The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember. – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
The human species is very weak, compared with the superior vertebrates. That's why I tried with a gorilla. Now see you the pathetic results! – Freda Frankenstein, El Santo vs Frankenstein's Daughter.
This one is a weird one, even by Frankenstein movie standards.
Let's start with the hero. That's odd for a start. Not many Frankenstein movies have heroes. Protagonists, yes, antiheroes, yes, but heroes are pretty thin on the ground. In this case, the hero is Mexican superstar El Santo, El Enmascarado de Plata.
El Santo was a champion of the Mexican pro-wrestling circuit from the fifties to the early eighties. He was beloved of the Mexican public, even though most of them would not have recognised him out of his costume. His trademark was a silver mask which he never took off during public appearances, and I mean ever. Though the mask covered his whole face, he had a second half-face mask for when he was eating. When he traveled internationally he did so incognito so he could show his face for passport inspection without letting on who he was. The one time he unmasked on TV was after his retirement and a week before his death.
Santo's commitment to his secret identity was not the only super heroic thing about him. He appeared in dozens of low-budget Mexican films which pitted him against spies, aliens, zombies, vampires, and of course Frankenstein's Monster. How did he defeat these enemies? By wrestling them into submission, of course. That's right, thanks to Santo the age-old battle between good and evil was settled by the best of three falls.
In Santo vs Frankenstein's Daughter (El Santo vs la Hija de Frankenstein), Victor Frankenstein's daughter Freda is centuries old. She maintains her youth by means of secret formula. However, she has been building up an immunity to said formula, and each time she takes it the effects are lessened. Her solution: the blood of El Santo. It seems that the secret to El Santo's incredible success in the ring is partly due to the special healing factor in his blood…
No really. That's her solution.
Anyway, Freda has an assistant and a gang of thugs/wrestlers who are also hundreds of years old, and who do her bidding in exchange for the youth formula. The gang is sent after Santo's girlfriend, Norma. They kidnap her in order to lure Santo to his doom.
Meanwhile Freda works on her two creations – a human/gorilla hybrid called Truxon and a more Frankensteinian monster called Ursus. The creation of the Ursus nearly goes horribly wrong when her henchman One-Eye almost pulls the evil base self-destruct switch. But we won't see that switch again, surely.
Norma's sister Elsa gives Santo the note the kidnappers left. The two speed off to the rescue. A line of dialogue suggests they get lost on the way, but eventually they get there. Santo is a better wrestler than a navigator.
Freda increases the size of her personal army by using her youth serum on a bunch of old men. She then gives punishes one of her thugs by withholding the serum, forcing her other men to watch while he ages to death in seconds. While all this is going on, Santo is being warned off by a sheriff who is secretly working for Freda. Santo is not deterred and goes on.
The monster Ursus escapes its cell. It flinches from a torch to remind us that 'fire bad'. It breaks into Norma's cell, but is driven off by One-Eye. Norma escapes into the tunnels. Santo and Elsa keep gradually approaching the lair, Santo half-heartedly flirting as they go. Meanwhile, Norma escapes.
Faster next time, Santo.
Freda rallies her troops to go after Norma. Her serum is wearing off, but she pushes on. Three of her goons run into Santo. Now we're talking! He tells Elsa to run, then proceeds to fakey-looking wrestle the thugs into submission. Norma runs into Freda--who has turned old--and screams at her awful looking 'old lady' makeup. She is then carried off by another thug.
In pursuit of Elsa, Santo runs into Norma, tackling her. Oh, Santo! Freda turns up with a gun on Elsa and…
You know what? Let's just say 'hijinks ensue'. Hijinks ensue and everyone is recaptured. Freda attempts to seduce Santo, explaining the plot for about the dozenth time. More hijinks. Fight between Santo and Truxon. Hypnosis based hijinks. Fight with Ursus in the lab. Escape. A fight with Ursus in the graveyard. Ursus apparently killed. More hijinks, this time mixed with shenanigans. Norma and Elsa escape, Santo goes back to confront Freda. He finds the dying Ursus and bandages its wounds.
Norma and Elsa are recaptured.Hijinks involving gas-shooting skulls. Santo fights Freda's stout, middle aged, balding assistant, hijinks. Ursus attacks Freda, she fends him off with a bottle of acid, Ursus stumbles into the 'we belong dead' switch. Santo and co escape, Ursus stumbles around, Freda ages to death, her assistant kisses her hand as she dies, everything explodes. Santo goes back to the ring and everyone loves him, the end.
So - the sets and costumes have a sort of Adam West Batman quality to them. The story is full of incident, and yet short on ideas. Some of the concepts are interesting – immortality as addiction for example, or the idea of a Frankenstein crime gang. Ultimately, these ideas aren't explored well, they're just used to fill up screen time between wrestling matches.
But hey, that's okay. This is an action vehicle for a wrestler, why shouldn't it be about the wrestling? Unfortunately, here I'm on pretty thin ice as a reviewer, not being any sort of wrestling fan. It looks well, pretty fake to me. I don't know, maybe that's the point. Sometimes one person's 'fakey looking' is another person's 'stylised'. There are two scenes of Santo fighting in the ring which actually don't look so bad, but the big set-piece fight scenes are hit and miss, so to speak.
Acting… Very often with these films, I get around to the female lead and say 'she does what she can with scant material' or something like that. Even Mary Shelley's original novel wasn't great on female characters. In this one, though, Gina Romand is really not bad. She approaches the role of Freda with more seriousness than it deserves, giving us a character who is cold, ruthless and powerful, and yet also deeply fearful of death. She overacts a little, but as I've said before it's perfectly okay to overact of you're playing Frankenstein. The scene in which she I just wish the makeup artist hadn't gone with the full late sixties false eyelashes. They're really distracting.
In fact, across the board it’s the women that shine in their acting roles. This isn't surprising. The men are mostly wrestlers rather than actors. Even though Sonia Fuentes and Anel aren't about to win any awards for this film, they still come across well in comparison. Anel in particular has a couple of nice moments, portraying her edge-of-the seat excitement at watching Santo on TV and doing her best to seem genuinely scared of cheap Halloween props.
The film's treatment of women is, to put it lightly, a little odd. There's an implied element of 'women who appear younger than they are must be evil', which I might have thought an unintentional oversight, until Santo says it outright. Evil women are old and nasty, good women are young and nice. (This same element also comes up in the only other Santo film I've seen, Santo vs the Vampire women. I'd wonder if it was a frequent theme in Santo movies, but there are literally dozens of them, so I guess two isn't a statistically valid sample).
On the other hand, even though both the 'good girls' exist mostly to get kidnapped, they're actually shown to be pretty capable. Both Norma and Freda are shown to be so good at escaping that it’s a wonder they need Santo at all.
Both monsters are played by the same actor, Geraldo Zepeda, a wrestler turned screen actor. While Zepeda brings little of Karloff's humanity to Ursus, he does bring an impressive physicality to the role. His Frankenstein doesn't lumber about, stiffly knocking things over. Well okay, it does lumber about, but when it fights it moves quickly and strikes powerfully. In short, Zepada's take seems threatening in a way that many other Monster actors do not.
All in all, Santo/Daughter is an enjoyably silly movie. It's fun to watch, but don't be afraid to fast forward. Don't expect much in the way of clever ideas, and when there is a clever idea, don't expect it to be followed up on.