SANTO VS. EVIL BRAIN
B&W, 1961, 72 mins. 38 sec.
Directed by Joselito Rodríguez
Starring Santo, Enrique Zambrano, Fernando Osés, Norma Suárez, Joaquín Cordero
SANTO VS. INFERNAL MEN
B&W, 1961, 76 mins. 28 sec.
Directed by Joselito Rodríguez
Indicator (Blu-ray) (US/UK R0 HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
One of the greatest brand names in Mexican cinema, the wrestling, silver-masked detective sensation Santo (or El Santo, "The Saint") was already known for his real-life sport achievements and appearances in a long-running comic book series by the time he first stepped in front a movie camera. Featured in everything from straight crime films to outlandish supernatural potboilers, Santo ended up starring in over 50 films starting in the early '60s, though they haven't exactly been treated with a ton of respect on home video (including some very lazy U.S. DVD and Blu-ray releases). Fortunately things have gotten better, with Indicator releasing his first two features (shot back to back in 1961 in mid-revolution Cuba) as Enter Santo: The First Adventures of the Silver-Masked Man in 2023 hot on the heels of Vinegar Syndromes' Santo vs. Dr. Death.
First up is this two-disc Blu-ray set, Santo vs. Evil Brain (Santo contra cerebro del mal), which opens with the silver-masked hero and undercover detective being pursued by chain-wielding bad guys into an alley in broad daylight (to the accompaniment of stock music that will sound very familiar to Andy Milligan fans). Captured after much resistance, Santo is hauled off to an underground concrete lair where the respected but scheming Dr. Campos (Cordero) and his minions are performing nefarious experiments after already kidnapping two prominent scientists. Meanwhile two of Santo's colleagues, Lieutenant Zambrano (Zambrano) and fellow masked wrestler El Incognito (Osés), are trying to unravel the puzzle while Santo uses his formidable wrestling skills for repeated escape attempts. Equipped with hi-tech surveillance equipment, a purported disintegration invention, and plans to enslave everyone from cops to bankers, Campos is a ticking time bomb with only three men able to stop him.
Though it mostly operates like a standard crime caper film this premiere outing for the wrestling crime fighter is fascinating for the way it presents a rough draft for the hero who would become so familiar. He looks more svelte and less imposing here, with a more limited amount of screen time (and dialogue) than usual; however, the sci-fi and action elements still make it an engaging pulp yarn with lots of fighting, running around, and solemn conversations in laboratories about truly ridiculous topics. A fairly successful launch in Mexico, the film played a bit on the Spanish-language circuit in the U.S. and has turned up from tattered prints on home video inducing a VHS from Something Weird. However, the stellar 4K restoration from the 35mm camera negative (presented here by Nicholas Winding Refn and the Academy Film Archive) is a whole different ball game, looking crisp and impressive throughout with nary a scratch in sight. The LPCM 1.0 Spanish mono audio is also in perfect shape and comes with newly translated English subtitles. " Looking for El Santo" (30m33s) features Viviana García Besné, granddaughter of co-producer Jorge García Besné, documenting her quest for filming locations in Havana, as well as the strong friendship that formed during her extensive research process. It's an interesting and heartfelt story worth checking out. "A League of Gentlemen" (12m) is a previously unreleased interview from 2009 with Cordero reminiscing about his "peculiar experience" working with El Santo and his friendship with producer Jorge García Besné, along with noting some of his other achievements in film and television. Finally in "Mascára vs. mascara (32m34s), the Killer Film, "el critico enmascarado," explains how the early Mexican lucha libre evolved and what led to El Santo switching from wrestler to movie star almost overnight-- all delivered with great gusto in his trademark mask.
All three of our heroes returned and barely took a minute to breathe for their next escapade, Santo vs. Infernal Men (Santo contra hombres infernales), which brings things down to earth a bit with Cordero popping up here in a different role as well. We open up with some ruthless drug dealers on the loose, and this time they're being infiltrated by dogged cop Joaquin (Cordero) who has little to lose -- except his faithful girlfriend, Irma (Romand), who naturally becomes a potential target as well. Of course, it's up to Santo and company to pitch in when the going gets tough, in between lots of pretty Cuban travelogue footage. The plot here is almost nonexistent and feels like more of a throwaway than the first film, but it's intriguing again to see the nascent elements of what would become Santo trademarks along with touches like music performances to shake things up. It's all pleasant and breezy enough, though anyone accustomed to the much more baroque later entries might be surprised by the simplicity on display here. Strangely, both of these films were directed by the prolific Joselito Rodríguez who didn't helm any other titles in the cycle, though he did direct some vehicles for rival luchador Hurricane Ramirez (who was technically the first Mexican wrestling movie lead).
Again the presentation here is top notch with a restoration that blows away the beaten-up past editions floating around; a/v specs are the same and appear to be faultless. The big extra here is Perdida (95m45s), a sprawling 2011 documentary by Viviana García Besné again, this time providing a more in-depth history of how her family played a vital role in Mexican cinema as well as launching the Santo series. A hefty gallery of photos and various promotional items from her family's collection is also included. The limited edition set also comes with a double-sided poster and an 80-page book with a new essay by Luciano Castillo, archival Mexican wrestling coverage, a piece by Christian Cymet on the history of the mask in Mexican wrestling, samples from Carlos Monsiváis’ The Rituals of Chaos and Jimmy Pantera’s Los tigres del ring, an interview with Griselda Cruz (daughter of Santo comic-book writer José G Cruz), notes by Michael Donnelly on Perdida, and an archival interview with Viviana García Besné and Alistair Tremps.
Reviewed on February 20, 2023.