October 28, 2011

Santo en El tesoro de Drácula (1969)

It's probable that when the young wrestler Rodolfo Guzmán took the name of "Santo" in 1942, he never imagined that he would become one of the greatest icons of Mexican cinema. As his popularity in the ring rose, Santo soon got offers to make films, and it would be in the silver screen where the masked wrestler would face his most bizarre foes. Vampires, international criminals, mad scientists and even aliens would be the sort of enemies that movie star Santo would have to defeat. Count Dracula himself challenges Santo in one of his most famous films, 1969's "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula", however, the film's cult status is due to the fact that there was a rumour of an alternative cut, one that added scenes of Dracula's harem of nude vampires. Titled "El Vampiro y el Sexo", this version was lost for years and its existence was source of constant debate amongst fans; until 2010, when the missing cut was finally found. Unfortunately, the discovery of the legendary lost version allows to find even more shortcomings in "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula".

In this adventure, Santo is not only a successful wrestler, but also a talented scientist, and with the help of his friend and colleague Dr. Sepúlveda (Carlos Agosti), Santo has made an astounding discovery in his research. Dr. Sepúlveda invites other scientists to his house, in order to hear about Santo's invention: a machine that allows its user to "experience" a past life. Naturally, the group demands proof of this theory, but Santo has not tested his machine with a human yet. Defeated, Santo laments his lack of proofs, but Santo's girlfriend Luisa (Noelia Noel), daughter of Dr. Sepúlveda, decides to test the machine herself and is sent back in time to Colonial times, where in a previous life she was the victim of Count Drácula (Aldo Monti). Unfortunately, her ancestor was turned into a vampire and faces destruction at the hands of vampire hunter Professor Van Roth (Fernando Mendoza). Santo manages to bring Luisa back to the present before she's killed, and she returns now knowing the location of Drácula's treasure. Santo and his friends, decide to go and find it.

The films of Santo do not have a straight forward continuity between them (like the James Bond fims), they exist most of the time as stand alone adventures with the basic theme of Santo being a wrestler whom also fights evil when he's not in the ring. This explains why sometimes he is a mystical warrior of unknown origin, others a suave Interpol agent, and yet sometimes he is a proficent scientist. "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula" (known in English as "Santo in: The Treasure of Dracula") belongs to this last category, and it's also one of his "horror themed" movies. Written by prolific horror writer Alfredo Salazar, the movie can be divided in two parts: first is Luisa's adventure, which is basically an abridged adaptation of Stoker's "Dracula"; and the second part is the typical Santo adventure set in modern times. Unfortunately, as interesting as this storytelling device could be, "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula" shows the worst vices of Salazar's writing: clichéd dialogue, ilogical actions and chaotic storyline.

Director René Cardona, one of the most prolific directors of Mexican cinema, had already directed many horror films at this point, including several Santo films. While perhaps not the most inventive of filmmakers, Cardona had proved to be an efficient craftsman able to tell a good story. Sadly, little of this ability can be seen in "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula", which he tackles with such a blandness that feels like the director wasn't really interested in the film. As written above, the film is divided in two parts, and it certainly feels like different two movies. The first half, the more decidedly horror one, is easily the best of the two, and even works like a small homage to Méndez' "El Vampiro" (1957) and Browning's "Dracula" (1931). The second part, which should be the best being that it's the one where Santo is actually involved, is tragically where Cardona opts for silliness, and where the chaos that is Salazar's story becomes all the more apparent.

Rodolfo Guzmán, Santo himself, was always better when playing his Santo persona as a more human character, and in "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula" he is able to show this. Away from the one-dimensional role of mystical warrior, Santo finds more freedom to built a true personality beyond the masked crime fighter. In this film, Santo is able to make jokes, feel despair, ambition and pain, all in all a more dimensional role than what he had done earlier in his career. And while the rest of the film points to absurd, Santo actually makes a great acting job, and manages to add dignity to a film otherwise marred by lack of interest. Despite not being a professional actor, Santo is the only one who seems to be serious about his job. Young comedian Alberto Rojas isn't that bad either, but his role as the over-the-top comic relief is so awfully written that he ends up being odious instead of funny. Noelia Noel plays Luisa, and while not exactly a good actress, she adds some vitality to the cast, and seems to be sincerely enjoying the film.

The rest of the cast is a lot less impressive. Italian actor Aldo Monti gives a terribly hammy performance as Dracula, and doesn't seem to be interested at all in the film. In fact, with the exception of Santo and perhaps Noelia Noel, it would seem as if nobody in "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula" was really interested in the film. Cinematographer Raúl Martínez Solares, another seasoned veteran from Mexico's "Golden Age", makes one of his worst jobs in this horror film. While the film's "normal version" can be found in black and white, the film was actually shot in color, and the "El Vampiro y el Sexo" version survives in the way it was intended. While in black and white the film could feel atmospheric, in color the lighting gives the film a bizarre style. The odd camera angles Cardona and Martínez Solares use through the film add another level of weirdness to this movie. On a final note, the nudity of "El Vampiro y el Sexo" version is actually an odd addition, as it contrasts badly with the ridicule silliness and childish naiveté of Alberto Rojas' character.

Now, all this elements certainly make "Santo en el Tesoro de Drácula" sound like a huge display of incompetence, but oddly, it's actually not that bad. Mediocre perhaps, but never downright bad. And the saving grace responsible of this is none other than Santo himself. The enormous charm and presence of the legendary wrestler actually, completely true to his own character, manage to give some sense to the whole thing. A sense that borders surrealism, but a sense after all. "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula" is an oddity amongst Santo films, and not only because of the infamous "El Vampiro y el Sexo" cut. It is odd because despite lacking coherence and despite not being really the best Santo film (far from it), it's actually entertaining. It just has a weird charm that for some reason, makes it work. Perhaps only Santo could pull this off.


NOTE: All this DVDs are for the "normal version" in black and white. So far, no DVD has been announced for the "El Vampiro y el Sexo" cut.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Outstanding review! Calacaroja