May 20, 2011

Santo en el museo de cera (1963)

Without a doubt, the most iconic figure in the history of Mexican wrestling is Rodolfo Guzmán, whom as Santo transcended the ring and became a legend. Cinema played a big role in this, as the popular wrestler began a career as an actor that transformed Santo the wrestler into Santo the hero. Crime moguls, alien invaders, vampire women and other monsters became the villains in a variety of films that ranged from spy thrillers to Gothic horrors during 20 years of career. While most of those films were marred by poor production values, some are true gems that deserve a rediscovery, and "Santo en el Museo de Cera" (literally "Santo in the Wax Museum") is one of them. Done a year after the very successful 1962's horror "Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro" ("Santo vs. the Vampire Women"), director Alfonso Corona Blake crafted a new adventure of the famed Mexican wrestler. Inspired by the 1953 horror classic "House of Wax", this Santo adventure continued the formula of action, mystery and Gothic horror; and the result is one of the best Santo movies of his early career.

Better known in English as "Samson in the Wax Museum" (title given by K. Gordon Murray for his dubbed version), the story starts when a series of kidnappings begin to take place near the very popular Wax Museum of Dr. Karol (Claudio Brook). Susana (Norma Mora), a photographer from an important newspaper, plans to make an article about the museum, and visits it after hours. After interviewing Dr. Karol, she leaves but is kidnapped on her way home. Her colleague, Ricardo (Rubén Rojo) and her sister Gloria (Roxana Bellini) call the police and all the clues seem to point to Dr. Karol. However, Karol asks famous wrestler and crime fighter Santo (himself) for protection, as he believes someone is framing him for the crimes, and fears for his life. After Santo prevents an assassination attempt on Karol, he accepts to protect the mysterious Doctor; however, with aid from Ricardo and Gloria, he begins his own investigation about the mysterious kidnappings, and soon the three will discover what's hidden in the Wax Museum.

Written by Corona Blake himself (adapting a story by Fernando Galiana and Julio Porter), "Santo en el Museo de Cera" belongs to the kind of Santo films that make of the Man on the Silver Mask a mix of fantasy warrior and superhero, in a similar fashion to comic book characters: a superhero that can be called to fight the forces of evil. This angle on the character deliberately leaves Santo's identity and origins in total obscurity, making simply an archetypal hero. This unfortunately results in a very poor development of Santo as character (this would change in future Santo films), but also makes the adventure itself the main focus of the story. As the film is about Santo trying to prove that Dr. Karol is responsible of the kidnappings, the story is filled with many interesting twists that put a greater emphasis on the mystery. It's worth to point out that despite being an odd clone of "Mystery of the Wax Museum" and "House of Wax", the story has a certain degree of originality, and one of the most interesting villains in any Santo film.

As in "Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro", the work of director Alfonso Corona Blake is subtle but effective, keeping a nice balance between action and mystery and once again, focusing on atmosphere rather than downright scares. A very visual movie, the film mixes the urban look of late 50s Mexico city with the Gothic horror of the Wax Museum, as if the Museum was like a time capsule filled with the horrors from the past. Corona and cinematographer José Ortiz Ramos (who would also create the highly atmospheric Gothic horror "La Maldición de la Llorona" that same year) craft a visual atmosphere that's both creepy and fascinating, and that seems as taken straight from the pages of pulp horror novels. "Santo en el Museo de Cera" is not really a movie meant to be scary, it's more a thrilling action film with a mystery to solve and a creepy horror atmosphere as a setting. Despite the low budget, Corona Blake manages to pull off a classy final product that avoids the involuntary camp of posterior Santo films.

In "Santo en el Museo de Cera", Santo had a greater role to play than in the previous "Santo vs. the Vampire Women", although as written above, he is still the mysterious masked adventurer whom the protagonists call when it's necessary to solve crimes and fight evil. While not really his best work of acting, the script is consciously built to not let Santo's lack of experience mess with the film, which is why Rubén Rojo as Ricardo does the talking and is Gloria's love interest (certainly Corona Blake knew that his star was not exactly Oscar-material). The whole opposite is Claudio Brook, who like Lorena Velázquez in "Las Mujeres Vampiro", becomes the center of the film with a terrific performance as Dr. Karol. In "Santo en el Museo de Cera" Brook creates a complex ambiguous character that, like all the good monsters, can be both an overwhelming mastermind of evil and a really sympathetic man. It is the ambiguous nature of Brook's role what drives the film for the most part, and so Brook's performance is certainly the highlight of the movie.

Like most (if not all) Mexican fantasy films, "Santo en el Museo de Cera" suffers from the serious problem of having a really low-budget to work with. Despite Santo being an extremely popular wrestler, genre films never got good production values and unfortunately, this does hurt the film at times. While Corona Blake crafted great atmospheric shots and "Santo en el Museo de Cera" did had a better production than previous Santo films, at times the cheap special effects and the bad make up truly take away the feeling of the film. The lack of character development for Santo is another problem, particularly enhanced for the fact that the lead couple is pretty much annoying and uninteresting (posterior Santo films would make Santo the romantic lead instead of requiring a third party). Another small quibble is that the film loses a lot of steam by the ending, as it becomes another typical film by the moment of the final confrontation. Still, "Santo en el Museo De Cera" is one of the better Santo films, as it presents an atmospheric movie with beautiful Gothic cinematography.

Along with "Santo vs. Las Mujeres Vampiro", "Santo en el Museo de Cera", or "Santo in the Wax Museum", is one of the best Santo films produced, and a worthy addition to the Mexican horror filmography. The mix of the Santo character with the basic plot of "Mystery of the Wax Museum" and "House of Wax" results in a thrilling piece that, while probably not a masterpiece of horror, is surely a very entertaining movie to watch at night. In recent history, Santo films are rarely taken seriously as art, but the films directed by Alfonso Corona Blake with Ortiz Ramos as cinematographer are of a different, higher quality than the rest, and more than deserve a good revaluation. This new take on the Wax Museum story makes for a good introduction to that very Mexican variety of horror films with wrestlers.


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