Tuesday, 15 October 2019

October Horrors 2019 # 8:
Santo Attacks The Witches
(José Díaz Morales, 1964)

 (Or, ‘Atacan Las Brujas’, if you prefer.)

It’s about time for our annual October visit to the weird & wonderful world of vintage Mexican horror cinema, and boy, this relatively early Santo flick certainly throws us in at the deep end.

Voiceover narration from a woman we see tied to a sacrificial slab immediately informs us that she has been KIDNAPPED by the forces of evil!

Thunder crashes and theremins shriek (as they will continue to do throughout this film), as a variety of grisly taxidermied animals fill the screen, but our heroine (for such I suppose she must be) has two rays of hope in her darkest hour – firstly, her fiancée Arturo (hi Arturo), and secondly, El Enmascarado De Plata himself, the one and only El Santo!

We cut directly to Santo, who is busy infiltrating the Witches’ hacienda (yes, we’re in Mexico here, so the witches have a hacienda – get used to it), reaching an upper balcony where he instigates an epic (and, it must be said, extremely underlit) brawl with three anonymous, black-clad guards.

The Witches, it transpires, are led by Mayra, an ancient sorceress executed 300 years ago, who has recently returned from the grave as a result of the coven’s activities, co-ordinated by her second in command, the arch-seductress Medusa. They plan to use a curvy ceremonial knife to sacrifice both our narrator AND Santo to ‘The Lord of Shadows and Abysses’, as represented by a man wearing a fantastically gnarly ‘Devil Ride’s Out’ style Big Satan Head (although in truth, whenever he appears, I can’t help staring at his creased, baggy shorts, which stand out brightly against his otherwise all-black outfit – a catastrophic costuming decision and no mistake).

Whilst all this was going on, I found myself wondering whether this movie was actually the second half of an on-going serial, or whether my sub-titled bootleg of the film had mysteriously begun playback halfway through or something, such was the jarring effect of this immediate descent into credits-free, context-free action. But no – turns out this is actually all a dream sequence, albeit one that basically establishes the imagery and sequence of events which the remaining ‘waking’ part of the film will spend its time endlessly reiterating.

And so, we join Ofelia (María Eugenia San Martín) as she awakens from one of her regular, witches-vs-Santo related nightmares, perhaps inspired by the crumbling old mansion in which – so she has been told – her late parents will requires her to live for one full year, in order to claim her inheritance.

She has been informed of this by her icy sister Elisa (Santo regular Lorena Velázquez), who has recently appeared out of nowhere following a long period of estrangement to inform her that she is an orphan. Needless to say, Big Sis is the same woman who turned up as Mayra, the Queen of the Witches, in Ofelia’s dream, and, given the amount of time and expense which was clearly invested in the dream sequence, we already know that it was basically all true (and presumably cobbled together from footage we’ll be seeing again later), so – UH-OH.

Understandably frustrated by his inability to persuade Ofelia to marry him until all this eerie business is sorted out meanwhile, Arturo (Ramón Bugarini, whose other credits include ‘The Hellish Spiders’, ‘The Curse of Nostradamus’, ‘Bring Me The Vampire’, ‘The Incredible Face of Dr B’, ‘Sex Monster’ and ‘Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy’ – Mexican cinema, I swear) has the good sense to consult his good buddy El Santo – a meeting which takes place in the latter’s surprisingly drab-looking office/apartment, located on the upper floors of a Mexico City tower block - and The Man in the Silver Mask agrees, something here is clearly amiss.

Always up for a bit of breaking and entering based on flimsy, dream-based pretexts, Santo jumps into his nifty little convertible (as ever, I love the way he spreads his cape over the backseat as he drives) and roars over to La Casa de las Brujas to see what’s up.

Before long, Ofelia’s dream comes true, as our hero finds himself laboriously duking it out with those three beefy, black muscle-shirted coven enforcers, and, probably on about the third occasion on which two of them hold his arms behind his back whilst the third one pummels his exposed belly, I began to realise just what a bad idea this film’s decision to mix a ‘Satanic witches’ plot-line with the demands of an action-packed lucha libre movie actually was.

The problem here you see, is that the villains in this movie are women, and, whereas they achieve their evil ends through sorcery and deception, genre convention demands that our hero must fight back with, well, if not his fists precisely, then the physical impact of his muscular torso, at the very least.

With the best will in the world, the social mores of the 1960s ensured that we were never going to see The Champion of the People inflicting headlocks and body slams on a bunch of defenceless dames, so… basically, we’d better get used to the idea of seeing him grapple with these three anonymous dudes in what essentially look like filmed training sessions, because it’s going to be happening a lot.

It could at least have been fun to see him dusting it up with The Lord of Darkness (let’s see how those horns play out in the ring!), but sadly, this was not to be – which brings us neatly to this production’s other major drawback; namely the scriptwriters’ utter failure to come up with any ideas whatsoever to expand upon the basic premise.

Basically, we just keep seeing Santo arriving at the witches’ place, fighting with the anonymous blokes, getting captured and chained down on the sacrificial slab whilst the witches do their thing, then breaking free and escaping. Then Ofelia and/or Arturo get captured and chained down on the slabs, so Santo goes back to rescue them, and one or both of them escape, then they go back to Santo’s place to recuperate, then head back to the witches’ place again, and fight the dudes, and get captured…. it just goes on and on. The sheer repetition is mind-numbing, especially given that the film made a point of beginning with a long sequence in which we were already shown all of this stuff.

(I did however enjoy the moment when, after Arturo is captured at one point, Santo and Ofelia return to Santo’s office, where he reaches for his rotary telephone, and declares that he will call Arturo’s parents to inform them of the situation. Sadly, the scene cuts at this point, but I would have loved to have heard that call – “Hi, it’s El Santo here, yes that’s right, the famous luchador and folk hero. I’m just calling to let you know that your son has been kidnapped by a coven of evil witches, but don’t worry, I’m on the case..”, etc.)

On the plus side, as is usually the case with Mexican horror, the general sense of spook-show excess here is great, with the opening dream sequence alone mixing eerie close ups of toothy, moth-eaten stuffed animals with flashing strobes, super-impositions and so on, whilst later on we get lots of great, shadowy lighting, some wildly expressionistic compositions, flappy bat silhouettes, dust-choked sets, voluminous Satanic ranting and an atmosphere thick as congealed treacle.

Another unexpected highlight is the film’s obligatory wrestling sequence, which, unusually, is slotted in more or less at random at the one hour mark. The filmmaking here is far more accomplished and exciting than any of the actual in-story fights in ‘Atacan Las Brujas’, and it’s difficult not to get caught up in proceedings, as Santo takes on a furious, maskless bad-guy wrestler known as Lobo Negro, who pushes our hero to point of defeat again and again (he even punches the referee at one point), until Santo finally ploughs back into the contest at the last minute and flattens the blaggard, to the wild delight of the crowd. Phew!

I mean, I’m no connoisseur of wrestling, Mexican or otherwise, but even I can tell that this was one great bout. It certainly did a good job of waking me up from the stupor brought on by the endless cycle of capturing and escaping and so forth, anyway.

[Since watching the film, I’ve discovered that this wrestling footage was actually stolen in its entirety from an earlier Santo movie, ‘Santo Contra El Rey Del Crimen’ (1961), so the makers of ‘Aracan Las Brujas’ can take no credit – oh well.]

Back to the fight against the witches meanwhile, and the film’s final twenty minutes does at least up its game a bit with the appearance of that old stand-by, the Pit of Spikes (not as cool as the one in El Mundo De Los Vampiros admittedly, but still), and a defiantly Catholic conclusion oddly reminiscent of the 1960 gothic horror classic ‘City of the Dead’, in which Santo takes care of business with a *big fuckin’ wooden cross*, which roasts all evil in its path with purifying fire. Take that, sinners!

Whilst it has its charms, ‘Aracan Los Brujas’ is definitely not top tier Santo, and would indeed make an extremely poor introduction to Lucha cinema, or to the richly rewarding field Mexican horror movies as a whole. Frankly, the whole thing feels as if it has been slapped together from a few days’ worth of shooting with very little care or attention, leaving it feeling almost surrealistically repetitive and incoherent.

Whilst watching, I had assumed that these deficiencies were perhaps a result of Santo’s regular crew simply succumbing to exhaustion, having (by my count) knocked out around twelve vehicles for the big man in the space of six years. Subsequently however, Todd Stadtman’s estimable Lucha Diaries site has helped clue me in on the fact that ‘Aracan Los Brujas’ was actually one of a quartet of films produced during a brief period in 1964-65 which saw Santo desert his usual collaborators, instead signing a contract with one Luis Enrique Vergara, a notorious low budget operator who placed him a number of projects which were, well, somewhat below the level of our hero’s usual fare, shall we say.

Given that four films of the quality showcased in ‘Aracan Los Brujas’ could conceivably have been knocked out in a couple of weeks tops, I’m assuming that The Man in the Silver Mask saw the light and placed his film career back in safer hands pretty damn quick, but in retrospect I suppose, his dalliance with the bottom of the metaphorical barrel at least allows us a sneak preview of what was to follow in the early ‘70s, when the lucha genre as a whole fell down a rabbit-hole of lunatic, cheap-jack craziness, never to return.

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