Ahorn | Sunday February 25th, 2018
A coffin with negatives, the last 20 dollars as a tip, the shooting ending in revolution? Our critic Andrew Horn today follows the intricate paths – or odyssey – of SANTO, Mexico’s early superhero, who was actually a real person. Hard to believe? Read it yourself:
“When I was a kid, my father went to Mexico and brought me back a bunch of Mexican comic books. Most were just Spanish language versions of the usual superhero comics I was reading but one was a fumetti whose cover featured a half naked guy with a face mask marked with twin lightning bolts. He was a Mexican superhero named Neutron, whose day job was a wrestler. I couldn’t understand anything in the comic but I was impressed enough to make an 8mm movie starring myself in a ski mask as knock-off named Electron.
What I found out years later, was that Neutron was itself a knock-off of Mexico’s true greatest superhero, Santo, who was actually a real person. Originally a super popular wresting champion called El Santo – the Saint, his gimmick was that he always hid his true identity behind a mask.
His mask had no lightning but at least it was silver and he was to become a huge star in Mexican popular cinema, using his abilities as a wrestler to fight evil in all it’s forms. And in a career that spanned 60 films he seemed to have encountered everybody – there was Santo vs The Zombies, Santo vs The Mummy, Santo vs The Martian Invasion, Santo vs Dracula, Santo vs Frankenstein, Santo vs Frankenstein’s Daughter, and a whole lot more.
What I found out at the Berlinale screening was that the Santo series – of which “Santo vs Evil Brain” was the first – was the creation of Mexican producer, Jorgé Garcia Besné, who had married into a powerful film family ensuring a fruitful career, only to be blacklisted by his producer father-in-law for screwing around on his wife.
Besné, however would not give up. Having moved in celebrity circles, Besné was good friends with Santo, who was at the height of his wrestling career, and who he convinced to help finance two films where he would star as a crime fighting hero. Further arranging a co-production deal in Cuba just before the Revolution, the two took off with some of Besné’s friends who would write and perform in the movie, one of them as Santo’s sidekick, the black masked, El Incognito.
The plan was to shoot two movies at once and bring them back to Mexico for post production and release, but the money ran out and the Cuban crew went on strike. The story goes that with only $40 left to his name, Besné ordered room service at the hotel and tipped the waiter $20. The rumor spread that money had arrived and he was able to trick the Cuban crew into going back to work.
But they never quite finished because when Fidel came to power, they had to get out. Unable to get a permit to take the footage out of the country, and without the money to bribe his way through, Besné claimed that one of his crew had died and the “remaining” group boarded their plain with a coffin filled with the unexposed negative. The result became the first two Santo films, “Santo vs Evil Brain” and “Santo vs the Infernal Men”.
In the film, the “evil brain” in question is Dr. Campos who manages to capture Santo and subject him to electro mind control, making him his unwilling henchman. In the meantime we have car chases, kidnapped girls, police shoot outs and a final rescue of Santo by El Incognito – with an ultimate slugfest that’s less about punches thrown, than flying leaps and body slams. And in the end, villain safely locked away, the two police detectives watch as Santo and El Incognito fly off to new and greater adventures. “But we don’t even know who they are,” says one. “They hide their faces behind the masks”, the other replies, “for the benefit of mankind.”
As the first in the series, it’s certainly primitive, but lots of fun to watch, and promises more and better to come.