¡Lucha mania! ‘Cinema con queso’ brings vintage Mexican wrestle mania back to the big screen

What do you get if you cross Superman and Hulk Hogan with a dash of flamboyantly weird filmmaker Ed Wood?

El Santo.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, then you may need more queso in your life, says Darrell Brogdon of Kansas Public Radio’s Retro Cocktail Hour. Brogdon has joined forces with Daniel Aguado Ornelas, of the Mexican Consulate in Kansas City, to present a night of El Santo in Lawrence this Friday in the form of Cinema con Queso. The show is a one-night double feature of two of the more than 50 films starring Mexico’s most famous wrestler — luchador — El Santo, aka Rodolfo Guzman Huerta.

“El Santo was really, as I understand it, the most popular of the luchadors. He was a living, breathing superhero,” Brogdon says. “Because he never took the mask off, he was always El Santo. Unlike here, you go to a Batman movie and you know it’s a movie. It’s with an actor who puts on a mask and the rubber and plays Batman. But in the El Santo movies, El Santo was played by El Santo, so he really is like a living superhero in these movies.”

The night begins at 7:30 p.m. at Liberty Hall, and the $5 admission includes the films “Santo and the Blue Demon vs. the Monsters” and “Santo vs. the She Wolves” and real luchador masks raffled as door prizes.

The double feature fits in with Brogdon’s show, which he says features “incredibly strange tunes” at 7 p.m. Saturday nights on KPR (91.5 FM). And this may be the first in a line of retro-themed movie nights, if successful.

“There is an undeniable sort of kitch with the El Santo films … because they’re very low-budget. The Mexican government financed them to some extent, but they’re still kind of low-budget and they’re very enthusiastic, but they’re B-movies,” Brogdon says. “So they are never going to win an Oscar, but they’re fun, fun silly movies.”

Man, myth, legend

El Santo the wrestler was in the ring for more than five decades and became a movie star, comic book character and folk hero during the time between his wrestling debut in the mid 1930s to his retirement in 1982. All the time, El Santo was only seen in public with his mask.

“Somehow I think that the character possessed Mr. Guzman,” Aguado Ornelas says. “He was a popular character as El Santo, but nobody knew that Mr. Rodolfo Guzman was El Santo. He kept his secret, his double personality even from his own kids.”

Indeed, one of El Santo’s sons, who now wrestles under the moniker Hijo del Santo (Son of El Santo) has relayed a story to the press about how as a child he would go with his father to movie sets, only to have his father somehow be noticeably absent, a la Clark Kent or Peter Parker, when El Santo was present.

“So when he was older, like 12 years old, he started getting suspicious about that and that’s when his father had to tell him, ‘I’m El Santo,'” Aguado Ornelas says.

In Mexican culture at the time, this would be akin to a father telling a child he happens to be Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, Aguado Ornelas says.

However, he warns that anyone looking for a proper taste of Mexican cinema won’t find it here. That would be akin to showing off American cinema with something like “Plan 9 from Outer Space” — Ed Wood’s famously awful science fiction/horror film.

“Critics thought it was like a symbol of the declining of the Mexican cinema after the 1940s, (which) was the golden era of the Mexican cinema,” Aguado Ornelas says of the El Santo cannon. “So they were considered cheesy, tacky movies. But after the ’80s and the ’90s … they became like cult movies, something similar to the Ed Wood movies in America.”

Taste of cheese

The two films chosen for “Cinema con Queso” were picked mostly for their availability with English subtitles, Brogdon says. But viewers hoping to get extra cheese for their money won’t be disappointed. The first movie, “Santo and the Blue Demon vs. the Monsters,” unites the two most famous luchadors in Mexico, says Brogdon.

“I always describe them as if El Santo was the Beatles, Blue Demon was the Rolling Stones,” Brogdon says. “He’s like the second most popular luchador in Mexico during the ’60s and ’70s.”

Aguado Ornelas says that those with a need for cheese and the ability to laugh off plot holes should have no problem enjoying “Cinema con Queso” in Spanish or English.

“Suddenly this wrestler, which is this kind of superhero, suddenly he starts fighting monsters, but they never ever explain why or where they came from. It’s kind of difficult to think about a mummy or a vampire in Mexico, I mean they don’t even explain it. They just appear and somehow they start fighting,” he says. “If you can understand or you can get that this is not people doing something stupid — that they are doing something so cheap that it is actually funny — if you can understand that, you will have fun.”