Before the witching hour strikes on this Halloween, we need to have a talk about lucha libre.
Why? Because, well, it’s Halloween. Lucha libre’s most famed and recognizable attribute is masked wrestlers (although it’s good to note that not every luchador wrestles enmascarado). As a youth, it was common to run into my classmates decked out in Rey Mysterio and El Santo masks. Now, with new programs like Lucha Underground heavily featuring masked wrestlers, it’s not terribly uncommon for me to run into a few Prince Pumas and Pentagon DARKs. The latter of whom I swiftly run from.
But is lucha libre’s connection to Halloween really just masks? No! There is also the staple of my childhood and maybe yours, luchador movies. I’ve been in the mood for these campy, often over the top, and highly nostalgic movies this month for a few reasons. Chiefly, 2017 has proven hands down that nothing is scarier than real life. In this political climate, I’m not worried about the dude chasing me down with a machete. I’m way more scared of the people online who will argue that I should have reasoned with the dude wielding the machete. Or perhaps even the police who might shoot me instead of the man wielding the machete.
I have chosen to be entertained rather than scared because I already have plenty of that. And I can think of few things more entertaining than Blue Demon suplexing an Aztec mummy.
To understand what makes lucha movies so fantastic and not cheesy at all is to understand lucha libre culture. Professional wrestlers by nature are over the top larger than life caricatures, but masked luchadores in particular often come with long family histories and convoluted, occasionally mystical origins that are prime material for comic books and movies. Also important to note is that lucha libre pretty much takes kayfabe to the grave, in a world where técnicos (good guys) are legit superheroes and heroines and the rudos (bad guys) are really, really evil. You and I know it’s all staged but saying it out loud is likely to draw a fight. So yes, that totally is El Santo, the person, not an actor in a costume, fighting actual vampire women. And no, he’s not using a stunt double. Why would he do that? He’s El Santo.
It’s weird, wild, and all really fun. Lucha films hit their peak in the late ’70s and they’re all very much a product of their times. Lucha films often combined popular trends with the already perennially popular wrestling for maximum impact and box office, so you’ll see luchadores battling all manner of mummies, sexy vampires, evil scientists, technicolor zombies, and each other in the name of justice. At this point, you might remember seeing the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 taking on El Santo vs las mujeres vampiro and that is pretty much the peak of lucha horror right there. Santo movies usually came with a straightforward plot and heavy rescue missions as befitting the hero in the silver mask, and it doesn’t get any heavier than rescuing a woman from a coven of lusty vampires.
As the top star in lucha libre even well after death, El Santo runs the lucha film subgenre with fifty-two films. But my favorite lucha movies have to be those featuring Mil Máscaras. Mil Máscaras is best known for his fifty-plus year career, a wrestling family that includes Dos Caras and Alberto El Patron (formerly Alberto del Rio in the WWE), and for being a bit of a jerk. But his movies are so entertaining and underrated. Mil’s movies tended to feature more intrigue and suspense with his undead hell beasts. But he seemed to roll more easily with the ridiculousness of the situations he was thrown into as opposed to the quiet nobility of Santo. Mil also happened to star in the best lucha film of the past twenty years, Mil Máscaras vs the Aztec Mummy. Speaking of combining trends again, the Aztec Mummy actually has its own separate series outside of luchador films and they’re pretty entertaining.
I enjoy Blue Demon’s movies as well, but I feel like his team ups with El Santo were the best because they were basically the World’s Finest like Superman and Batman were teaming up. Blue Demon tended to muscle his way out of situations with his famous giant hands, so when he and Santo had to help each other out you knew business was going down.
My favorite lucha movie not featuring one of the big three or even a minor established luchador has got to be Ladrón de cadáveres, or The Body Snatchers. This one is a bit of a cheat because it’s a horror movie that just happens to involve luchadores and doesn’t really have the trope of professional wrestler slapping his way out of trouble. It’s more conventional and therefore more accessible. My first exposure to this movie was a ripped copy on the internet many years ago, about the same time I watched my first Coffin Joe movie. Imagine that crossover.
I got through this whole movie without mentioning the obvious, the Jack Black vehicle known as Nacho Libre. It’s probably the most recent example of a lucha film in recent US memory. But? Doesn’t count. Next! For the waning days of the spooky season, put your mask on and get ready to take on some Aztec vampire women from Atlantis.
Photo: Brian Johnson and Dane Kanter/Creative Commons