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Enter Santo: The First Adventures of the Silver-Masked Man

by Charlie Largent Feb 11, 2023

Enter Santo: The First Adventures of the Silver-Masked Man
Blu-ray
Powerhouse Indicator
1961 / 72 Min., 76 Min. / B&W / 1.66: 1 / Region Free Blu ray
Starring Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta, Joaquín Cordero
Written by Enrique Zambrano, Fernando Osés
Directed by Joselito Rodríguez

To begin to understand the byzantine nature of Mexican culture, look no further than the town of Tulancingo, home to Mesoamerican pyramids built in 1000 B.C. and the statue of El Santo erected in 1985.

Born in 1917 in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta was a folk hero whose mythological status was manufactured out of whole cloth, the cloth in question being a form-fitting mask that Huerta wore everywhere—at work or a night on the town. Huerta began his wrestling career in the late 30s but he didn’t don the silver mask of El Santo until 1942—ten years later his legendary status was confirmed in a series of low rent but high-impact picture books produced by the illustrator, writer, and actor, Jose Guadalupe Cruz.

Printed on the cheapest newsprint available and published as often as twice a week, Cruz’s gazette laid out each new Santo adventure in comic book panels made up of photos and the occasional hand-drawn background. The publication lasted well into the 80s and though its lack of sophistication was a permanent feature, it managed to reflect the zeitgeist of any given moment.

As the years raced by, Santo tipped his mask to every passing trend, some covers featured our hero sharing space with Count Dracula, another with Princess Leia—but like the time traveler in H. G. Wells’s story, El Santo himself remained unchanged. Those magazines couldn’t have been more primitive but they helped establish El Santo as the Man of Steel of Mexico—the fact that he was a real life figure helped considerably when Huerta began his movie career in 1958.

Enter Santo: The First Adventures of the Silver-Masked Man features the high def debuts of Santo vs. Evil Brain and Santo vs. Infernal Men, the first two films in the wrestler’s long-running adventures. The movies make any random episode of George Reeves’s Superman look like Lawrence of Arabia but the extra materials provided by Powerhouse are another matter; the real story here is the history of the Mexican film industry—a tale so rich, they don’t have to mention Buñuel once. Of course, in the loco world of El Santo, this particular tale of Mexican cinema begins in Cuba.

Directed by Joselito Rodríguez, both Evil Brain and Infernal Men were filmed under circumstances that would test the most budget-challenged filmmaker, including the ongoing coup being staged by Castro at the time of production. Both films have storylines right out of the pulps with El Santo carrying on in the tradition of masked avengers like the Lone Ranger and The Phantom. In Santo vs. Evil Brain, a relatively mad scientist played by a goateed Joaquín Cordero is determined to rule the world with his mind-control serum.

Cordero returns in Santo vs. Infernal Men, this time as an undercover agent in league with El Santo—the duo locks arms to topple a mob boss played by the Cuban actor Jorge Marx. In both films Santo spends much of the time on the sidelines, an indication that he wasn’t quite the fully-formed hero yet; he wasn’t given the benefit of Kal-El or Bruce Wayne’s poignant backstories, just a silver mask and a boxer’s primal instincts.

Both films were produced and written by Enrique Zambrano—and times being what they were, Zambrano cast himself in the film—he plays Santo’s pal, a mustachioed police detective named… Zambrano (the actor also had the distinction of being swallowed by a giant arachnid in 1957’s The Black Scorpion and dubbing the first two seasons of Star Trek in 1966).

Flatly directed with unspeakable dialog, what really distinguishes these productions is Zambrano’s brazen cost-cutting—while many moviegoers remain dumbstruck by the copious stock footage in Johnny Weissmuller’s Jungle Jim adventures, Zambrano merely smiled and said “hold my tequila.” Evil Brain and Infernal Men were shot in tandem, sharing the same footage, actors, and crew—the production was so rushed they even share the same endings, frame for frame.

Carlos Najera was the cameraman and Jesus Echeverria the editor, and it’s a safe bet there were no trims left in the edit bay—every bit of footage is on the screen, anything to make these films “feature length.” Thanks to endless views of Havana’s skyline and busy roadways, the movies become unofficial travelogues of the city before the revolution (some of the architecture is quite impressive with oceanside overtones of New Orleans and Los Angeles—the contrast to the starcrossed Havana of today is striking).

If there is anything fascinating about these films, it all happened behind the camera—the notion of making a poverty row film during a civil war is fodder for a movie itself—it’s all chronicled in Powerhouse Indicator’s superb new Blu ray set—a release that should satisfy the casual fan and the most persnickety film historian. All the extras are worthy of attention but it’s recommended that viewers first immerse themselves in Perdida, a 90 minute documentary directed by Viviana García Besné.

Besné was an heir to the Calderon family who fundamentally built the Mexican movie industry by producing and distributing the films, and building the theaters in which to exhibit them. Besné had access to her relative’s diaries, home movies, and, most intriguingly, the vaults that stored films unseen for decades (she found the uncensored version of one of Santo’s most notorious capers, 1967’s El Vampiro y El Sexo in which our hero battles a gaggle of vampirized strippers).

Pedro, José Luis, and “Memo” Calderón

Former railroad men, Rafael and José Calderón barnstormed the movie business in the late 1910s, building a chain of silent film theaters across Mexico before founding Azteca Distribution in 1932. José’s three sons, Pedro, José Luis, and Guillermo—known as “Memo”—spent the following decades producing films that would play in the Calderón’s own theaters. Pedro had a taste for comedy and musicals (sometimes starring Lupe Vélez), José Luis was inclined to drama and thrillers, and Memo specialized in crowd-pleasing genre films. Besné’s film charts the rise and fall of the three brothers, but Memo’s story is the most compelling—especially since the then 92 year old producer is on camera to tell his story (Memo died in 2018).

When Memo’s films began to fail at the box office, he turned to exploitation in all its forms—Bellas de noche (or Las ficheras) was a scandalous musical comedy with plenty of nudity that led to equally profitable sequels. Memo’s most indelible productions would enthrall and horrify a generation of American children; director René Cardona turned outré fare like 1959’s Santa Claus into an unexpected creep-fest and the Aztec Mummy films, along with Santo’s monster-friendly adventures, crowded late night Creature Features. Most of those films, including Santa Claus, were never shown in Mexico… when Memo is asked why, he says “some guy named Murray took a copy of the negative and re-dubbed it.”

Such shady dealings, including José Luis Calderón’s botch job of Samuel Fuller’s Mexican-set Man-Eater (retitled Shark to cash in on a tragic accident during shooting) is only a small part of the Calderón saga. An 80 page book, including essays by Luciano Castillo and Carlos Monsiváis, is the cherry on top of a terrific package.

Considering the decades of wear and tear on such old films, Evil Brain and Infernal Men look terrific in these beautiful new transfers; each film is finally presented in its correct aspect ratio with improved sound and, of course, subtitles. And yes, Virginia, the discs are region free. There are plenty more worthy extras and the complete list can be found at Powerhouse’s Santo page.

 

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