and various women and children who will soon enough be in peril. I'm sure there's nothing untoward in the crate that arrives from Transylvania the same night Santo does, like, for example, the King of Lycanthropes Licar.

The whole affair could become too much even for a hero like Santo, but Eric, a bare-chested, waxed, vest-wearer named Gitano (Carlos Suárez looking like a man who has a lot of fun here), and various armed villagers (when they're not trying to kill Santo for no reason I managed to discern) are there to pinch in.

One of the real joys of lucha cinema is the adaptability of the genre. As long as he stays a hero, a lucha movie doesn't need to interpret its central character as a standard masked crimefighter alone, unlike - for example - US superhero films do, leaving the door wide open for genre hopping of a kind that makes lucha movies surprisingly adaptable.

As is so often the case in the genre, the movies of the great El Santo are a prime example of this. Santo starred in Universal-inspired classic horror films, 60s spy movies, adventure films, unfunny comedies, pulp-y crime films, rancheros and inexplicably weird stuff. Basically, Santo dipped his toes in every genre except romantic comedies (unless you're a fan of the Santo/Blue theory) and melodrama (though there are of course lucha melodramas without Santo), turning every other genre into sub-genres of the great equalizer that is lucha cinema.

By the time Santo shot Santo vs. Los Lobas, the lucha genre had lost much of its popularity, leaving the tenacious wrestler pretty much in the cinematic dregs, seeing him work for producers churning out very silly, often surprisingly boring movies, on budgets that could probably not always buy shoe-strings for everyone involved. So it comes as a bit of a surprise - even more of it when you add Santo's generally family-oriented image - that Las Lobas is a lucha entry into the genre of somewhat bleak, very dream-like 70s horror that does actually set out to be a real movie instead of random reels of Santo, musical numbers, and travelogue footage. Las Lobas also turns out to be one of the weirdest entries in Santo's filmography not produced by Vergara.

What's probably even more surprising is how well this attempt works, with directors Rubén Galindo (last seen here letting Santo fight against garbage bags) and Jaime Jiménez Pons creating an often nightmarish, always illogical, mood out of cramped looking shots taking turns with strange, yet strangely compelling compositions, a gritty looking aesthetic that's always rubbing against the weirdness of the plot and ideas, effectively dim lighting, and editing whose rawness emphasises the strangeness of it all by roughing up the film's flow. I'm not sure Galindo and Pons were planning to make their film quite as strange as it feels, and that its technical peculiarities weren't just based on a mix of budgetary troubles and ineptness on their side, but it's the results that count, and the results are, as my American brethren like to say, awesome.

Among the things about Las Lobas that may be clever or may be just accidents is the film's tendency to portray Santo as a bit more human and fallible than he often is: he's fleeing from his early dog attackers in a very undignified way (what is it with Galindo and letting Santo high-tail it?), actually needs the help of others, and even loses fights without being tricked into losing them. One might think this time around our hero's actually in danger, which is - of course - a pretty clever thing to find in a horror movie.

But really, it's the mood of the film that makes it as special as it is. It's one of those films where the strangeness of the visuals - lycanthropes who look like bearded ladies in fur bikinis carrying torches standing in a circle around their queen, the White Queen laughing a threatening laugh from the roof of a building, a party with circle dancing turning into a minor lycanthrope massacre - and the peculiarities of the script - a main character dying only to be replaced by a twin who is exactly like he was, the character who is built up as the Big Bad dying quite early leaving plot threads and an ancient prophecy dangling, the rules of lycanthropy changing with every second scene, connections between characters never really getting explained - really come together to form something like a fever dream through which the audience drifts; it's just that this fever dream has a masked wrestler in it, too. And, as a wise man once said, everything's better with a masked wrestler.

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