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Who was that masked man?

El Santo, Mexico's revered wrestler, climbs into the DVD ring with his disguise intact and 24 cheesy but beloved films in tow.

August 24, 2003|Lewis Beale | Special to The Times

Sergio Arau was walking in Mexico City one day years ago when he saw a masked man sitting in a car. Arau was taken aback, but not because he thought the fellow wearing the silver ski mask was a robber about to hit a bank. It was, in fact, the most famous masked wrestler of them all, El Santo, El Enmascarado de Plata (Santo, the Silver Masked Man).

"He was not Superman or Batman, he was a human being," says the 50-year-old Arau, an artist and filmmaker who is the son of actor-director Alfonso Arau ("Like Water for Chocolate"). "Santo was the hero of all heroes," Arau adds. "He represented loyalty, solidarity, all these values society needs."

Santo -- real name Adolfo Guzm'an Huerta -- was, in fact, not just a star of lucha libre (freestyle wrestling) but also a popular figure in comic books and the more than 50 films he made between 1958 and 1982.

Twenty-four of those movies, with titles like "Santo and the Treasure of Dracula" and "Santo vs. the Daughter of Frankenstein," are being released for the first time on DVD by Rise Above Entertainment (www.riseaboveentertainment.com).

"The Santo movies were designed to appeal to the entire family unit at once," says Keith Rainville, publisher of From Parts Unknown, a 'zine devoted to Mexican wrestlers and wrestling films. "They have comic-book fights, sexy lounge numbers and goofy slapstick comedy, this shotgun of genres all mixed together."

From one perspective, the Santo films are campy to the extreme. Featuring rock-bottom production values, the lowest of low-tech special effects and acting that could charitably be called competent, they follow an often numbing formula: open with a wrestling match, after which Santo (sometimes with other masked partners like the Blue Demon) is called to rescue a (take your pick) relative, friend, girlfriend or child from a nefarious plot hatched by a super-villain. Throughout all this, Santo never removes his mask. Even when Our Hero is dressed in civvies and enjoying a meal at a posh restaurant, that silver mask is always covering his face (not unlike the Jack character from the Jack in the Box TV ads).

But Santo's films are not just junk fit for a slot on cable's "Mystery Science Theater 3000." They have a resonance that is specifically cultural. Masks are ubiquitous in Mexican culture, used by a variety of Indian tribes in all sorts of rituals. And even though the use of masks in lucha libre seems to date from two sources -- the influence of the comic strip the Phantom and of an unknown American wrestler who popularized them in Mexico in the 1930s -- their symbolism is not the same as in the United States.

"The masks were a gimmick in the States," Rainville says. "The whole point was to unmask the guy. The appeal in Mexico is that it neutralizes the athlete underneath into a sort of Everyman hero."

Gabriel Beristain, a cinematographer ("S.W.A.T.," "Blade 2") who grew up with Santo films, says this appeal went even further. "El Santo was totally of the working class, fully immersed in the beliefs of working-class people," he says. "The greatest appeal for all of us was the mystique about somebody who behind the mask was an angel of revenge. He was always fighting for noble causes and against injustice, but he was a mystery. You know who Batman is, who Superman is, but you don't know who Santo is."

Although Santo's greatest appeal was to young boys, the films -- which would probably earn a PG rating today -- attracted a diverse audience.

Sergio Arau, for example, says he was introduced to El Santo by his grandmother. Arau eventually became an artist and rock singer who painted wrestlers (his Web site, www.sergioarau.com, features several of these images), used to sing in a wrestling mask and wrote a song about El Santo when Guzm'an Huerta, who was buried in his mask, died in 1984.

"I even went to El Santo's last fight," Arau says, "when he passed on his mask to his son [who now wrestles under the Santo name]. He took his mask off, but he had another mask on underneath."

Although even the hardiest of El Santo's fans recognize the cheesy nature of his cinematic output, it hardly matters. There is a golden glow of nostalgia surrounding the films, an appreciation of their simplistic nature.

"In the 1950s, the audience was really naive," Arau says. "They were making movies that look really Ed Woodish, but at that time we were 'wow, science fiction.' "

"They're certainly camp now," Rainville adds, "but early on [when the first few releases were shot in black and white], they were definitely respectable."

Santo's influence can be seen in what Rainville's Web site (www.frompartsunknown.net) refers to as "lucha kitsch": masks and vintage Mexican movie posters on sale all over, bars with black velvet lucha paintings, models wearing lucha masks. Santo and friends have also inspired "Mucha Lucha!" and "Ultimate Muscle," two kiddie cartoon shows featuring masked wrestlers.

And an experienced pro like Beristain is not embarrassed to admit that El Santo may have influenced his own work. "I do action films," he says. "The fact that when I was a kid I enjoyed that culture, and my heart pounded when I saw this incredible character with the silver mask pounding villains like crazy, must have something to do with me taking my work seriously. El Santo was a cheesy fight choreographer, but he was still a choreographer."

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