Mystery in Bermuda

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.

Santo’s subsequent absence from that film is typically attributed to a scheduling conflict, though it’s telling that, while both Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras would star in numerous Agrasanchez productions throughout the 1970s — including Champions of Justice — Santo, with the exception of The Mummies of Guanajuato and the film under discussion below, would somehow manage to successfully avoid them for the better part of seven years. As a result, the three would not be reunited in front of the cameras until 1977, in Misterio en las Bermudas, a film conceived and produced by Agrasanchez that would not see release in Mexico until the summer of 1979.

Of course, a lot had happened in the intervening years, not the least being that, by the time of Misterio en las Bermudas’ release, lucha cinema had become a genre on life support. Waning audience interest in the films had seemingly come to be matched by a lack of interest in entertaining them on the part of filmmakers, with predictably diminishing results. Agrasanchez’s films in particular could be seen as emblematic of this trend, though I suppose it’s arguable whether or not they were a cause or victim of the public’s apathy. Agrasanchez certainly deserves a lot of credit for keeping the genre alive during this period, though, in order to do so, he was apparently driven to resort to fly-by-night productions that were increasingly hasty, unfocused and tawdry.

Misterio en las Bermudas is no exception to this tendency in Agrasanchez’s work, and in many ways seems to crystallize it. Though it’s another aspect of its conception that makes it the doozy that it is. Misterio would be the last lucha film produced by Agrasanchez, and at some point the decision seems to have been made by him or someone that it would also be the swan song of the genre in toto. Unfortunately, the dearth of members of the Mexican movie-going public who would see this as a loss effectively guaranteed that Misterio would usher off lucha cinema with, not a bang, but a whimper — albeit an odd and interesting whimper. And, if I’m being fair, there is — technically, at least — a bang.

Another thing that occurred between the releases of The Mummies of Guanajuato and Misterio was an increased public obsession with the Bermuda Triangle. The idea of the Triangle — that there was an area of the Atlantic that was hoovering up far more than its fair share of ships and planes, perhaps because of Atlantis — seems to have made its initial entry into pop culture in the early 60s, largely through the efforts of men’s adventure magazines like Argosy and Fate. (This leads me, of course, to imagine these magazines bearing cover images of sinewy guys in ripped shirts trying to wrestle the Bermuda Triangle into submission as their terrorized girlfriends look on.) The tipping point, however, seems to have occurred in 1974, with the release of two bestselling books.

One of these books was Richard Winer’s The Devil’s Triangle, which was accompanied by a feature documentary of the same name which Winer himself directed. The other was The Bermuda Triangle, written by linguist and paranormal enthusiast Charles Berlitz. Berlitz’s book would also get the film treatment, though in this case the author’s theories on the subject would be dramatized by having John Huston, Hugo Stiglitz and Claudine Auger terrorized by supernatural phenomena during an ill-fated summer cruise. Fittingly for our purposes, that 1978 film, also called The Bermuda Triangle, was directed by Rene Cardona Jr., a man who was no stranger to the lucha film genre, especially by way of his father and namesake, who had directed a number of its classics, including Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy and its sleazier counterpart Night of the Bloody Apes.

Of course, for every wild theory put forth by the likes of Berlitz and Winer, there was a corresponding, if not equal, effort at debunking them. Probably the most notable of these was Lawrence David Kusche’s 1975 book The Bermuda Triangle Mystery: Solved, which countered many of their arguments by way of boring facts. No amount of facts, however, could change the fact that paranormal explanations for the phenomena in question were simply the sexier option, as would be borne out by the plethora of offshoots — including ancillary publications and a seeming multitude of American TV movies — that would continue to pop up throughout the remainder of the decade. This would likely also explain why the Triangle became the bogey of choice — replacing the usual vampires, werewolves, or space vixens seen in previous lucha outings — in Misterio en las Bermudas. Granted, the whole Bermuda Triangle subplot does seem a bit shoehorned into the final product; perhaps as a result of everyone’s hurry to just get things over with.

The prologue to Misterio en las Bermudas is a tapestry of confusion, setting the stage, not only for the mystery to come, but for the mystery that is Misterio en las Bermudas itself. We first see some kind of sci-fi gizmo rise up out of the ocean, accompanied by the sound of a whistling tea kettle, after which the oceans roil and much stock footage of thunder and lightning is unleashed. Then a passenger airplane is shown disappearing from the sky. Next we see a man and a young boy fishing off a pier. There is some loose talk about some missing English scientists, and then the boy catches something on his line. It is Santo’s mask, waterlogged and draped in seaweed. This discovery sends the man, whose name is Anselmo, into a reverie. It all started, he tells the boy, “many years ago”, when Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras arrived in town for a series of matches.

Now, where “town” is meant to be is unclear, but where Misterio en las Bermudas was filmed was Port Isabel, a Texas town just a few miles north of the border from Matamoros and home to the I.C.E.’s notorious Port Isabel Detention Center (one would guess that everyone involved had their papers well in order). Other exteriors were filmed on neighboring South Padre Island, a popular Spring Break spot that was home to the Bahia Mar Resort Hotel, which doubled as the movie’s futuristic underwater city. That said, however attractive these locations might have been (not very), or inexpensive to shoot in (more likely), one thing, at least to my knowledge, is clear: neither was on the Bermuda Triangle. Then again, the chances of anyone coming to Misterio en las Bermudas expecting a documentary are pretty slight.

Anyway, for as formidable an assemblage of luchadore might as Santo, Blue and Mil to descend upon one small town there has to be some kind of secret agenda. And, indeed, after the requisite tag team match — filmed, this time around, in a real ring in front of a live audience — we see the trio called to a hush hush meeting with representatives from the fictional nation of Irania. It seems that the Princess Sobeida, daughter of the country’s “Great Vizier” — who is, of course, an old friend of Santo’s — is coming through town to sign an important treaty, and there are sinister foreign forces at work who are determined to stop her. Naturally, the Iranian-ian officials have adopted countermeasures to this plot, and they represent the sublime heights of absurd lucha movie plotting: An impostor will be substituted for the princess, while the real princess (Gaynor Kote) will pose as a karate expert visiting town for an exhibition. Yet, as foolproof as this plot may be, it is still felt that three lumbering masked wrestlers are needed on hand to provide protection for the girl.

No protection, of course, is deemed necessary for the impostor, so, once the terrorists, with little explication, hastily change their plot from one of kidnapping to assassination, she is brutally murdered in her bed with no one to hear her desperate cries. Princess Sobeida, on the other hand, proves to have some actual mastery of karate — it’s suggested that Santo was one of her teachers — and is thus that much more fortified against attack. This makes it all the more laughable when it’s revealed that, on the other side of this equation, is a gang of foreign thugs lead by Godard, who is played by Santo’s frequent costar and former manager Carlos Suarez. Suarez at this point kind of weirdly alternated between playing either a shrill comic relief sidekick or a bad guy from one Santo movie to the next, and the sad fact is that he was a little more credible as the former.

All of this is of no matter, however, because Godard has a secret weapon in the form of three treacherous bikini babes who easily shimmy their way into the good graces of the horny luchadores. After a poolside introduction, Santo eagerly pairs off with Rina (Silvia Manriquez), who then somewhat inexplicably drugs him with a truth serum in order to find out the details of his mission. I say this because it turns out that Rina merely wants Santo’s help in tracking down her missing scientist father, and that she is in fact a double agent working within Godard’s gang in hopes of gaining information on his whereabouts (and no, that doesn’t make one lick of sense). Furthermore, the details given by Rina seem to tie her father’s disappearance to that of the trio of English scientists discussed in the movie’s prologue, which was supposed to be taking place “many years” hence. Trivial foibles, I’m sure, but all I’m saying is that this would never happen in the present day, where the fear of testy internet commenters and Cracked Magazine list articles keeps filmmakers to a strict standard of continuity and fact checking.

In any case, it turns out that Rina is herself being pursued by a pair of guys in chrome coveralls who have a habit of materializing out of thin air. Once they succeed in capturing her, it leads to a speedboat chase that ends when the shiny gizmo from the beginning of the movie rises from the sea and causes the captors’ boat to disappear before the startled eyes of Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras. Rina then finds herself in an underwater city that’s pretty heavy on the wood grain, where she is greeted by her missing father. He tells her that this is a utopian civilization whose inhabitants have made a long practice of taking the best and the brightest from the surface world in order that they may live in peace and harmony, away from the warlike stupidity of our own cozily familiar but nonetheless warlike and stupid world. He also tells her that he hopes she likes it there, because she will never be able to leave. This settled, we are now free to go back to the movie about the three masked wrestlers charged with protecting the Middle Eastern princess.

Misterio en las Bermudas was directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares, who had proved himself well capable of spinning out a pacey luchadore adventure with the madcap Santo and Blue Demon vs. The Monsters. Still, the pacing of Misterio seems at times to be perversely ponderous. I attribute some of that to the filmmakers’ apparent confusion over what the story they were trying to tell was — as if the film occasionally had to stop itself mid-run to ask, “Who am I?” The underwater civilization plot and the more straightforward international intrigue storyline never really dovetail in any meaningful way, leaving the former to feel like little more than a weird digression, and the latter to suffer from our impression that all involved felt it unworthy of our full attention. On the other hand, I also attribute Misterio en las Bermudas’ plentiful longueurs to the fact that it was a late 70s lucha movie, and that’s just what late 70s lucha movies are like.

As Keith alluded to in his review of Champions of Justice, late period lucha movies — and those produced by Rogelio Agransanchez in particular — tended to eschew the gothic trappings and atmosphere of their predecessors in favor of an almost stubborn adherence to the prosaic and homely. When they weren’t punching vampires in the face, these movies seemed to say, luchadores rode the bus and scraped hardened gum off their counter tops just like us. And there’s a beauty in that, I’ve found — if perhaps only as a means of alleviating my boredom while watching them. In fact, I’ve come to keep a mental collection of my favorite “luchadores at home” moments from these films, with Misterio containing one of my true all timers: Mil Mascaras, wearing a polo shirt and slacks, walking back to his apartment with a brimming bag of groceries under each arm, seemingly without a care in the world. Of course, this is just a set-up for him being jumped by a trio of goons. But, as I’ve speculated elsewhere, were this a romantic comedy, an attractive stranger might bump Mil and send the contents of those bags tumbling, leading to an awkward but charming “meet cute” as the two scrambled to gather them. (As I also noted elsewhere, neither of these bags had a baguette sticking up out of it, which is simply a flagrant flaunting of the rules.)

On the plus side, Misterio’s action is pretty equitably divided between its stars, with each receiving showcase moments among numerous fights and action set pieces. This marks a refreshing contrast to The Mummies of Guanajuato, in which Santo simply showed up in the eleventh hour to steal the spotlight from Blue and Mil. (Conceivably Blue wouldn’t have had it any other way, as burned up as he was over that experience.) While Santo, being the biggest draw, is the technical star of the film, it’s a real treat to see just how much of their screen time the three wrestlers spend together, whether it’s in a fight or simply lounging by the pool in their snazzy leisure wear. Guanajuato promised the thrill of seeing Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras on the screen together for the first time, but, ironically, it’s Misterio, the inarguably weaker film, that actually delivers it.

Misterio en las Bermudas’ climactic fight begins with Princess Sobeida cornered in her apartment by the razor wielding Godard. Thanks to her karate skills, she’s able to make pretty good work of him before Santo, Blue and Mil show up to finish the job. What I’m saying is that it ends up taking a karate expert and three burly professional wrestlers to subdue an old man armed only with a straight razor. Such is the grandeur and sweep of this, the final film in the luchadore canon. Earlier, we have had a brief revisit with Rina and her father in the undersea city, during which she tells her father that she has fallen in love with Santo, and that she misses him. Thus, during a seemingly cheery denouement in which Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras ride triumphantly into the sunset aboard the Princess’s boat, do we abruptly cut back to the man and boy from the prologue.

“And they were never seen again”, says the man. And I get it; Rina had the undersea people use their gizmo to bring Santo and his friends back to their undersea city so that she could be with Santo forever, ending things on a pleasingly romantic note. Right? But then the man continues, saying something about the “predictions of revelations” being carried out, and then, finally: “The end of the world is near.” Then we’re shown stock footage of a nuclear blast, followed by an immense mushroom cloud. THE END.

I have to wonder if that ending is an indication of just how catastrophic the loss of lucha cinema was to Rogelio Agrasanchez personally — if, for him, the only alternative to a world in which Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras no longer fought criminals and monsters on the big screen was no world at all? Whatever the case, Santo foiled Agrasanchez’s apocalyptic vision by appearing in several more lackluster features after Misterio, finally retiring with an especially woeful twofer of Florida-shot quickies in 1981. Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras, however, kept the faith and disappeared from the screen for the foreseeable future — in Blue’s case, forever, and, in Mil’s, until his who-would-have-seen-that-coming cinematic comeback in 2007. Thankfully, due to the survival and ready availability of so many of all three men’s movie efforts, Misterio en las Bermudas need serve only as a footnote to, rather than the last word on, their esteemed careers.

Release Year: 1979 | Country: Mexico | Starring: Santo, Blue Demon, Mil Mascaras, Silvia Manriquez, Sandra Duarte, Carlos Suarez, Gaynor Kote, Ernesto Solis, Humberto Cabanas, Julio Cesar Agrasanchez, Rebeca Sexton, Leticia Montemayor, Jose Luis Elizondo | Screenplay: Gilberto Martinez Solares, Adolfo Martinez Solares | Director: Gilberto Martinez Solares | Cinematography: Adolfo Martinez Solares | Music: Ernesto Cortazar Jr. | Producer: Rogelio Agrasanchez | Original Title: Misterio en las Bermudas