Santo vs. Blue Demon in Atlantis

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.

By the time of making Atlantis in 1969, Blue Demon had already starred in a series of successful films for producer Luis Enrique Vergara. And Santo, working for a variety of studios and producers — including, for a time, Vergara — had chalked up an impressive slate of twenty-plus features (though those, thanks to Santo’s apparently indiscriminate practice of just following the paycheck, were wildly varying in quality). So when Sotomayor productions got the notion to team the two together in a film, it must have seemed like a formula for pure box office gold. The only stumbling block, however, was the small matter of a bitter rivalry between the two wrestlers that stretched back some 16 years. The fact that Santo had lost his title to Blue in an ego-bruising defeat back in 1953 was reportedly something that still rankled the Enmascarado de Plata all these years later, and, while he would go on to work with Blue in a series of films, the two would never be what you could call friends. Blue, for his part, may have found equal cause for resentment in the fact that, while he was arguably the superior athlete of the two, he was perpetually relegated to the number two spot thanks to the iconic status that Santo enjoyed in Mexico – a status that was as much due to Santo’s roles as a movie star and popular comic book hero as it was to his skill in the ring.

The dilemma for Sotomayor was that, because of this legendary rivalry, fans who paid to see Santo and Blue Demon in a movie together would come with the expectation of seeing them fight one another. The simple solution to this would seem to be to cast one wrestler as the hero and the other as the villain, but the fact that both were presented as heroes both in the ring and in their own movies (though both had earlier in their wrestling careers been rudos, or bad guys) made this problematic. After all, the conceit of lucha movies was that the actual wrestlers who appeared in them were not playing roles, but simply appearing as themselves, and the way that they were presented on screen was meant to carry over into how they were perceived off of it, and vice versa.

As I described in my review of Santo and Blue Demon vs. The Monsters, the solution that producer/writer Jesus Sotomayor Martinez, his co-writer Rafael Garcia Traversi, and director Julian Soler came up with would set the tone for many of Santo and Blue Demon’s screen pairings to come. And that solution was to have Blue Demon start out the film as a good guy, and then, through circumstances beyond his control, become the slave of some otherworldly force that would cause him to turn against his pal Santo, in turn forcing Santo to repeatedly beat the living tar out of his good chum Blue Demon before, through heroic efforts, effecting his return to normalcy. Once that was achieved, both luchadores could clock out the film’s remaining minutes with a united display of good guy derring-do — until the next film, at which point the process would start all over again. Santo vs. Blue Demon in Atlantis (or, more accurately, Santo contra Blue Demon en la Atlantida) is, in fact, the most honest in its presentation of this arrangement of all the films, as it is the only one to use “vs” in the title rather than the more collegial “and”.

In addition to marking the beginning of a successful screen partnership, Santo vs. Blue Demon in Atlantis also serves as evidence of a couple of distinct trends that were developing in Santo’s movies as the sixties came to a close. American audiences who are familiar with Santo only through those few films that were dubbed into English by K. Gordon Murray (in which Santo was referred to as “Samson”) might understandably consider his customary milieu to be one of B grade gothic horror. And while films like Santo vs. the Vampire Women or Santo in the Wax Museum definitely represent a dominant strain in Santo’s filmography, the sheer volume of his output practically necessitated that his cinematic offerings fall within a wide range of genres, including westerns, crime thrillers, science fiction, and even — ostensibly at least — comedy (which is to say, the less said about Santo vs. Capulina, the better).

In 1966, a new genre was added to this list when, in an effort to cash in on the Bond craze, the studio America-Cima Films teamed Santo with a young pretty boy actor named Jorge Rivero for a pair of spy films titled Operation 67 and The Treasure of Montezuma (or, if you actually want to find them, Operacion 67 and El Tesoro de Moctezuma). Though these films were never exported to the U.S. and remain virtually unknown here today, they are actually among the most well-appointed of Santo’s films, blessed with obviously higher budgets than was the norm, and boasting a slick, colorful look that easily put them in the league of the better funded Bond knock-offs coming out of Europe at the time.

In addition to introducing Santo to the thrilling world of espionage — and, presumably, fans of such films to Santo — the Rivero spy films also effected a marked transformation in the masked one’s on-screen persona. Up to that point, the Santo seen on screen had for the most part lived up to his name, as a saintly figure who existed only to help those in need. In fact, 1961’s Santo contra el Rey de Crimen, one of the only films to refer to Santo as having any kind of conventional, superhero-type “origin”, makes the ascetic aspect of his character fairly explicit. As represented in that film, Santo’s mask was not meant to conceal his identity so much as obliterate it, thus removing the incentive for worldly rewards such as fame and personal adoration, and insuring that Santo’s good deeds were performed out of only the purest motives. Following along these lines, almost all of Santo’s early films positioned him as an adjunct to a traditional romantic lead – one who, when not putting scissor holds on zombies, would spend all of his time tooling around alone in his lab waiting for the call for help to arrive. He never got the girl, or even tried to, nor did he have much interaction in the social lives of the other characters.

Of course, when it came time to retool Santo for inclusion in a swinging sixties spy caper, that monkish demeanor would have to be done away with completely. And so, in Operation 67‘s opening minutes we were immediately thrust into a world in which a swimming trunks clad Santo necked on the beach with an adoring bikini babe, only to callously dispatch her with a snap of his fingers when duty called. From this point on, the saintly Santo of old was conclusively banished to the past, and no future Santo film would be complete without the masked one being provided with a love interest or a sexy girlfriend — and would frequently include scenes such as the one in Vengeance of the Vampire Women where Santo can be observed lounging by the pool while being served by his voluptuous and revealingly attired maid.

In addition, Operation 67 and its sequel insured that, between battling with the usual vampires and werewolves, every third or so Santo feature from that point on would feature him as an agent of Interpol or some other secret organization, doing battle against the forces of international espionage. This path lead to its logical conclusion in 1973, when Santo starred in an actual Eurospy film, the Spanish-produced Santo vs Dr. Death, which had him rubbing elbows with such genre regulars as Helga Line and Mirta Miller.

Of course, these later spy efforts weren’t mounted on anywhere near as handsome a scale as the Rivero films, which brings me to that second trend that was taking hold in Santo’s movies as the Seventies dawned. As time went on, it seemed that Santo’s film career was increasingly falling into the hands of producers whose primary goal was to create features without providing more than the absolute minimum of original content, a practice that resulted in films heavy with recycled and borrowed footage, as well as endless taxing minutes of soul-deadeningly aimless filler. This practice would become even more pronounced as the decade progressed, and dwindling audience interest in the lucha genre made it the provenance of independent producers and small time production companies who could only turn a profit on the films by churning them out as quickly and cheaply as possible. This resulted in the genre pioneering new lows in film padding, forcing audiences to watch their wrestling heroes performing the type of mundane tasks that are boring enough when one has to do them oneself, and no less so when observed being performed by Santo, Mil Mascaras or Superzan. (Though, granted, the practice did on occasion provide for some wonderful moments of unintentional surrealism.)

Not that Santo vs. Blue Demon in Atlantis comes anywhere near that level of slackness in its execution, of course. But the tendency is still well in evidence. And to helpfully illustrate that fact, the film kicks off with a dizzying seven minute montage of repurposed film stock — including newsreel footage, scenes from an old black & white science fiction movie, that A-bomb test footage you always see in movies from the Fifties, and, most strikingly, a number of Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects shots from Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. Over this a narrator tells us… well, I’m not sure, exactly. To be honest, the currently available DVD of Santo vs. Blue Demon in Atlantis lacks English subtitles, and I don’t speak a lick of Spanish. But the gist of things is that some character calling himself Achilles has holed himself up in Atlantis and is firing missiles launched from the Moon, I think, at the Earth, threatening not to stop unless he is made king of everything forever.

As one might expect in a film of this type, these events lead to a group of severe looking middle-aged men in crisp suits convening around a large conference table with some flags scattered about. More stock footage is viewed on a projector, and the theory is put forward that Achilles, despite his apparent relative youth, is actually an escaped Nazi scientist who’s still hung up on that whole “race of supermen” idea. One of the agents of the international organization that owns the conference table and projector, a scientist named Professor Gerard (Rafael Banquells), is apparently the only person with the know-how to put a stop to Achilles’ plan, and it is decided to partner him up with the organization’s key operative, Santo, aka Agent X-21.

A lengthy wrestling sequence follows featuring a match between Santo and Blue. This is a rarity in the Santo and Blue Demon films, because in subsequent films featuring the two, if the two were shown in the ring together at all, it would typically be in team matches in which they fought side-by-side. That said, this match is a particularly brutal one, comprised a lot more of bare-knuckled punches to the face than it is of the wrestling holds or flips you’d expect to see. In fact, though the whole Santo vs. Blue Demon feud may have been played up for drama, I do have to say that the fights between the two stars throughout Atlantis are pretty darn realistic, with both participants appearing, shall we say, particularly motivated. It’s hard to imagine that both didn’t bring home quite a collection of scrapes and bruises at the end of the shooting day. Another noteworthy aspect of this ring sequence is that it takes place in an actual arena with a live audience, whereas later Santo films would simply feature fights shot on a small soundstage with overdubbed crowd noise and an announcer commenting on the enormity of the crowd, the luxuriousness of the venue, the viciousness of the blows, Santo’s fine fighting trim, and anything else that the evidence of the eye might contradict.

Anyway, somewhere during the course of the fight, some of Achilles’ minions sneak into the arena and switch both Santo and Blue Demon’s water bottles with drugged ones. Santo doesn’t drink, but Blue does, and goes down like a well-oiled side of beef as a result. Disguised as ambulance attendants, Achilles’ men then spirit Blue away to Atlantis, which appears to be in a shallow underwater cave just a few yards from the beach. A couple of shots from Atragon are inserted in an attempt to spruce things up a bit, but we soon see that Achilles’ lair is basically just a rocky cavern decorated with some colored curtains and a couple of Roman-style busts on pedestals. Achilles (serial Santo supporting actor Jorge Rado), who looks like a hippy college professor, shows us some more stock footage — this time of Olympic gymnasts and sprinters — in an attempt to sell Blue on the whole master race idea. Then he has Blue fight a burly bearded minion in trunks in a scene that makes Santo vs. Blue Demon in Atlantis the closest thing to a peplum in either Blue or Santo’s filmography. Still unable to sell Blue on how awesome life in Atlantis is, Achilles settles on simply strapping Blue to a table and hypnotizing him with a disco ball.

Now under Achilles’ control, Blue calls Santo and arranges a meeting, saying he has information about Achilles. Santo jumps into his sports car and zooms off to the roadside rendezvous. However, soon after Santo has hopped into Blue’s snazzy red Thunderbird convertible, he realizes that all is not right with his burly BFF — and when Blue refuses to pull over, begins to punch him repeatedly in the head, which is probably not the most advisable course of action given that they are speeding along a narrow and winding road overlooking a steep cliff. Blue finally pulls over and the two pile out of the car for a savage smack-fest that is eventually joined in by a gang of Achilles’ henchmen. Just as it looks like Santo is about to have his ass permanently tied up in a nice little bow and handed to him, help arrives in the form of female Agent X-25 (Magda Giner) and her gun. Like most henchmen in Santo movies, Achilles’ men came to the party only expecting a little wrestling and hand-to-hand, so when someone introduces bullets into the mix, they are quick to make their getaway with Blue in tow.

And then it’s time for romance back at X-25’s apartment. But first, X-25 must retire to her boudoir to slip into something more comfortable, which provides occasion for an astonishing two minute sequence during which Santo sits on X-25’s plastic-sealed couch and stares blankly at her TV while a black & white musical number from an older movie plays out on it. This sequence is actually even more hypnotizingly dull than the very similar “nightclub” scene from Santo and Blue Demon vs. The Monsters, because that later film’s recycled musical footage was at least in color, and was of an actual production number, while this is just some rather large woman singing a song — albeit quite dramatically — on a sparsely decorated soundstage. Anyway, X-25 finally comes back and the two begin to do a little necking on the couch. After a fade-out, we return to find that Santo has apparently fallen asleep with his face imbedded in X-25’s armpit.

After that Santo vs. Blue Demon in Atlantis goes on to exhibit further questionable judgment by knocking-off one of the most sloppily plotted sequences from You Only Live Twice. As James Bond did in that film, Santo sets out in a helicopter to locate the villain’s hidden base of operations, and, also as in that film, that villain sends out some attack helicopters that, while completely failing to kill the hero, helpfully alert that hero to the fact that he’s very much on the right track, while just staying quiet might have been more advisable on the villain’s part in terms of preserving the hidden-ness of his base. In a departure from the source, the attack helicopters here are just one helicopter playing two, one of which contains Blue Demon firing a pistol at Santo and an overly distressed-looking X-25 in theirs. Of course, no helicopter battle would be complete without concluding with a fiery helicopter crash — but the crew of Santo vs. Blue Demon in Atlantis, not having recourse to the unconvincing miniature work of a more technically sophisticated film like, say, Danger!! Deathray, instead have one of the helicopters make a smooth, conventional landing and then blow up a charge in front of it, making it look like that gentle upright touchdown has somehow caused it to explode. Blue Demon, meanwhile, has parachuted to safety.

Santo, following the path highlighted by Achilles’ foot soldiers, dives into the ocean and swims his way to Atlantis in a nice underwater sequence that would be re-used in Santo and Blue Demon vs. The Monsters. (And which is the first bearer of Atlantis‘ clear message that scuba gear is for pussies, since, throughout the film, everyone who makes the swim to Atlantis has to wear scuba gear to do so, except for Blue and Santo, who can do it in their civvies and wrestling masks.) Soon, with the help of Agent X-25, who is actually a double agent for Achilles (oh, spoiler, sorry), Santo is captured and strapped to Achilles’ disco ball hypno-table, by all appearances soon to become yet another pawn of the madman. And, sure enough, we next cut to Professor Gerard’s lab, where an evil Santo barges in and starts wrecking the joint. But, wait — then the actual Santo shows up and — in just one example of lucha cinema’s countless dramatizations of the conflict between man’s dual natures — has it out with his double, finally skewering him on that old standby, the random pointy thing that’s sticking out of the wall for no reason. It seems that Santo was rescued at the last minute by one of Achilles’ female operatives named Juno, a wise-beyond-her-years pregnant teenager who has fallen for Santo’s irresistible charms. (Okay, part of that description is inaccurate, based on me confusing this with another movie, but I don’t think that it’s the part about Santo’s charms being irresistible.)

Finally, X-25 and Blue Demon show up to finish the work that the evil Santo double started, but Juno bitch slaps X-25 in the back with a bullet and Santo easily overpowers Blue. (Juno, by the way, is played by Silvia Pasquel, the daughter of Rafael Banquells, the actor playing Professor Gerard. I so call nepotism!) Professor Gerard then de-hypnotizes Blue by shoving a light in his face while Blue displays a facial expression reminiscent of that worn by a dog being given a bath. Then Juno and her dad — I mean, Professor Gerard (in scuba gear, natch), along with Blue and Santo (not) hop into the drink and dog paddle their way to the lost continent. At this point it is revealed that the product of the highly specialized scientific knowledge brought to the mission by Professor Gerard is a pretty basic-looking movie time bomb, which the quartet set to explode upon their arrival in the cave/Atlantis/Mu from Atragon. Many of Achilles’ henchmen are dispatched by Blue and Santo before Santo engages in a climactic battle with the man himself. Just as Achilles is about to canonize Santo with one of those Roman busts, Blue picks up a nearby javelin (no doubt left behind by one of those Olympic athletes) and impales Achilles with it. As Achilles expires, he undergoes a rapid aging effect that seems to have been achieved by wrapping Saran Wrap around his face. Then Atlantis blows up as Blue and Santo, watching from a helicopter above, smile with the deep satisfaction that can only come from seeing your enemies reduced to flaming pieces of particulate matter.

I’ve got to say that, while re-watching Santo vs. Blue Demon in Atlantis for the purposed of this review, I enjoyed it quite a lot more than I did the first time I saw it. That said, it still isn’t one of my favorites of the Santo and Blue Demon team-up movies — among which, in my opinion, are some of the very best films in the lucha genre. What is lacking in it for me can be expressed in one simple word: monsters. I think that the makers of Atlantis were aware of that shortcoming, and that, as a result, the surfeit of poorly realized creatures in its immediate follow-up, Santo and Blue Demon vs. The Monsters, can be seen as a a sort of over-reaching compensatory gesture. Still, if you’re looking to see Santo and Blue Demon doing what they do best, you couldn’t do much better than this one, because the fights are indeed plentiful and intense. (What, you thought I meant acting?)

For me, though, I prefer to see Santo and Blue on the same team, despite — or perhaps even because of — the much documented ill will between them. It might just be that the fact that they would rather have been tearing one another’s heads off provides that element of friction so necessary to the chemistry of all great screen couples. There’s that constant feeling of “will they or won’t they?” — though in most other cases that question refers to whether or not the characters are going to kiss, and here it refers to whether they are going to start punching one another in the skull, preferably while in a moving car speeding along a narrow, winding road bracing a steep incline. Whatever. You knew what I meant.

So would I recommend Santo vs. Blue Demon in Atlantis? Predictably, I would. But not without recommending that you first see more accomplished and monster-rich examples from its stars’ oeuvre such as Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolfman, Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein, and, of course, Santo and Blue Demon vs. The Monsters. Even without any fantastic creatures, the novelty of seeing Santo and Blue going through their paces on-screen never loses its novelty for me and is enough to get me through any one of their adventures, no matter how lackluster its trappings may be. I think that’s the gift that lucha cinema gives to the world. It’s simply too deeply weird to ever seem commonplace, and as a result seems to deliver fresh surprises with every return visit.

Release Year: 1969 | Country: Mexico | Starring: Santo, Blue Demon, Jorge Rado, Rafael Banquells, Agustin Martinez Solares, Silvia Pasquel, Magda Giner, Rosa Maria Pineiro, Griselda Mejia, Marcelo Villamil, Carlos Suarez, Juan Garza, Hector Guzman, Olga Guillot | Director: Julian Soler | Screenplay: Rafael Garcia Travesi, Jesus Sotomayor Martinez | Cinematographer: Heberto Martinez | Music: Gustavo Cesar Carrion | Original Title: Santo contra Blue Demon en la Atlantida