I've never been to Mexico, but I like to think of it as populated by an array of colorfully masked wrestlers tirelessly protecting the country against various monsters and aliens, between taking on opponents in the squared circle. This impression has been greatly influenced by the dozens of lucha-libre films produced in the area throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, many of which starred the most popular mexican wrestler of all: El Santo. Santo first began wrestling in the 1930s, but it was when he began wearing his trademark silver mask that his career really took off and by the 1950s (when he was already well into his 40s) he began his foray into cinema with Santo contra el cerebro del mal (Santo Vs. The Evil Brain, 1958). The following two decades saw him starring in over 40 films, often battling zombies, mad scientists or other demonic creatures. By 1973 the genre had definitely become a little formulaic, but Santo y Blue Demon contra el doctor Frankenstein (Santo and Blue Demon Against Dr. Frankenstein, 1973) is a fine starting place for those interested in the genre and what it has to offer. Certainly cheap looking, but featuring a surprisingly spry Santo considering he was in his late 50s, the film has lots of cheesy fun for genre fans.
To understand El Santo, you have to picture a combination of Batman and James Bond. He's super smooth, a snappy dresser, and gets all the women when he's not acrobatically dispatching a variety of opponents and saving the world from supernatural threats. As well, he - along with his luchadore partners such as Blue Demon in this film - never remove their masks. They wear them out to dinner, when relaxing by the pool, or even when just driving around. This status as a real life superhero made Santo an icon in his home country where lucha-libre (which is a particularly acrobatic form of pro wrestling) is a cultural institution. Santo's son, logically named El Hijo del Santo, continues to wrestle wearing his father's trademark mask and cape, having taken over the mantle after his father's death in 1982.
This film begins with a string of attacks and kidnappings of young women, who often reappear in a zombie-like state, attacking their loved ones. While the police are baffled, it's revealed to the audience that this is the work of Dr. Irving Frankenstein, who - since it's family tradition - is trying to crack that pesky mortality problem. After watching a wrestling match featuring Santo, Frankenstein decides that what his creatures need is the intelligence and dexterity of the masked wrestler so he sends his henchmen - including the towering creature Golem - to kidnap the beautiful bacteriologist Alicia in order to lure the wrestler to his hide-out. El Santo, not always the brightest bulb, gets tricked but before his brain can be removed he's saved by Blue Demon who cleverly disguises himself ("As you can see, i'm not the Anesthesiologist") before taking out the bad guys. They find Alicia and escape as the authorities storm the compound. But that's not all! Frankenstein decides that the only way to get revenge is to have Golem (wearing a black mask and with his skin pigment changed) attack Santo in the wrestling ring, with Frankenstein himself (also wearing a generic mask) acting as coach. Things don't go according to plan, and soon Santo and Blue Demon are fighting with Frankenstein and his monster in the rafters of the arena. Tragically, the two baddies fall to their death, though nobody seems too upset about the victorious luchadores murdering folks in cold blood. FIN!
The joy of a lucha-libre film doesn't come from the direction or the production value - both of which are rather flat - it comes from the bizarre logic and subject matter, and this film certainly provides that in spades. The characters in the film simply accept the idea of two masked wrestlers dining, or walking down the street like it's the most normal thing in the world. When the police are having difficulty, of course they reach out to El Santo and Blue Demon to help. And what better way for a mad scientist who has almost achieved eternal life to find vengeance than a ridiculous wrestling scheme? Why not just shoot El Santo in the head? Blow him to kingdom come? Or create an army of zombies to take him out? Because then we wouldn't get extended lucha-libre wrestling scenes, which are actually quite impressive considering the age of the protagonists. Santo tends to bring out the head-scissors and other acrobatic wrestling moves in his regular fight scenes as well, which is half the fun. Just like in lucha-libre, or really pro-wrestling as a whole, the world of these movies is a slightly heightened reality and giving in to the rather ridiculous elements provides most of the fun.
Jorge Russek as Irving Frankenstein actually does a really solid job, even managing to bring a bit of pathos to the role - his Phibes-like motivation for his actions comes from wanting to bring his late wife back to life - and ranting appropriately when he isn't barking orders at his minions. Santo has a charisma that is rather hard to pin down, and it's difficult to take your eyes off of him when he's onscreen. It's hard to judge his acting, particularly considering that most of his facial expressions are covered. Blue Demon doesn't fare quite as well, looking uncomfortable in most acting scenes and showing little of the grace that he was able to provide in the ring. Of course, constantly playing second banana to Santo is sort of a thankless role.
Of course, none of this is meant to imply that the film is actually any good. While entertaining in its goofiness, the entire genre was starting to get a little shoddy at this point, and this is obviously a very low-budget production with flimsy sets and excessive padding. Dr. Frankenstein provides some name value, but he could really be almost any generic mad scientist and Golem makes a rather poor substitute for Frankenstein's monster. It feels a bit like a television production, and many of these luchadore films would fit quite well next to campy productions like the 60s Batman series, though here the characters play things totally straight.
Brought to DVD by Rise Above Entertainment, El Santo y Blue Demon Contra el Doctor Frankenstein is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ration in a rather shoddy print featuring occasional damage and inconsistent color throughout. Despite the low-budget this is a bright and colorful film, and this is still represented in the print despite its inconsistency. The audio is presented in Spanish with optional English subtitles which feature rather a lot of spelling and grammatical errors, though few will be watching this for the dialogue.
It's still surprisingly difficult to find many of the dozens of lucha-libre films n DVD, so it's quite a treat to see this one released with subtitles, and even a few special features. Here we're treated to The Best of Santo, which is really just a video package featuring clips from a variety of his films. A fun diversion, but slight. The included photo gallery leaves a lot to be desired, but the inclusion of trailers: for Santo y Blue Demon contra Dracula y el Hombro Lobo (Santo & Blue Demon vs. Dracula & the Wolfman) (1973) and the amazingly cheesy looking Santo: Infraterrestre (2001) (starring El Hijo del Santo) are a nice treat for fans.
Silly fun for all ages, Santo y Blue Demon contra el doctor Frankenstein is cheap but rarely boring. While the more cynical among us may have trouble accepting this rather quirky view of reality, for those on the right wavelength these movies provide huge amounts of preposterous entertainment. We're lucky to have access to these films, and I hope future generations can continue to appreciate the odd allure of El Santo.