It’s a wrestling movie! It’s a vampire movie! It’s two movies randomly cut together!
Some movies defy expectations, good or bad, in a way that makes them surprising enough to be interesting. SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO (1962, dubbed into English as SAMSON VS THE VAMPIRE WOMEN) certainly qualifies. Half masked wrestler movie, half vampire movie, this Mexican import is such a jumble of conflicting elements that the absurdity becomes quite entertaining. Which is not to say the entertainment value is entirely camp in nature; one surprise in store for interested viewers is that SANTO VS LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO is, at times, an effective horror film. Though it will never be regarded as a classic, the film’s recent availability on Hulu, in its original, Spanish-language form, offers a welcome opportunity for a new appraisal.
If you are reading this, you probably know that Santo (actual name: Rodolfo Guzman Huerta) was a real-life Mexican wrestler whose gimmick was that he never appeared in public without his signature silver mask. In the 1950s the character became a superhero in a series of comic books, which eventually lead to several films, such as SANTO VS THE ZOMBIES (1961).
With that history, you might expect SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO to be a second-rate hack job designed to showcase its star at the expense of everything else. However, much as with the recent GODZILLA (2014), Santo remains somewhat in the background of this film, which focuses instead on the Vampire Women and their plan to kidnap a young woman, Diana Orlof (Maria Duval) to replace their Vampire Queen, Thorina (Lorena Velazquez).
Consequently, for the first half-hour or so SANTO VS. LAS MUERAS VAMPIRO plays like a traditional, old-fashioned horror film, hokey but atmospheric, with lovely black-and-white photography showcasing the sinister sets. There is little innovative here – the film is clearly aping the classic Universal Pictures horror films of the 1930s and 1940s – but there is enough local Mexican flavor to spice the proceedings up a bit.
In particular, the opening sequence, mostly silent, with the camera wandering through an old mansion, is wonderfully evocative, revealing the Vampire Women emerging from their coffins as old hags, before transforming into supernatural seductresses. The slow and stately pace may lay the atmosphere on a bit thick, but the imagery is almost good enough to stand beside the best Italian horror films of the period. One might even call it “Bava-esque” – though not quite on par with BLACK SUNDAY, nor does it fall embarrassingly short, instead standing on its own as enjoyably spooky horror, served up straight, without the camp.
After that, the plot kicks in, and things get weird, which is definitely fun but also quite a bit goofier than what the opening would lead you to expect.
First off, the Vampire Women have not only a Queen but also a Priestess, Tandra (Ofelia Montesco). Why there should be two leaders is a question the screenwriters really do not bother to answer; instead, we get to see lots of shots of the two vixens standing around in curvaceous white gowns, slit to the hip, while we have time to ponder which is the more alluring of the two (answer: the Queen!).
The convoluted premise is that after a 200 year hibernation, the Vampire Women are rising from their coffins to find a replacement for Thorina, so that she can descend into Hell to join her betrothed, the Devil himself (who makes a cameo appearance or two – a horned shadow cast on the wall). The last time the vampires tried this, they were thwarted by a masked hero (presumably an ancestor of Santo); apparently, frustration over their failure sent them into a two-century slumber. Or perhaps we are to assume that the vampire life cycle consists of resurrecting every 200 years to find a new Queen and then immediately returning to their coffins for another 200 years? Whatever…
Professor Orloff, Diana’s father (played by Augusto Benedico) is an academic who has deciphered just enough ancient hieroglyphics to know that his daughter is to be targeted on her 21st birthday, which is rapidly approaching. Although he manages to enlist the aid of the police, but troubled by their skepticism about the nature of the threat (they don’t believe in vampires), he also seeks help from Santo for help. I guess Orloff doesn’t believe in keeping all his eggs in one basket. In a delightfully absurd conceit, Orloff has an electronic gizmo in his study that acts as a direct-line videophone to Santo’s lair – his equivalent of the bat cave – which we briefly glimpse when Orloff calls for assistance. Unfortunately, Santo is not home – a recurring them of the movie.
Meanwhile, the Vampire Women are seeking blood, and making moves on tracking down Dianna. In this, they are aided by a trio of vampire henchmen, portrayed by bare-chested wrestlers wearing capes (because any vampire worthy of the term wore a cape back in these days). Fashion sense aside, the henchmen come across more like conventional thugs than supernatural threats from beyond the grave, but they get the job done, more or less.
We finally get to see Santo in an extended wrestling sequence, and by extended, I mean one that will have you reaching for the fast-forward button like Han Solo pressing the warp speed drive button to outrun the Empire. The gratuitous and obligatory nature of the scene is exceeded only by the baffling notion that Santo, a superhero capable of battling the undead with relative ease, has a rather hard time dispatching a mortal opponent in the ring.
Eventually, Santo puts his wrestling career on hold long enough to engage with the plot of the film in which he is allegedly starring, and the action moves along well enough from there, though it sometimes plays more like a conventional crime movie: in the grand tradition of movie villainy, Priest Tandra repeatedly tries and fails to kidnap Diana; Queen Thorina berates her but gives her one more chance; and eventually, Tandra succeeds.
Amusingly, part of the reason for Tandra’s eventual success is that Santo is back in the ring: during an ill-conceived attempt to use Diana as bait (which ultimately results in her being kidnapped), police chief recalls casually notes that Santo is busy wrestling; he seems not the least nonplussed that the superhero prioritizes his fight career over guarding an innocent victim from blood-drinking hell-spawn. Fortunately for Santo, he does end up confronting the vampires, who seems to consider him a threat despite his frequently being AWOL: one of the vampire henchmen sneaks into the arena before the match, kills Santo’s opponent in the opponent’s dressing room, and puts on his mask, then fights Santo in the ring. (Why not skip a step and try to kill Santo in his dressing room? Don’t ask.)
I’m not sure this second wrestling match is any more exciting than the previous one, but at least it merges the two elements that the film has so far kept isolated from each other: vampires and wrestling. Santo has a pretty rough time of it (though not particularly rougher than when he was fighting humans), eventually unmasking his opponent to reveal…a werewolf!
WTF? The briefly scene, face-only makeup is the only hint that this henchmen is anything other than a vampire; the revelation is completely pointless except as a visual shock – and almost immediately forgotten. As Santo and the police swarm over the “werewolf,” they find themselves gripping empty air; the culprit escapes in the form of a bat, flapping away to safety.
Or not so much. Santo pursue in his sports car (it’s not the Batmobile, but it does have an invisible camera mounted on the hood – or at least we have to believe so, because Professor Orloff is able to view and speak with Santo via his videophone contraption). The vampire muscleman runs down the street, grasping his cape like wings, as if he cannot quite achieve liftoff in bat from, and comes up short when he finds himself face to face with a large cross, which reduces him to ashes.
This scene underlines another odd point about SANTO VS LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO: Santo does not do much to dispatch the vampires, who instead fall prey to their own miscalculations. More of this will follow in the climax.
Anyway, Professor Orloff finally deciphers more ancient writings and learns where the Vampire Woman have taken his daughter: to a miniature castle on the outskirts of the city. (It’s actually a mansion rather than a castle, but it has a dungeon, so there. And it’s not such a bad miniature really, but it looked better when it was partially hidden beneath the opening credits.) Santo races over and is immediately captured. Tandra begins the ritual to vampirize Diana into the new queen, but the rising sun peeks through a window and ignites the vampire priestess.
That’s right: Santo doesn’t save the day; the sun does. Giving our masked hero the benefit of the doubt, we can perhaps credit his intrusion for delaying Tandra and distracting her from the approaching dawn (she wastes time ordering her henchmen to unmask Santo instead of completing the ritual to turn Diana into the new vampire queen), but this is being overly charitable. Santo does manage to break free of some chains and fight the two remaining vampire thugs, but all he does is knock them down. Like Tandra, they burst into flames as if touched by the sun – thought the lighting of the scene is a bit sketchy about showing exactly which parts of the dungeon set are illuminated by sunbeams.
The remaining Vampire Women relapse into their hag-like appearance and retreat to their coffins, where Santo finally does something tangible, igniting their undead bodies with a torch (like George Romero’s ghouls a six years later in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, they “go up pretty good”). Curiously, the women seem so helpless at this point that Santo’s action seems more appalling than heroic.
And that’s about it. The police and Professor Orloff arrive too late to lend assistance. Santo delivers Diana to her father (not to her ineffectual fiance, who has been standing on the sidelines the whole movie) and drives off like the Lone Ranger, while the professor delivers a heartfelt paean of admiration to the masked hero.
SANTA VS LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO cannot be taken seriously, but it is fun. Although the vampire henchmen are goofy at best, their female overlords cut a striking figure, particularly the regal queen. Pitting seductive female blood-suckers against the uber-macho Santo represents conservative gender politics taken to their nth degree, but it’s amusing to see that the wily women are almost a match for the masked wrestler.
Along the way, there are some interesting variations on vampire lore. For example, these vampires do cast reflections, but the mirror reveals their true countenances – ancient hags hiding beneath the illusion of young flesh.
Santo himself is an odd superhero, to say the least. He’s strong, but he doesn’t have any particular superpowers. He can survive vicious beatings delivered by the undead, yet he is unable to easily overwhelm human opponents in the wrestling ring. He’s also rather stocky and beefy – a far cry from the muscled physique of an archetypal Frank Frazetta protagonist. Presumably he has a secret identify, but the film never reveals it, nor even address it; we simply assume he runs around in that silver mask all day, alternating between wrestling and crime-fighting. And as mentioned above, he has a real problem with prioritizing these two activities.
The production is a bit hit-and-miss. The sets and photography establish atmosphere worthy of a classic film, and some of the special effects work well enough (such as the simple lap dissolves to transform vampires into flaming heaps), but the flying bats are typical for the time – obvious props swung on wires. Also, the editing makes occasional missteps, such as having different scenes reuse the same closeup of Tandra eyeing her target from outside a window (you don’t even need to be an anal-retentive DVD-rewinder to notice this one).
Whatever its flaws, SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO is seldom boring (except for the wrestling scenes). Fans of Mexican horror and/or wrestling consider this one of Santo’s best on-screen efforts, and even more general old-school monster movie aficionados should have a good time.
HOW TO WATCH
Long available in the U.S. only in a badly dubbed English-language version, SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO can now be seen in its original Spanish-language version on Hulu Plus. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles (this is part of the new Hulu Latino programming, intended for Spanish-speaking audiences); fortunately, you can probably follow most of the plot if you took high-school Spanish. If your language skills are not up to par, do what I did: run the Hulu version in synch with one of the English-language versions on YouTube. There are no editorial differences between the two, so the run times are virtually the same.
Why not just watch the English-language version? Because the picture quality of the Spanish-language version is pristine, highlighting the atmospheric detail that is the film’s main strength. Also, as weird as it may seem, hearing the original Spanish voices in the background helps distract from poor quality of the English dubbing, for which the voice actors seemed most concerned with spitting the dialogue out in time with the the lip movements, not with giving a dramatic performance.
If you do not subscribe to Hulu Plus, you will not be able to view SANTO VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN through your Roku box on your widescreen high-def television. Fortunately, the film is also available for free viewing on your computer through Hulu.com, and it is on YouTube as well. Picture quality is not bad as long as you watch in small size on your computer; nevertheless, HuluPlus is the preferred method.
The sound-booth quality of the English dub, along with the faded, pockmarked picture quality, renders SAMSON VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN in terms that make it almost impossible to regard as anything more than a piece of junk, a campy artifact of a bygone age, worthy only of derision. Though the original Spanish cast were never going to win any awards, their dialogue delivery at least sounds appropriate and in-character; the superior soundtrack and image raise SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO to a level of watchability that allows viewers to enjoy the strengths without being overwhelmed by the absurdities (which are enjoyable in their own way).
If you would rather watch the English-language SAMSON VS THE VAMPIRE WOMEN, you might as well check out the version that appeared on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, which is also available, free, on YouTube.
SANTO VS LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO (“Santo vs the Vampire Women,” 1962). Alternate titles: SANTO CONTRA LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO, SAMSON VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN. 89 minutes. Unrated. Black and white. Directed by Alfonso Corona Blake. Produced by Alberto Lopez. Written by Rafael Garcia Travesi; story by Antonio Orellana & Fernando Oses and Rafael Garcia Travesi; screenplay consultant, Alfonso Coronoa Blake. Cast: Santo, Lorena Velazquez, Maria Duval, Jaime Fernandez, Augusto Benedico, Xavier Loya, Ofelia Montesco, Fernando Oses, Guillermo Hernandez, Nathaneal Leon. Caernario Galindo, Ray Mendoza, Alejandro Cruz, Bobby Bonales.