Saturday, February 28, 2009

Movies: Run from the border.

Amongst my people, there is well-known bit of folk wisdom that I present here in the native tongue:

La domina masklo estadas pli ol dudek jaroj aĝa kaj ĝi tenas sian postenon proksimume dek jarojn.

There is no exact English equivalent, but it can be roughly translated to "El Santo will get you through a movie without redeeming qualities better than redeeming qualities will get you through a movie without El Santo." Not just a clever turn of phrase, scientists at leading places were science is done have tested this hypothesis under the most rigorous conditions – and it don't get none more rigorous than the truly dire 1977 stinkeroo Santo and the Mystery in the Bermuda - and the rule has held.

This is not to say that all Santo flicks are equal. Over-generalizing bloggers prone to intellectual laziness tend to group Santo flicks into a three-tiered taxonomic system. At the top Santo Chain of Film Being are the Golden Trio: Santo versus the Vampire Women, The Witches Attack, and The Diabolical Axe. Not only are these three films my personal favorites, but a strong case can be made that the physical laws that govern the structure of the universe persist in their current form because this order of reality is a necessary condition for the existence of these three films. In another universe, under different physical laws, there would either be too many top-level Santo films, which would cause all reality to explode due to awesomeness overload, or too few Santo flicks, which would cause the universe to collapse in an implosion of pointless misery.

Under the Golden Trio is the Silver Horde, a dozen or so flicks that consistent deliver the wrasslin' action, loopy filmmaking, and life-affirming heroic nobility that fans of El Santo demand. Though often marred by clunky plotting and speed-bump "dramatic" scenes, these flicks have a bright, fun pop appeal that carries you right over the rough patches. As an added bonus, they often involve some character culled from the old Universal Monster stable – some distant relative of Frankenstein, one of a pack of wolf men, or Drac, natch – which provides a nice point of entry for those unfamiliar with the Man in the Silver Mask.

Finally, there's what Santo-superfan and surrealist anthropologist George Bataille called "The Accursed Share." These limp late-career flicks can be tough going even for the faithful. By the late '70s, Santo films just weren't the moneymakers they used to be. This meant smaller budgets and casts padded out with comic relief sidekicks and a rotating slate of pop singers. To make matters worse, Santo was getting a bit long in the tooth himself, so there's usually less rough housing and the mandatory wrestling scenes are increasingly handled by cutting footage of past actual matches into the flick. That's not to say that even these flicks don't have their draw, but it isn't where the Santo novice wants to start.

Today's flick, 1979's Santo and the Border of Terror, is a pretty typical example a work from Santo's accursed share. The flick is built on a neat premise. It pits the Hero of the Multitudes against a slave labor ring that disposes of unwanted or troublesome workers by using them as raw material for an organ harvesting sideline. Oh, and it's a musical. That's right: the flick is a lucha action musical about the modern slave trade and organ harvesting. Unfortunately, the film just cannot deliver on all the high strangeness that premise implies.

The film starts with two workers making a deal with a coyote (in the people-smuggler, not dog-like desert scavenger sense) to reach the North American plantation of one Mr. Richards. One of the laborers, Laborer 1, needs the money badly to pay for the eye transplant operation of his girlfriend's, the Nightclub Singer, blind little sister (BLS). Laborer 2 has some backstory about an old mother who needs help or something, but it never really comes up. He's there because he, like Nightclub, is a minor musical star and that gives him an excuse to kick into the occasional musical number.

Santo gets mixed up in all this sorta by accident. Unable to find a convincing way to fit Santo in this drama, the filmmakers decided he would just show up. Literally. When the Laborers, Nightclub, and the BLS are walking home one night, they get jumped by some thugs. Santo and his comic relief Manager, happen to be nearby. The Man in the Silver Mask opens up a can of whoop-ass on the thugs and, Q.E.D., he's in the story.

Laborers 1 and 2 make their way in the US and start to work at the Richard's farm. The farm is run like a prison camp by a brutal, but cowardly Overseer and Dr. Sombra, the morality-impaired medico who seems like a nice enough guy until he's got you on the slab. Ultimately, Nightclub starts to wonder what happened to her beau and asks for Santo to intervene. Santo and his painfully unfunny manager make the scene and start solving the mystery in Santo's own inimitable fashion.

So, what in Borders works? Despite the overall predictability of the plot, there's some clever twists and oddities thrown in to keep the viewer interested. For example, there are at least three major villains in the piece, but what they all know and just how evil they are is unclear. Mr. Richards, for example, seems to understand that he's getting labor for cheaper than he should, but it isn't clear just how much he understands about daily life on the farm (and he clearly doesn't know that workers who've "left to go home to Mexico" are actually being chopped up into spare parts). The Overseer is a bully and douchebag, but his real moral failing seems to be cowardice. It's unclear if he knows that nobody ever gets paid, but it's clear that he's not cool with the dissection and sale of workers. However, being a coward, he doesn't blow the whistle on the doc, but rather attempts to use his knowledge as leverage to get away from the farm with a bit of cash. Admittedly, this ain't the most complicated characterization you'll run across in a flick, but it adds a refreshing dynamic, giving the baddies varied and shifting motives and allegiances. The film's conclusion is also morally ambiguous. The BLS gets her vision back, but the eyeballs come from one of Sombra's victims. I don't know if the viewer is supposed to care (after all, the victim's not coming back and not using the eyes to save a girl's vision would be wasteful), but the fact that nobody mentions this moral paradox is dissonant note that runs contrary to the we-all-laugh-and-freeze-frame ending viewers see. The topical content of the film is handled well. Unlike the dreary lectures at the ass-end of Mystery in Bermuda, nobody lectures viewers about the dehumanizing effects of the US immigration policies when coupled with a voracious market for cheap labor. Plus, there's Santo being Santo. That should be enough.

What doesn't work is a much longer list. The dialog is painfully wooden. The acting is subpar, even for the subgenre of lucha action flicks. This is especially true in the case of Santo's manager, who is actually so unfunny that he might have single handedly discovered some sort of comedic anti-matter, "jokes" that actually destroys any joy and mirth it encounters. Though there's a certain charm to the artless way in which musical numbers are included in the flick, this charm is overwhelmed by the mediocrity of the tunes themselves. The special effects are a drag and, despite the wonderfully grand guignol premise of the film, we get no gore whatsoever. Seriously, a film about an organ harvester and there's not even so much as a bloody butcher's apron to be seen! WTF? OMG, DSKWWACTS? IAHDAMLJ, ICTYTM. Late stage Santo doesn't have the moves he used to, so the wrestling action is quite tame. Finally, the voice of the BLS is what I imagine is so unbelievably unpleasant that it's a wonder nobody's tried to weaponize it. Certainly this shrill, flat, dentist drill of a voice would be a more effective torture method than, say, waterboarding.

Perhaps, like me, you're one of those sad Santo addicts, living on the fringes of society, stealing car stereos to pay Netflix bills and sustain the habit. If so, then by all means, check out Border of Terror. If, however, you are a normal human being with a healthy and regular relationship to movies starring legendary Mexican wrestlers, then I'd give it the pass.

1 comment:

houseinrlyeh said...

But isn't the healthy and regular relationship to Santo's output needing to see it all!?
I am confused now.