The Mexican film industry’s contributions to the 1960s spy craze tend to be on the whimsical side. If they don’t feature a masked wrestler in a pivotal role, they tend to be something along the lines of Agente 00 Sexy, in which heroine Amadee Chabot spends a lot of time wearing a Frederick’s of Hollywood-style cat costume. Given the overall zany-ness of the field, then, I do not say lightly that Cazadores de Espias (Spy Hunters) may very well be the silliest of them all. Strangely, though, it doesn’t start out that way–and that makes watching Cazadores de Espias sort of like watching a movie that’s gradually losing its mind.
A while back I held forth at extraordinary length about The Mummies of Guanajuato, detailing how it was the first film to team up lucha cinema’s “Big Three”; Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras. I also bloviated at the expense of many words on how it went on to reap rich rewards at the Mexican box office as a result. Given that success, one might think that producer Rogelio Agrasanchez would be anxious to repeat the formula as soon as possible. And the fact is that Agrasanchez did hope to include Santo, along with Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras, in the all-star lineup up of his Champions of Justice the following year.
One need only glance over the many titles in the lucha movie genre to see that there is a long history of enmity between Mexican wrestlers and mummies. This goes all the way back to 1964, when Elizabeth Campbell and Lorena Velazquez threw down against a pop-eyed, reconstituted Aztec warrior in their sophomore effort as The Wrestling Women, Las Luchadoras contra la Momia, and continued throughout the rest of the sixties, during which Santo, the most celebrated movie luchadore of them all, would come up against shambling bandage jockeys in films like Santo and Blue Demon vs. The Monsters and La Venganza de la Momia. But the conflict didn’t really kick into high gear until 1972, when the success of a little film called The Mummies of Guanajuato (aka Las Momias de Guanajuato) guaranteed that, for the next several years, Mexican movie screens would seldom see respite from the spectacle of colorfully-garbed, masked Mexican grapplers working their moves on a seemingly endless series of inexplicably muscular mummified adversaries.
In much the same way that many Western audiences have a problem accepting the musical numbers in Bollywood films, North American audiences have always had an issue accepting the central concept behind the Mexican luchador movies: that a bunch of masked wrestlers clad in full wrestling gear would tool around Mexico solving crimes, fighting monsters, and judging beauty contests. The inability on the part of many non-Mexican viewers to accept this as anything other than patently absurd has a lot to do with the way we think of professional wrestlers — in that, we think of them as professional wrestlers. In Mexico, by contrast, these luchadores have less in common with Macho Man Randy Savage and more in common with the likes of Batman Green Arrow, or any of the masked pulp heroes of the early third of the 20th century. They are comic book superheroes. North American audiences that often balk at the idea of crusading luchadores rarely have any issue with comic book superheroes, who dress just as outlandishly and often have superhuman powers to boot.
Ten years into his film career, Santo had already faced off against zombies, witches, mummies, mad scientists, vampires of both the male and female variety, hatchet-wielding ghosts, homicidal table lamps, and Martians. So it was only a matter of time before the denizens of Atlantis got to the front of the queue. When that time came, Santo would also find himself mixing it up onscreen for the first time with one of his greatest adversaries from — and I use the term advisedly — the “real world” of lucha libre. And just who would that adversary be? Well, I could try to be coy about it, but the journalistic specificity of Santo vs. Blue Demon in Atlantis‘ title would render the effort redundant.
God help me, I love Santo y Blue Demon contra los Monstruos. I love it like you love a three-legged dog. Sure, my love may be tempered by pity and mild derision, but I love it, nonetheless. And hopefully you do, too. Because, if not, we’re going to have a problem. Santo y Blue Demon contra los Monstruos marked the 23rd screen appearance by its star, a man who entered the world as one Rodolfo Guzman Huerto, but who achieved legendary status in the world of lucha libre as El Santo, the Man in the Silver Mask. Santo was in his early fifties at this point, but, despite his prime wrestling years being behind him, his iconic status in Mexican popular culture was undiminished. In fact, he was still fairly early in his screen career at this point, with another couple dozen films ahead of him.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, Teleport City was created for one reason and one reason only: to eventually review Intrepidos Punks. In fact, it wouldn’t be entirely beyond the pale to say that my entire life has been leading up to the moment I first heard of, then tracked down and watched this overwhelmingly fantastic slice of punk rock exploitation from, of all places, Mexico. At its heart, Intrepidos Punks is really nothing more than a by-the-numbers biker film updated for the looser censorship morals of the 1970s. But the frosting it layers onto the biker film cake make it into something utterly sublime. Everything I’ve ever been interested in — exploitation films, sleaze, punk rock, luchadores, scantily clad new wave girls, dune buggies — it all comes together in this perfect storm of day-glo mohawks and ten foot tall teased-hair brilliance.
It is perhaps a sign that I’ve succumbed to the stressors of the season that I’ve been re-watching a lot of these earlier lucha movies lately. While the Mexican wrestling movies of the late 60s and 70s can be amusingly trashy, those made a decade previous exhibit an appealing hokeyness and sincere desire to entertain that makes them, for me, the ideal form of cinematic comfort food. They also, in the case of films like 1960′s Neutron vs. The Death Robots, exhibit a not inconsiderable amount of appealing, old school style
Neutron vs. The Death Robots, the second in a series of five Neutron films, was directed by Federico Curiel, one of the most prolific directors of Mexican lucha films. Working with literally every major star in the genre, Curiel helmed a steady stream of entries that lasted from the early 60s until the twilight of the Mexican wrestling film’s popularity in the late 70s, in the process providing the genre with its last box office hurrah with 1972′s wildly successful Las Momias de Guanajuato.
Like a lot of lucha film directors, Curiel seemed to lose his artistic footing a bit with the transition to color in the late 60s. As a result, many of his later films have a harsh, overlit look to them and an unimaginative approach to composition. This may very well be due to the drastically reduced budgets that directors had to work with during the genre’s waning years, which likely necessitated a reductive point-and-shoot style both for the sake of haste and to cover for the lack of elaborate sets. (One notable exception to this practice is Braniac director Chano Urueta, who compensated for his lack of materials by infusing the two Blue Demon features he directed – Blue Demon contra Cerebros Infernales and Blue Demon contra Las Diabolicas – with an abundance of bright primary colors that turned them into vivid, live-action cartoons.)
By comparison, in the case of Death Robots, Curiel — at the time still working within the relative security of the Mexican studio system, with its comparatively generous budgeting for art direction and set design, and filming in rich black and white — is clearly in his element. The director had recently completed the twelve-part vampire serial The Curse of Nostradamus, and seems to have carried the moody, gothic ambience established there over into the first three Neutron films, which were all shot by Curiel in close succession using the same cast and resources. (Curiel also had to shoot each film in half hour long “chapters”, which were then assembled into feature form — a sort of “go-around” to circumvent regulations enforced upon the studio, Estudios America, due to its affiliation with the union STIC, whose authority had been limited by presidential decree to the production of short films and serials.)
The combination of the shadowy tones of classic Hollywood horror and noir films with the wholesome thrills of the Republic superhero serials of the 40s was a hallmark of early lucha films, and the Neutron films offer an example of the practice at its most visually sumptuous and alluring. To some extent the films even prefigure Hollywood’s current vogue for “going dark” with costumed hero tales. And Neutron could hardly present us with a better hero to receive such treatment, blessed as he is with mysterious origins, a disturbing habit of popping up unexpectedly in peoples’ bedrooms, and what one could easily be forgiven for describing as a gimp mask.
While Santo is unquestionably the most famous face in lucha cinema, it might surprise some to learn that Mexico’s most famous wrestling star almost missed the boat altogether in terms of his onscreen career — and that the genre nonetheless managed to chug along without him for the better part of its fledgling decade. Santo’s first missed opportunity for movie stardom came in the early 50s, when producers approached him about appearing in a personally tailored, twelve chapter serial entitled El Enmascarado de Plata (meaning “The Silver Mask”, an appellation with which Santo had already become popularly identified). Santo refused, and the serial was eventually released in 1952 with rival wrestler El Medico Asesino as its star, though not before the producers had exacted a little symbolic revenge by making “El Enmascarado de Plata” the name of the villain rather than the hero of the piece.
With or without Santo’s participation, the popularity of lucha libre among the Mexican public insured that masked wrestlers were going to have a pronounced presence on the country’s cinema screens. And so, throughout the 50s, a variety of fictional wrestlers and masked heroes were concocted to fill the vacuum. These included the masked luchador Huracan Ramirez, as well as more traditional, serial-inspired heroes like La Sombra Vengadora, who, while not presented as wrestlers per se, encouraged the association by way of their lace-up masks, bare chests and frequent employment of flying drop kicks.
It is to this last mentioned category that Neutron belongs. And while he did not technically beat the silver-masked one to the big screen, I think he can still be said to be a product of the aforementioned Santo gap. As for Santo, when he finally did decide to make his leap to the screen, he somewhat curiously chose to do so as a co-star in a couple of fairly inauspicious, low budget Cuban productions, both released in 1958. The following two years saw Santo’s acting career bear no further fruit, which resulted in him not making his debut in a Mexican production until his starring turn in Santo contra los Zombies, which was released nearly a year after the initial Neutron film, Neutron, el Enmascarado Negro and its two immediate sequels.
Starring in the Neutron films was a Latvian born actor and professional wrestler by the name of Wolf Ruvinskis. Ruvinskis spent a lot of his screen career playing heavies, and is probably most recognizable to cult film fans for his role as Argos, the impressively buff and ring-ready leader of the invading Martian force in Santo vs. the Martian Invasion. Three years previous to his debut as Neutron, he had appeared in Fernando Mendez’s Ladron de Cadaveres, a film that was important in the history of lucha cinema for being the first to place elements of the classic horror film within a wrestling milieu. The story of the film — which was later essentially recycled to provide the plot for the first of the Lorena Velazquez/Elizabeth Campbell Wrestling Women movies, Las Luchadoras contra el Medico Asesino (aka Doctor of Doom) — concerned a mad scientist who switched the brains of an ape and a wrestler (Ruvinskis) with predictably monstrous results. More important than the story, however, was the visual grammar employed by Mendez to tell it, which, in borrowing the German Expressionist-inspired look of the early Universal horror films, paved the way for later Gothic-tinged masked wrestler outings like the classic Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro and, of course, the Neutron films.
While Ruvinskis’ part in the Neutron films required him to play Neutron’s alter ego Carlos, I can’t say with absolute certainty that in all cases he appeared on screen as the masked hero himself. I will say, though, that, from seeing him in films like Ladron de Cadaveres and Santo vs. the Martian Invasion, he certainly appeared to possess the proper amount of athleticism for the role, and that there are definitely moments when it looked to me like it was him behind the character’s distinctive black, lightning bolt adorned mask. In any case, whoever played the part, Neutron definitely makes for a credibly super-heroic presence, sporting a trim, sculpted build that stands in sharp contrast to the more stocky frames of some of the considerably older, real-life wrestlers who would soon be appearing in these type of films as idealized versions of themselves. The masked man also proves no slouch in the fighting department, including among his arsenal of moves an impressive flying drop kick, as well as some fairly convincing looking fist work. (Yes, that’s right. I said “fist work”. Even though I know what associations the phrase — when thought of in connection with Neutron’s head-enveloping, black mask – will conjure.)
Now, there are a number of reasons why I have singled out Neutron vs. The Death Robots as the most noteworthy of the Neutron films. (For one thing: Best. Title. Ever.) As I mentioned earlier, it was the second Neutron film, and as such stood as the middle part of a trilogy comprised of the first three, which together tell one continuous story. However, while the first film is burdened with having to establish the many characters and conflicts that will play out throughout the trilogy, and the third film, Neutron contra el Dr. Caronte, has the chore of tying up all of the loose ends, Death Robots is largely left free of such expositional baggage to just go about the business of being an exciting little adventure yarn. As such, it is easily the most action-packed of the three, boasting a propulsive forward momentum that neither of its two, considerably more talky companion films can hope to match.
Second of all, Death Robots has a great villain, present in the first film, but given far more prominence here. Dr. Caronte is a classic movie megalomaniac, prone to grandiose, fist-shaking proclamations that never leave the audience in any doubt as to what exactly his evil schemes entail, or what his glowing estimation of his own capabilities might be, much less his withering disdain for all the haters and wannabes who, one assumes, bear some real or imagined responsibility for him choosing his current, super-villainous path. The masked Caronte also boasts an outfit that speaks of a certain career ambivalence, one part surgeon’s scrubs and one part wrestling togs, that makes for a pretty memorable visual image, especially for the way its blinding whiteness stands out against the backdrop of Caronte’s gloom-enshrouded laboratory hideaway.
And then there are the film’s monsters, the titular Death Robots, who are basically an army of faceless, coverall clad zombies — hirsute but for the encroaching male pattern baldness that each exhibits — whom Caronte appears to bake into life in a series of what look like futuristic pizza ovens. As ridiculous as they may sound, Curiel puts a lot of work into giving these silent, lumbering killers a delicious creepiness, frequently announcing their arrival in a scene by first showing their slowly advancing shadows looming up on a wall behind an unsuspecting victim.
But Caronte’s crew is not comprised entirely of Death Robots. There is also his assistant Nick, a bowlegged dwarf with a fearsome unibrow, who — in both the Spanish and English language versions of the film — is dubbed with a strangled, high-pitched voice that makes him sound like a constipated muppet. Caronte generally treats Nick like a sort of fetish object, even referring to him at one point as his “good luck charm”, and the two have a tendency to walk hand-in-hand as they tool around their lair. As with the Death Robots, Curiel brings all of his cinematic flair to bear on the task of accentuating the odd and disquieting nature of this character’s appearance, and is especially fond of using Nick’s height as an excuse to shoot scenes by angling up from his eye level, all the better to take advantage of the impressive, three-leveled set that stands in for the Doctor’s laboratory. In fact, it is during those scenes with Nick, the Doctor and the Death Robots in Dr. Caronte’s laboratory that Neutron vs. The Death Robots most seems to spring to life, giving you the clear sense that it is in the more spooky aspects of the film’s world that Curiel most feels at home.
Death Robots begins by briskly recapping the events of the first film by means of a handy television newscast, and in the process reintroduces us to the series’ recurring cast of characters. That film strove to create an air of mystery around Neutron’s identity by providing us with three leading men, each of whom could ultimately be revealed – and at various times were hinted to be – the masked hero’s alter ego. These three included Ruvinskis in the role of playboy Carlos; biologist Jaime, played by Armando Silvestre; and popular television commentator Mario, played by Julio Aleman. Several years later, Aleman would get his own chance to play a masked movie avenger, in the flatly ridiculous Rocambole series, which took a Fantomas-like 19th century French pulp character and turned him into a Batman-style hero complete with a risible costume featuring a chest emblem of a giant arrow pointing downward into his trunks.
Carlos and his two handsome buddies seem to be inseparable, working out and showering at the gym together and, even, by appearances, living together in the big mansion that Jaime inherited from his dad, a scientist who was killed in the first movie. But lest you get the wrong idea, all three men also share the same love interest, Nora (Rosita Arenas), a singer at the popular nightspot La Roca. Nora’s choice of vocation affords the filmmakers plenty of opportunities to pad Death Robots running time with musical numbers, and not just Nora’s, but those performed by her fellow nightclub performers as well. Some have complained that these interludes only serve to slow the picture down, but, personally, I like them; Curiel employs the same noirish play of light and shadow evident elsewhere in the film in capturing these numbers and, as such, I think they provide Death Robots with a nice touch of B movie glamour.
Rounding out Team Neutron is Dr. Thomas, a European scientist who also seems to live in the house with Carlos, Jaime and Mario, and who keeps a pretty impressive laboratory filled with blinking control panels there to boot. Dr. Thomas is played by Grek Martin, aka Jack Taylor, aka George Randall, an American expatriate actor who, after relocating to Spain, made his living by appearing in quite a few European and Mexican genre pictures over the course of his career. The former included a healthy(?) number of films for Jesse Franco, including Bare Breasted Countess, French Emanuelle and Porno Shock, among others. Martin/Taylor has a sinister quality that has you continually expecting him to be revealed as the bad guy throughout the Neutron pictures, even though he never is. Or I should say, technically he never is, since in the third film Dr. Caronte uses black magic to transmigrate his soul into Dr. Thomas’ body.
The first Neutron film concluded with Carlos unmasking himself as Neutron to his friends. However, at some point between the production of that film and Death Robots, it was decided that it was best to keep the whole “who is Neutron?” gimmick going, and so we begin Death Robots with all of the characters having conveniently forgotten the whole incident. As a result, we go back to the earlier movie’s routine of having everybody intermittently accusing one another of being Neutron, while having occasional clues dropped by the filmmakers implicating one or the other of them as the hero’s alter ego. It would contribute a lot to the general air of fun that the film sustains if you hadn’t seen the first film — or if you hadn’t read all of the spoilers in this review.
The MacGuffin that drives Dr. Caronte’s actions throughout the first three Neutron films is a device somewhat confusingly referred to as the Neutron Bomb. In this context, one might expect this to be a bomb that only kills Neutron, but it is instead a spiky metal ball that emits a gas that dissolves everyone within a certain radius. The rather heavy-handed efforts of Caronte and his associates to get their hands on the bomb’s formula in the first film resulted in all of the scientists responsible for its creation — including Jaime’s father — being killed in one way or another. And as we catch up with Caronte in the opening moments of Death Robots, we find that he has had little Nick exhume those scientists’ corpses to further his evil scheme. The Doctor has since removed the brains from those corpses with the intention of combining them into one super-brain, which he will control and communicate with via an infernal machine he has created for the purpose. In order to do so, however, he will need “LOTS of blood”, and so the Death Robots are sent forth to find some hapless citizens of Mexico City to exsanguinate.
Unfortunately, Dr. Caronte’s worst enemy turns out to be his own egomania, as his insistence upon leaving a distinctive coin at the site of each murder quickly alerts Team Neutron to the fact that he is far more not dead than he appeared to be at the end of the last film. Soon Neutron enlists the gang in helping him set up a sting operation of sorts to capture one of the Death Robots, with the plan being to then follow the thing back to Caronte’s hideout. With his disembodied super-brain having filled him in on the necessary ingredients for the bomb, Caronte is now having the robots raid local chemical warehouses for the materials, and it is at one of these that Neutron, along with police Inspector Lozano (Rodolfo Landa), makes the catch. Things fail to go as planned, however, because as soon as the targeted Death Robot realizes it is being followed, it commits suicide by pulling off its own head — in what I probably don’t need to tell you is Neutron vs. The Death Robots‘ crowning moment of awesomeness.
Eventually Caronte gathers all of the materials he need to make the Neutron Bomb, but then decides that he needs Dr. Thomas to help him assemble it. Thus Neutron’s primary task becomes defending Thomas against Nick and the Death Robots’ repeated attempts to abduct him. Meanwhile, all of Neutron’s three possible alter egos still find plenty of time to hang around La Roca, watch an assortment of musical numbers in their entirety, and simultaneously hit on the understandably put-upon Nora. This all comes to an end when Caronte succeeds, not only in kidnapping Thomas (by employing a Death Robot disguised as Neutron!), but Nora, as well. Thus, by bartering Nora’s life, is the villain able to strong arm Thomas into helping him.
Once the bomb is completed, Caronte initiates a somewhat harebrained extortion scheme that involves having the bomb placed in a flight bag that Nick, disguised as a miniature cab driver, then stashes among other pieces of luggage on a baggage cart at the Mexico City airport. This, of course, sets the stage for the old suitcase switch-a-roo, and an innocent couple, mistaking the bag for their own, ends up grabbing it and heading off home. This leads to a hilarious series of scenes in which Neutron, the cops, and the Death Robots alternately barge unexpectedly into various citizens’ homes looking for the case. One imagines that the acting abilities of the bit players involved were taxed to their limits as they attempted to portray the reactions of normal people to having their homes invaded by either a bare-chested man in a black wrestling mask or a dwarf accompanied by a contingent of long-haired, faceless zombies.
Eventually the bomb is recovered and taken to Thomas’s lab to be diffused. Here Dr. Caronte makes an unexpected appearance, leading to a protracted smack-down between him and Neutron that, after a break for a bit of chasing around, has its windup in Caronte’s hideout. At this point, we get an example of that classic exchange in which the villain exhorts the hero to join him, with Caronte telling Neutron that together they “could be invincible” and Neutron, of course, voicing his staunch refusal. This dialogue goes on for quite some time, and the great thing about it is that Neutron and Caronte never once pause from furiously beating the shit out of one another while delivering it, with the result that what sounds like an argument between two people sitting across a table from one another is heard as the participants flip and hurl one another all over the room.
Unlike in Neutron, el Enmascarado Negro, no reveal of Neutron’s identity is made at the end of Death Robots. In fact, pretty much every aspect of Neutron remains shrouded in mystery, other than the obvious – i.e. that he works out a lot, likes to expose his nipples to open air while having his head encased in nylon, and lives to smote evildoers, though not necessarily in that order. Basically, we experience Neutron as the other characters in the film do, only seeing him when he shows up to do his job and never being privy to what the behind-the-scenes of being Neutron is all about. This extends to us not knowing just how Neutron always knows exactly where and when trouble is going to pop up. Unlike with Santo, we don’t get to see him tooling around in a laboratory served by live feeds from cameras seemingly placed randomly all over Mexico. All we know is that he shows up in the nick of time, and does so pretty much without fail.
And if there was one bone I’d pick with Neutron vs. The Death Robots, it would be that one: That the predictability of Neutron showing up — completely without explanation — whenever peril arises ends up robbing the film to some extent of drama and suspense. In a couple of cases, Neutron arrives so swiftly on the heels of the Death Robots that we don’t even have time to register the threat. On the other hand, though, I think that this is in part a result of the film’s approach to action being more about velocity than build-up, and scenes such as those certainly do contribute to an air of breathless excitement — almost as if we are watching a story projected directly from the brain of a sugar-addled eight-year-old boy who’s caught up in the excitement of recounting the action of the cartoon he’s just watched.
Dr Caronte would return for one last go around, in Neutron contra el Doctor Caronte, in which he would battle a gang of foreign agents for possession of the Neutron Bomb and engage in the aforementioned black magic shenanigans before being unmasked and served his final comeuppance at the film’s conclusion. After that, Neutron would disappear from Mexico’s cinema screens for several years, until 1964, at the height of the lucha movie boom, when the character would be revived for two one-off features, Neutron contra los Asesinos del Karate and Neutron contra el Criminal Sadico. With the exception of Ruvinskis in the title role, gone would be the earlier films’ cast of regular characters, as would be director Curiel (German import Alfredo B. Crevenna — another ubiquitous presence during the heyday of lucha cinema — would take the helm instead). As a result, these titles lacked the dense, spook show atmosphere created by Curiel for the earlier films and, as such, had little to distinguish them from the typical Mexican wrestling fare that was being produced at the time. An unfortunate revamping of Neutron’s mask — which, if anything, made it look even more gimp-like — did nothing to help matters.
Soon thereafter, four of the Neutron pictures, including Death Robots, were picked up and dubbed into English for American television (a fifth, unrelated lucha film, El Asesino Invisible, was also included in the package under the revamped title Neutron Traps the Invisible Killers). These would become staples of Saturday afternoon TV at roughly the same time that K. Gordon Murray’s dubbed versions of the Santo films were hitting the U.S. airwaves, with the result that — in the USA at least — Neutron garnered nearly as high a profile as Mexico’s number one Luchador.
Of course, in Mexico it was a different story. Though that is not to say that Neutron didn’t have some cultural impact of his own. The initial trio of films spawned a fumetti-style series of Neutron photo comics that, for a while, competed on the country’s newsstands with Santo’s own popular comic, and, in later years, both the Neutron name and classic mask would come to be adopted by some real-life practitioners of lucha libre. Still, the enormity of Santo’s fame — not to mention that of his closest competitors, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras — nonetheless consigned Neutron once and evermore to the category of also-ran.
That their hero was something of a second-class citizen in lucha movie circles does not, however, take away from the fact that the early Neutron films, and Death Robots in particular, are excellent examples of their genre — better, in fact, than many of those films that starred Neutron’s more well-known competitors. In fact, to my mind, there are few films that, when combined with a suitable quantity of alcohol, could provide a better cure for the blues, holiday or otherwise.
Release Year: 1960 | Country: Mexico | Starring: Wolf Ruvinskis, Julio Aleman, Armando Silvestre, Rodolfo Landa, Rosita Arenas, Jack Taylor (as Grek Martin), Ernesto Finance, David Lama, Roberto Ramirez Garza | Director: Federico Curiel | Writer: Federico Curiel, Alfredo Ruanova | Music: Enrico C. Cabiati | Producer: Emilio Gomez Muriel | Also known as: Los Automatas de la Muerte, Neutron the Atomic Superman vs. the Death Robots
Mil Mascaras: Resurrection comes to us some thirty years after Mil Mascaras last appeared onscreen in a narrative feature. For those of you who missed out the first time around, Mil, along with Santo and Blue Demon, is one of the “Big Three” stars of lucha libre cinema, as well as one of the biggest stars in the history of lucha libre itself. While Mil’s cinematic efforts never had the same stateside impact as some of Santo’s, thanks to them never being dubbed in English, they are nonetheless every bit as entertaining — and, in some cases, much more so — than many of El Enmascarado de Plata‘s contributions to the genre, and are big favorites of ours here at Teleport City.
Mil Mascaras: Resurrection — which was initially titled Mil Mascaras vs. The Aztec Mummy — doesn’t come to us by way of the normal channels one might expect a Mil Mascaras movie to come through. In fact, it may very well be the only Mexican wrestling film whose writer-producer holds a Ph.D. in robotic engineering from Oxford. (I say “may ” only because that Fernando Oses looks like he might be a bit of an egghead.) Jeffrey Uhlmann brought the idea for the film with him when he took an associate professorship in the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Computer Science Department, and proposed it as an ideal project for exploring the potential for an entertainment technology-related IT program within the University’s Engineering School. Being that Uhlmann is obviously a serious fan of lucha cinema, I imagine that he also decided it would just be really cool to make a Mil Mascaras movie using some of Mizzou’s resources — but in the long run, it’s really all about the kids, isn’t it?
It’s so tempting here to go into all kinds of easy riffs about the crazy things that people get away with in the name of higher education that I practically feel obligated to do it. What? A whole course devoted to Gossip Girl? Snort! How about a major in tasting fine single malt Scotches? Hardy har har. But in truth, I can’t judge. Because anything Jeffrey Uhlmann has done pales in comparison to that time I defended myself against charges of stalking Rosario Dawson by saying that I was doing research for a paper on how the idea of celebrity redefines notions of public and private space. Okay, with that out of my system, let’s move on.
Anyway, given its very DIY nature, work on Mil Mascaras: Resurrection proceeded fitfully, with Uhlmann utilizing a crew largely comprised of school faculty and students and shooting on and around the University grounds, with principal photography being completed in three chunks spanning between late 2004 and Spring of ’06. Among Uhlmann’s colleagues who were involved were fellow professor Kannappan Palaniappan as co-producer and instructor Chip Gubera as director – though there was also an aborted pass at having DTV sequel maven Jeff Burr (Stepfather II, Puppet Master IV, Pumpkinhead II) direct the film, which ended with Burr leaving the project after two weeks of shooting (he was subsequently credited pseudonymously as “Andrew Quint”). Of course, before all of that there came the casting of the film’s 69 year old star. Uhlmann had originally imagined El Hijo Del Santo (that’s Santo’s son, for those of you who are Spanish challenged) as his lead, but when that wrestler’s schedule proved unaccommodating, he approached Mil Mascaras, who he had met a number of years earlier. Mil agreed, and the rest is… well, the rest is the subject of this review.
Now, all of the foregoing makes for a fascinating back-story, but as far as appreciating Mil Mascaras: Resurrection goes, it’s almost wholly irrelevant, because, on a technical level, the film comes across as nothing if not a professional effort, showing few signs at all of being an amateur or student production. Overall, the film has the kind of glossy non-style of the typical straight-to-cable movie, which, given the somewhat utilitarian aspects of its genre, is not all a bad thing. As such, it acts as a seamless delivery device for lucha movie thrills, free of any visual flourishes that might distract us from the business at hand. I’ll say right off that I really enjoyed the movie, and I suspect that, being that I’m perhaps as big of a lucha movie geek as Jeffrey Uhlmann, many of the problems I had with it are ones that few other viewers will share. Still, since no one seems to be campaigning for us to have consensus-seeking robots write our reviews here at Teleport City, I’m going to discuss those problems anyway.
One of the reservations I have about finding fault with how MM:R approaches its subject is that I’m not entirely sure what I have a right to reasonably expect from a Mil Mascaras movie made in 2007. The makers of such a film are faced with a difficult choice. They can choose to emulate the tone of the classic lucha films, which is basically one of complete absurdity cloaked in unwavering earnestness, but with no hope, in this post-ironic age, of convincingly achieving it. The only option in that regard, then, is to pay a sort of tribute to the things that contribute to that tone and use them as “quotes’ within the film, while at the same time trying to avoid the kind of smirky knowingness that could come off as being condescending toward the subject matter — a particularly tough trick when you consider the degree to which lucha libre fandom involves a delicate dance between an adult sense of irony and a child-like suspension of disbelief.
On the other hand, the filmmakers can go in the opposite direction, have a total nerd-gasm, and go all “reboot” on the subject, making their hero more dark and conflicted, filling in his back-story in a manner designed to give him a more mythic dimension, and spicing it all up with bits of edgy-sounding techno-babble about bio-morphing masks and such. (This would be what we might call the “Lucha movies: They’re not just for kids anymore” approach.) What those behind Mil Mascaras: Resurrection ultimately decided to do is a little bit of each of the above, and, as a result, the film, to some extent, feels like it’s suspended between homage, parody and a desire to be the thing itself – a desire that’s further foiled by it being a luchadore film that’s forced to have Columbia, Missouri fill-in for Mexico City.
This coming-from-all-angles approach, for better or worse, offers one distinct advantage to Mil Mascaras: Resurrection, in that it allows its accomplishments to stand on their own merits while providing an ironic shield for those things that it maybe wasn’t quite so successful at. This is especially true for the acting in the film, which, to put it kindly, is wildly hit or miss. Even the professionals among the cast — who include Willard Pugh, Richard Lynch and Gary Ambrosia — don’t seem to have benefitted from much direction, with the emphasis most likely being on simply moving things along at a brisk pace (something that, to give credit where it’s due, the film achieves quite admirably). Yet, because most English speakers are only familiar with Mexican wrestling films via those few Santo movies that K. Gordon Murray imported to the U.S., all of which were dubbed into English by some of the most affect-challenged voice-artists you could ever hope to hear, such stilted line readings can be defended as being in the spirit of the original. Unfortunately, one of Uhlmann and his colleagues’ key shortcomings is an apparent difficulty resisting the temptation to go overboard, and they scuttle some of the goodwill that such a defense would depend on with the gag of having Mil Mascaras’ dialog very obviously overdubbed with the exaggeratedly off-synch voice of another actor speaking English in a sonorous Latin accent. It’s an oversell that results in a lackluster aspect of the film that might have otherwise gotten by on a sort of ramshackle charm being undermined by an overenthusiastic elbow jab to the ribs.
This occasional tendency to oversell also dims the glow of one of my favorite moments in the movie, a speech given by the film’s resident benevolent scientific authority, a gentleman referred to only as the Professor (Kurt Rennin Mirtsching). It’s a signature moment in the early Santo movies to have some supporting character — usually an authority figure like a police chief or a respected scientist — speaking in awed tones about how amazing Santo is, and the inclusion of such a moment here is one giveaway of the script’s origins as one written around the character of El Hijo del Santo. It’s really note perfect, with the Prof. intoning that Mil has “the mind of a scientist, the soul of an artist, the body of a great athlete, and yet there’s something more about him. Something that separates him from other men.” Of all the film’s ticking off of the genre’s stock elements, this one struck me as the most affectionate, gently parodying the idea, but at the same time speaking to the kid in us who thinks it really would be cool if Santo built time machines in his spare time, no matter how ridiculous we know the idea is in reality. Unfortunately, rather than just leaving it there, the expression of such sentiments ends up becoming a conspicuously insistent motif in the movie — such as when the Professor praises Mil’s theories on observer-centric physics and beseeches him to join his University’s faculty, or when reference is made to another masked wrestler’s theories appearing in all the “peer-reviewed journals” — to the point that I started to get the uneasy feeling that what I was seeing was perhaps less gentle parody than it was simply jeering with hand over mouth.
So, in short, there’s something that I find a little bit slippery about Mil Mascaras: Resurrection‘s tone that keeps me from absolutely loving it. But, again, as much as I’m tempted to look at it sideways, I don’t think many others will be troubled by similar concerns. This is a lucha movie, after all, and isn’t the only test it really needs to pass that of whether an eight year old boy could watch it in an untroubled state of rapt credulity? He could. And given that, the rest of us, in the spirit of the endeavor, should probably just check it and enjoy the ride, and not give all of the film’s instances of winking and giggling at itself too much thought. After all, there is indeed much to enjoy.
I made brief reference before to the fact that Mil Mascaras: Resurrection moves along at a brisk clip, and it’s an attribute that bears more than a passing mention. Despite the unevenness of tone, its pacing is nearly flawless, something for which I think we owe thanks to both Uhlmann’s tight script and the expert intuition of editor Thom Calderon. Directors Gubera and Burr’s economical staging of the scenes, while failing the actors themselves, also contributes greatly to the cause. More happens in the first half hour of the film than happens in the entirety of many classic lucha movies, yet all of the actions and plot elements — the usual casualties in any attempt to race through a narrative — are fairly crisply defined. In addition, Calderon’s editing does an impressive bit of sleight-of-hand as far as covering up for the movie’s budgetary shortcomings, frequently giving us the impression that we’ve seen things — car crashes, extravagant stunts — that we haven’t, and never letting any one shot linger long enough on a given location to betray the fact that, rather than, say, the headquarters of the Mexico City Police Dept., we’re just looking at another part of Mizzou’s student commons.
Such misdirection is also helpful in portraying the physical heroics of a septuagenarian action star like Mil Mascaras. While he still looks intimidatingly buff and impressively light-on-his-feet, Mil definitely needs a little movie magic when it comes to displaying the same acrobatic skills he exhibited in his movies from the sixties, and the technical crew here doesn’t let him down. In fact, there was only one brief instance where I could spot an obvious double in Mil’s place, though I imagine that there were more instances where one was used.
Mil Mascaras: Resurrection alerts us right away to the “reboot” aspect of its agenda, making an isolated attempt, within its opening moments, to present us with that aforementioned dark and conflicted version of Mil Mascaras. Mil gets dumped by his fiancé/a terrible actress, after which he has a pensive moment, sitting on a river bank and staring searchingly at his reflection in the water. Seriously, I was only joking when, in my review of Superargo vs. Diabolicus, I imagined a more emo, Marvel Comics-inspired lucha cinema, but that’s pretty much what we’re getting here. Of course, Mil Mascaras can only be so emo, given that his every attempt to display emotion results in him simply widening his eyes in surprise. Still, that’s a lot more acting than Santo or Blue Demon ever did, and he should be commended.
Anyway, it is in this meditative riverbank moment that we learn that this movie’s version of Mil Mascaras is one who’s mask is part of a legacy of heroism handed down through his family over generations, which is actually another of the film’s elements that’s taken from the Santo movies. In the movies that Mil Mascaras did for Luis Enrique Vergara during the sixties, Mil was presented as having been raised by a bunch of crazy scientists who found him in the rubble of a bombed-out building at the end of WWII and rigorously trained him to be a consummate superman. Of course, this new version of his origin provides a lot of opportunity for talk about “fate” and “destiny”, and thus goes some way toward imbuing his character with those also-aforementioned mythic dimensions. Part of that destiny, it turns out, is for him to have a run-in with a recently resurrected Aztec Mummy who has been a foe of the Mascaras clan for generations, and who now plans to rule the world with a gem that has the power to control men’s minds. Jeffrey Uhlmann himself takes on the role of the Mummy, and it’s a performance that depends, as very well it should, on making lots of grandiose and highly-stylized hand gestures like Dr. Gori in Spectreman (always my go-to guy for stylized supervilliain hand gestures). Uhlmann does his maniacal lucha villain turn proud, although his Mummy mask has a muppet-like quality to it that makes the character oddly endearing despite that.
Over the course of the film, Uhlmann-as-scenarist reveals himself to be an attentive and appreciative student of Mexican wrestling movies — and vintage Mexican horror movies in general — as evidenced by the many affectionate references to the genre’s touchstone moments that can be found throughout. My favorite of these is the clunky, man-in-suit robot (also played by Uhlmann) that harkens back to the original Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy, but also brings to mind the robot from the loopy sci-fi musical hacienda-Western La Nave de Los Monstruos. There is also a replay of that iconic moment — originally seen in Santo vs. the Vampire Women, but imitated in several successive lucha films — in which our hero’s ring opponent, when unmasked, is revealed to be an inhuman monster, with the added bonus that the beast in this case is a ringer for the monster in the notorious sleaze-fest Night of the Bloody Apes. In another instance, the mummy revives and sends forth a legion of undead Aztec warriors in a scene that recalls The Mummies of Guanajuato and its numerous sequels, with the generous addition of a midget mummy to please the Agrasanchez fans in the audience. There are even a couple of vampire girls on hand to provide homage to Mil’s cinematic high water mark, Las Vampiras.
In addition to these specific quotations, the film also dutifully honors most of the genre’s basic conventions. The Professor, of course, has a beautiful young daughter (Maria, played — badly — by Melissa Osborn) who is in love with Mil, and, given that he thinks Mil is so awesome, the Prof. enthusiastically encourages the attraction. Thankfully, the filmmakers, probably sensing the considerable potential creep factor arising from the yawning age gap between the two, choose to pay tribute to this particular trope while maintaining a chaste distance between the lovers. Elsewhere, an impressive stamp of authenticity is gained via the appearance of a host of other real luchadores, including El Hijo del Santo, who participates in a tag team match with Mil in front of a strangely Caucasian-heavy Mexico City crowd, and Blue Demon Jr., who appears along with a bunch of other real-life masked grapplers as part of a modern day version of the Champions of Justice.
But where Mil Mascaras: Resurrection really gets it right, more than anywhere else, is in Mil’s costumes, which, according to the credits, were designed by the man himself. Mil, as I’ve said elsewhere, was the true rock star of lucha libre, and the only man, in a sport known for its garish flamboyance, capable of making his competitors’ colorful togs look like something they’d wear on a sick day home in comparison to his own. And, man, I don’t think he has ever looked better than he does here. These outfits, if you can train your eyes on them long enough to appreciate them without going blind, are masterpieces, from the glittering, every-color-of-the-rainbow number that he rocks early on, to the leopard print ensemble he wears when he accompanies the President of the United States (who also speaks about Mil in hushed, admiring tones, by the way) to address the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The real closer, though, the one that would bring the house down were Mil to take his looks to fashion week in New York, is the Aztec warrior get-up with the towering headdress that he wears to his climactic ring match. As outrageous eye candy goes, the whole assortment is pure heaven, and exactly the type of thing to make me forget, at least momentarily, my aforementioned misgivings about the picture overall.
And those misgivings, after all, are most troubling because there is enough that is good about Mil Mascaras: Resurrection to make me want to really, really like it. I love lucha movies — Mil Mascaras’ in particular — and I get the clear sense from this movie that Jeffrey Uhlmann does, too. And, given that, I respect and appreciate his and his collaborators’ efforts to bring Mil back to the screen in all his glory. Still, as is, I merely just like Mil Mascaras: Resurrection, and with reservations, at that. I am optimistic, however, about the news that this same bunch has completed a second Mil Mascaras film. After all, it’s not that I feel that theirs are the wrong hands to put to the task, it’s just that I think they’d benefit from a little more focus, perhaps of the type that would come from working under a schedule less fitful than the one necessitated by MM:R‘s stop-and-start production history. As I said, I’m not really sure how much I can expect from a Mil Mascaras movie made in the 21st century, but I’m hoping that, with their follow-up effort, Jeffrey Uhlmann and the gang will show me.
Release Year: 2007 | Country: United States | Starring: Mil Mascaras, Jeffrey Uhlmann, Kurt Rennin Mirtsching, Willard Pugh, Melissa Osborn, Richard Lynch, Marco Lanzagorta, Gary Ambrosia, Stephanie Matthews, Jonathan Verdejo-Rocha, Abbie Adkins, El Hijo del Santo | Writer: Jeffrey Uhlmann | Directors: Jeff Burr, Chip Gubera | Cinematographer: Thomas Callaway | Music: Vaughn Johnson | Producers: Kannappan Palaniappan, Jeffrey Uhlmann
I’d like to start off by telling you that what you’re reading is in every way identical to a normal movie review… except for one thing. It’s bullet-proof. It also contains a tiny transmitter by which we here at Teleport City can track all of your movements. So that would be two things, then. Oh, and it can also act as shark repellent. Of course, if you were to find yourself in the kind of circumstances in which you could put all of those hidden functions to the test, I’d be very impressed. Unfortunately, you’d also be dead. The fact is that I’ve just always wanted to give one of those “except for one thing” spiels like you hear in 1960s spy movies. Exactly, in fact, like the one that the masked hero Superargo receives toward the beginning of Superargo vs. Diabolicus, during which he is presented with all kinds of items — from a dhingy to a cocktail olive — that are in every way identical to what they appear to be on the surface, except for one thing. That doesn’t really apply to the cocktail olive, though, because it is actually a Geiger counter and, as such, completely inedible. So it’s really completely un-identical to a cocktail olive except for one thing — i.e., looking like a cocktail olive.