The so-called Golden Age of Mexican cinema began in the 1930's, but by the end of the Second World War it was facing decline. During the Second World War, the United States funneled a great deal of financial assistance to its neighbor and ally, and this helped the Mexican film industry expand and keep its technology current. But once the war was over, not only did the wartime funding cease: Hollywood became once again interested in the export market, and this — coupled with the fact that the only major theatrical distributor in Mexico was an American businessman — made it very difficult for the local industry to continue to thrive.
As the 1950's began, the Mexican government took on more and more of a role in propping up the industry; but unfortunately, this created more problems than it solved. The government saw film production solely as an economic matter, and this meant that it emphasized commercial success over artistic quality. Only those productions that proved themselves commercially vaible would lead to continued funding from the Banco Cinematográfico.
The corrosive effect of this kind of policy can be demonstrated by a quick look at the history of Mexican horror/fantasy films over the following decades: Golden Age films such as Fernando de Fuentes's El fantasma del convento (The Ghost of the Convent, 1935) or Juan Bustillo Oro's El Hombre sin rostro (The Man Without a Face, 1950) — movies fully comparable to the best horror films of their era made anywhere — first gave way to the delirious Mexican Gothics like El Vampiro (The Vampire, 1956) or El Barón del terror (The Brainiac, 1962), which are only now beginning to be appreciated as more than mere noisy crowd pleasers. By the late 1960's, most "serious" film-makers had abandoned the genre (with the notable exceptions of Carlos Enrique Taboada and Juan Carlos Moctezuma, both of whom were ignored at the time); the mainstream of Mexican horror merged with the masked wrestler/superhero picture to create the subgenre which is still most frequently associated with the Mexican fantastico by fans north of the border. Budgets fell still further, and so did expectations... not to mention box-office receipts. And by the mid-1970's, when law of diminishing returns finally caught up with the Mexican horror film, it was very difficult to lower the bar any further1.
And yet, somehow, they managed: witness the rise of Rene Cardona, Jr.
This was the state of Mexican fantastic cinema when the producer Rogelio Agrasánchez, Sr., got his start.
Depending on your point of view, Agrasánchez is either the man who kept the Mexican cine fantastico going during its leanest years, or he was one of the people most responsible for driving it into the ground. I think an equal argument can be made for either case. You'll find genre film fans who love him for either reason (or both, since we're used to a lack of continuity).
In either case, Agrasánchez had a couple of interesting habits: first, he's famous for putting Little People into his movies. He seems to have had a specific obsession with small villains, to the point where if you type the words "Rogelio Agrasánchez Senior" into Google Translate, it will come back as "Charles Band" in English2
Kidding.. In Los campeones justicieros (The Champions of Justice, 1971), his story called for a group of Little People as costumed mini-assassins; in movies like El Robo de los momias de Guanajuato (The Robbery of the Mummies of Guanajuato, 1972) and El castillo de los momias de Guanajuato (The Castle of the Mummies of Guanajuato, 1973), they appeared as a horde of mini-Igors for the mad scientist; in Los Vampiros de Coyoacán (1974) they were a horde of mini-vampires... and so on. These roles weren't generally very dignified: Agrasánchez's idea seems to have been that a whole bunch of short people beating up on a burly masked wrestler constituted (you'll pardon the expression) the height of filmed entertainment.
Another trait Agrasánchez is known for is this: he could take a criminally low budget and use it to create a movie that looked like it cost even less. No matter how (relatively) elaborate his movies get — and here I'm thinking in particular of Los Vámpiros de Coyoacán — the fancy stuff still looks cheap. One of the methods he used to cut costs was to take his production — this is a Mexican production, let's remember, so I advise my norteamericano readers to be prepared to savor the irony — and move it south of the border, where the labor costs were significantly cheaper. "South of the border" from Mexico brings us to Guatemala, and it was in Guatemala that a surprisingly large number of Agrasánchez's "Mexican" films were made. Even some of the entries in the momias de Guanajuato series were shot in Guatemala rather than Guanajuato — perhaps in the theory that both places started with "Gua-" and had the same number of syllables.
Then again, most of the films produced in Guatemala during the last half of the twentieth century were Mexican productions. Guatemala's turbulent political history made it difficult for a local industry to establish itself. However, though the funding may have come from Mexico, there were still Guatemalan film-makers interested in making essentially-Guatemalan films. Notable among these was the writer/director Rafael Lanuza — five of whose seven credited films listed in the IMDb were produced by Agrasánchez.
Though they may have been Mexican coproductions, intended primarily for a Mexican general audience, Lanuza found ways to make these films a good deal more personal, and a more identifiably Guatemalan, than the typical Agrasánchez product. You need only compare two very similar movies Agrasánchez produced within a short time of each other: Las momias de San Ángel (The mummies of San Angel, 1975) and La mansion de los siete momias (Mansion of the Seven Mummies, 1977), both featuring Lanuza's brother Claudio in important roles. The earlier film, shot in Antigua Guatemala by a Mexican director and starring the masked wrestlers Mil Mascaras and Tinieblas, is a rather dreary and unfocused affair that makes little use of its historic location. On the other hand, Rafael Lanuza's film, the much more entertaining Mansion..., takes great pains to highlight some of Antigua Guatemala's most famous architecture, and even contains a minor sub-plot about the plight of Guatemala's indigenous Maya population (who, to be fair, are at least mentioned in passing in the earlier film).
Lanuza's first film for Agrasánchez was Superzan y el niño del espacio (Superzan and the Boy from Space, 1973), a sort of Guatemalan take on The Day the Earth Stood Still... only with wrestlers. Lanuza's version, though simpler and more child-friendly (not to mention filled with goofy superhero action), managed to work in even more obvious Christian symbolism than the original. Lanuza even included a few references to economic disparity in Guatemala, with the Christ-like Boy from Space (Lanuza's son Luigi) finding hope for the salvation of mankind in the person of a poor & humble farmer (Claudio Lanuza again. Superzan y el niño del espacio deserves a separate review of its own; in fact, I've owed Luigi Lanuza one for, oh, about five or six years now). Lanuza's other movies, most of them featurring Claudio, Luigi and/or Carol Lanuza among the cast, include El Cristo de los milagros (Christ of the Miracles, 1975, produced by Agrasánchez) and Terremoto en Guatemala (Earthquake in Guatemala, 1978, a tragedy set in the immediate aftermath of the horrendous 1978 earthquake, which featured footage from the actual disaster).
Lanuza's El triunfo de los campeones justicieros (Triumph of the Champions of Justice, 1974) was the third and final installment in a series begun by Agrasánchez in Mexico. Since it was part of an established series, Lanuza had to incorporate some of the Agrasánchisms of the first two films. The marriage of the Agrasánchez house style and Lanuza's own rough but personal kind of film-making does not seem to have gone smoothly. It feels as though vast chunks of the plot have simply gone missing, or that Lanuza's lost his train of thought in mid-scene. It may have been the conflict between what Agrasánchez expected from the series and what Lanuza wanted to make of his film that resulted in such a fragmented screenplay. Or perhaps the funds ran out early, and the production team needed to improvise. In any case, the finished film takes the series into baffling new directions, not all of which make sense.
In order to make the differences between Lanuza's film and the previous entries clear, I'll have to go into a little detail on the first two films:
The original Campeones justicieros was filmed in Mexico, and starred Blue Demon as the leader of the heroic Champions of Justice. Blue Demon was accompanied by his fellow luchadores Mil Máscaras(The Man of a Thousand Masks), El Médico Asesino (The Killer Doctor), Black Shadow (Black Sh... never mind), Tinieblas (the Darkness) and La Sombra Vengador (the Avenging Shadow). Elsa Cardenas co-starred as Elsa, a treacherous double agent. The Little People in the cast were a team of vicious red-caped assassins in the service of a sinister supercriminal called Mano Negra (the Black Hand). The action of the film was very much typical for a lucha picture: the Champions must match their wits against Mano Negra and his henchmen, in between performing in arena bouts and chaperoning beauty contests (for a complete overview of the film, read Teleport City's excellent review).
The second film in the series, Vuelven los campeones justicieros (The Champions of Justice Return, 1972), dropped the second-string wrestlers from the lineup and teamed Blue and Mil Máscaras with El Rayo de Jalisco (Jalisco Lightning, whose mask is extremely similar to that of la Sombra Vengador), El Avispon Escarlata (The Scarlet Hornet) and Fantasma Blanco (White Ghost). In spite of the change of lineup, Vuelven... felt very much like a sequel to the first film: it opened in the same way, with the Champions all riding motorcycles, and it featured the same theme music; and it had a squad of Little People charging into the fray, though this time they were supposed to be a horde of murderous mutant rat creatures. The supervillain was a woman in this installment, the nefarious cat-woman Gatussy, but she had the usual supervillain's diabolical plan to steal the the nation's platinum supply. And, as expected, the action was periodically interrupted for yet another arena fight. Yet if you looked carefully, you'd notice obvious evidence that the second film was shot in Guatemala — Guatemala City's Tower of the Reformer appears very briefly in the background of several scenes, and the lake which features prominently in several of Lanuza's films (I think it's Lake Atitlan) is the setting for an early action scene featuring Mil Máscaras.
But then we get to the third film. This time the motorcycles are gone. So is the standard theme tune: in place of the brass-heavy lounge music — Herb Alpert didn't call his ensemble the "Tijuana Brass" for nothing — we have instead a bluesier rock soundtrack that sounds like it was recorded in somebody's garage (and sounds all the better for it). Most of the lineup of the first two films has also been discarded: only Blue Demon and (of all people) Fantasma Blanco return from the previous installment, and Mil Máscaras's place as second-in-command has been filled by Superzan, the masked hero created by Agrasánchez in 1971.
Superzan wasn't a genuine masked wrestler. Unlike other lucha movie stars like El Santo or Blue Demon, he was just an actor playing a role. In his original incarnation, Superzan wasn't even a wrestler at all: he was a genuine comic book-style superhero (who, in his first adventure, encountered some extraterrestrials of, ahem, less-than-average height). As you might expect from a guy whose name is basically "Superman" with the "m" turned 90 degrees clockwise, he was invulnerable to bullets, and he could fly. He kept his superpowers in Superzan y el niño del espacio, but he'd been reduced to a more typical masked-hero role in El castillo de los momias de Guanajuato, which was shot at about the same time. After 1973, no mention was made of his special abilities.
(Oddly enough, if Superzan had lost his superpowers by the time Triunfo... was made, Fantasma Blanco actually gained some. In this movie, he has the ability to turn himself into a cloud of white smoke and drift unseen into locked rooms.)
But that's only three Champions of Justice so far — hardly enough for a good show. Rounding out the team is Elsa Cárdenas — definitely not a wrestler — in the role of Venus.
Cárdenas was a capable actress. After all, she co-starred with Elvis in Fun in Acapulco, and you'll see her in small roles in Giant and The Wild Bunch; in fact, she's still active in television to this day. But in this particular movie, she's half-hidden under a hideous blonde wig... and an even more appalling blonde attitude. Obviously she's been told to play her part as a stereotypical Helpless Female; and it's a measure of Cárdenas's ability as an actress that she plays Venus as though she couldn't act at all. Venus seems to be a broad parody of characters like Sandra in Vuelven..., attractive foils for the Big Strong Men who do all the actual world-saving. Cárdenas handles her very silly role with good humor; but I notice that having done seven lucha pictures before this one, she didn't do a single one afterwards, so perhaps the role rankled a bit.
Los campeones existentiales:
Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm.
If the Campeones themselves have been scaled back a bit, so has almost everything else around them. Where once they had a whole floor in a modern skyscraper for their headquarters, now it seems they rent a couple of rooms in Blue Demon's house. Where once they had once of those fancy video conferencing devices El Santo claimed to have invented back in the early sixties, now they're reduced to plain ol' radio. And while the Campeones's government contact in Vuelven... had been a distinguished (if crabby) eminence grise, keeping the campeones informed about matters of national (Guatemalan?) security, his current incarnation looks like he's anxious to get back to the used car lot.
So: those are some of the basic differences in the setup of the third film. The remaining differences? Practically everything else in the movie. These familiar characters are out of their element here. In fact, the story is so digressive that it's too big for any of its characters — as though room had to be made for so many ideas, old and new, that the film simply couldn't contain them. A hole has torn through the fabric of reality, and this movie inhabits that void. Most lucha films have a weird sort of internal logic that helps them hold up at least until the lights come back on in the theater, but El triunfo de los campeones justicieros does not. I caution you not to try to make sense of the plot: you will lose your mind if you try.
Sometimes a logo
is only a logo.
The movie opens at the end of an extremely polite car chase. As the opening credits roll, the camera pans down from the top of the Tower of the Reformer to the busy roadways at the Tower's base. The light changes, and a line of traffic moves slowly toward the camera; the second car in the right-hand lane, which has been waiting patiently at the light with everyone else, pulls gently to the side of the road, and its two occupants climb out. These two men, dressed entirely in black, turn out to be alien fugitives trying to escape from Blue Demon (who is apparently still stuck at the traffic light). Not only are they fleeing the masked wrestler, but they're also racing against time to find an energy source: in two minutes their energies will be depleted, and unless they find some power immediately they will disintegrate. Perhaps this explains why the car chase was so polite: I can just imagine the two of them driving extra-carefully, as they alternate sticking their tongues in the car's cigarette-lighter port...
Now, apparently, the car's battery and internal combustion engine are of no use to them. Nor, apparently, can they get any power from the rays of the Central American sun. Rather, they're drawn to the mild electromagnetic current that the Guatemala Tower (like any big metal structure) carries within it (they must really be desperate).
Suddenly, Blue Demon's convertible pulls up, and the burly wrestler jumps out and confronts the two aliens. One of the Men in Black pulls out a ray gun and fires it at Blue, who jumps out of the way. Yes, that's right: the alien fires his pistol point-blank at a man the size of a bus, and Blue Demon simply steps aside. Three times.
While the alien tries to accustom himself to the strange Earth concept of "aiming", Venus appears out of nowhere from behind him. Venus karate-chops the aliens, causing the one with the blaster to drop his weapon. This gives Blue Demon the chance to get within pummeling range. As usual for lucha movie villains, the two aliens are scrupulous gentlemen: when they regain their footing, they both go after Blue Demon, rather than attacking the girl. Poor marginalized Venus is content to stand on the sidelines, making little moues of anxiety when things go badly for Blue, and grinning broadly when he seems to be gaining the upper hand. Suddenly remembering the ray gun that's lying off to the side of the fracas, Venus bends to retrieve it... but apparently this act of concentration is too much for our blonde heroine, for she fails to notice the two burly robot-men that come clomping up behind her.
Venus has just raised the ray gun — she's a Good Guy, so I guess she's allowed to shoot her opponents in the back while they're distracted — when one of the robot-men grabs her and forces her to drop the weapon. He holds her immobile while the second robot-man goes after Blue Demon. Blue's fists make a dull thumping sound as they connect with the robot-man's body, but otherwise they have no effect. The robot-man clubs Blue to the ground, and the two aliens make their break for the Tower. Apparently the robot-men are very literal creatures: if their job was to help the aliens get away, that's what they've done... rather than do anything further — like, say, finish the fight with los campeones, or actually get the two distressed aliens back to their home base — they simply turn around and walk away.
The two aliens begin scaling the Tower... though as you've probably guessed, the tiny electromagnetic current in the Tower isn't enough to revive them. The plan may not have made very much sense, but you have to admit: Guatemala's modernist re-imagining of the Eiffel Tower makes a great (not to mention cheap) location to start off a science fiction film. The aliens dissolve into puddles of green goop — but not before one of them is able to hide a small, flat object on one of the Tower's beams.
So far the fight seems to have gone utterly unremarked by the people of Guatemala City. But no sooner have the aliens' remains tumbled back to the ground, when all the people you might have expected to take notice come flooding into the frame at one time. As if on cue, you might say... One girl in particular can't help but stare stright at the camera, giggling. But our heroes, even though they've just fought off a couple of aliens and watched them turn into spinach dip before their eyes, seem to lose interest as quickly as the robot-men. They simply walk away from the scene and allow the bystanders to run amok.
"Hey! Look at me!
I'm in a movie!"
"Treat this with absolute secrecy!" says the Inspector when Blue Demon calls to tell him what's happened. Oops!
Superzan himself is having a chat with the Inspector when Blue Demon's call comes through. Blue claims the two men broke into a conveniently off-screen power plant to inject themselves with massive charges of electricity. When he interrupted them, they fled — only to melt before he could catch them. At first Superzan thinks it must be some sort of joke, but the Comissioner reminds Superzan about the recent, conveniently off-screen plane crash that killed five of the world's top scientists. Traces of green jelly were found in the wreckage... yet none of the scientists had the lamb! Coincidence? I think not. And neither does the Inspector.
Meanwhile, in a parallel dimension, the evil mastermind Quisisarél is mulling over the failure of his plan. It turns out his evil henchmen are idiots: who would have suspected? At least he has a Plan B: the "circus plan", he calls it.
And here's where we have a major difference between the typical Agrasánchez flick and the kind of movie Rafael Lanuza was prepared to put his name to. If there's one thing that shines through Lanuza's films, in spite of their budgetary or technical limitations, it's their kindness. In Superzan y el niño del espacio, in addition to the film's obvious religious inspiration, we're given a Supervillain who argues with his human mad-scientist counterpart that even Supervillainy has its ethics. In Mansion de las siete momias, even the Devil himself plays by the rules... and we're given an ugly, frightening hunchback who turns out to be a doomed, generous spirit rebelling against his own damnation. It would not be typical of Lanuza to cast Little People in roles as dehumanized as the squeaking rat-men of Vuelven... Nor would he have been likely to put a line like "We're just useless midgets!" in their mouths, the way the original Campeones... did.
There are only two dwarves in Triunfo de los campeones justicieros, instead of the usual crowd. But those two play the powerful villains, Quisisarél and his assistant Birsi, rather than the usual nameless henchmen. They even have lines3
... though Birsi's near-total lack of acting ability suggests there may have been other reasons Agrasánchez's Little People were more often seen than heard.! At no point is their stature played for laughs. At no point do they grapple with men many times their size. They are treated at all times with the respect due to interplanetary conquerors.
(It might have been nice if Venus had been treated with the same respect, but then again I'm reasonably sure she's supposed to be a parody of women's roles in movies like this.)
Now, about Quisisarél's "circus plan": it involves an actual circus, set up in a park in Guatemala City. It's run by the genial Mr. Mendoza and his niece Lila. The circus is a deperately poor affair, but thanks to Mendoza's leadership it has gradually begun to attract an appreciative audience. As Mendoza says proudly to an American guest later in the film: "It's a poor circus, but it is our circus... and this is our life." (I can't help but wonder if this line had an extra resonance for Lanuza as he considered the realities of Guatemalan cinema.)
It might be a little difficult to guess why Quisisarél would be so interested in threadbare big top... a circus so small that the third-rate magician, "Ali Mustafa", also doubles as the headline clown, Farolito (Claudio Lanuza). The first part of the answer comes when Birsi, in his regal Grand Vizier from Outer Space garb, materialzes in Farolito's dressing room as the clown removes his makeup. At first, judging by his stature and his outlandish costume, Farolito assumes Birsi is part of a new act Mendoza has signed. He keeps up a cheerful stream of conversation as he continues to remove his makeup, but eventually he has to wonder why Birsi keeps staring at him in stony silence.
Finally Birsi speaks up: "Señor Ali Mustafa, we need to have a talk."
The clown tells him he might as well call him "Farolito", since that's how he's dressed. Or, if he wanted to call him by his proper name, he could call him...
"William Herschell," interrupts Birsi in a stern voice, "the great astronomer, who in 1781 discovered the planet Uranus."
That's right: Farolito, the headline clown of a small Guatemalan circus, is actually Sir William Herschell, the eighteenth century German musician who moved to England around the same time as his fellow-composers Johann Christian Bach and the young Muzio Clementi. While pursuing his musical career, he also took up amateur astronomy. Before long, his scientific achievements far outshone his abilities as a composer4
Though his 8th and 14th symphonies are really pretty good.. In addition to discovering Uranus, he also revolutionized telescope development and discovered infrared radiation in sunlight.
But what nobody's realized is that in the 1820's, when he was thought to be dead, he really traveled to Uranus, where the brilliant polymath helped the Uranians free themselves from the reign of Quisisarél. In gratitude for his help, Birsi's father (evidently the Grand Chancellor of the Uranians) had given him near-eternal life (and presumably regenerated him into his present form). In essence, Sir William Herschell had become a Time Lord.
But unfortunately, a mere half-century later, Quisisarél had returned from his ignominious defeat and wiped out the Uranians. Quisisarél is now the Grand Chancellor... but there's nobody left to rule. He's spent the last hundred years planning his next move from an alternate dimension. Now he and his turncoat assistant Birsi, along with a small band of surviving Uranians, the robot-men and one human henchman, have come to establish a new home for themselves on the planet Earth. And this time, Herschell is going to help them.
"No!" insists Herschell. In spite of all the brutality of human history, he says, "We are not the children of Lucifer!" Under no circumstances will he help the evil Quisisarél with his dastardly plan.
Ah — but there's a catch. If Herschell's unnaturally-extended life was a Uranian gift, then the last surviving Uranians can easily take it away. Herschell, still resisting, is teleported into Quisisarél's dimension, where he comes face to face with his old enemy. When Herschell calls him a plague and a destroyer of worlds, Quisisarél actually looks down and blushes at the compliment. But there's nothing poor Herschell can do to avoid being pulled into the dictator's scheme.
The plan is this: since the Uranians can't exist for long on the surface of the Earth without large amounts of energy — witness the melting of the two henchmen at the beginning of themovie — Quisisarél needs a way to both create large amounts of energy and stabilize the Uranian body. Fortunately Rago Credmore, Uranus's greatest scientist, is in exile on Earth, having fled from Quisisarél's revolution a hundred years ago; and Credmore has already worked out a solution for both these tasks. Herschell's job is to pry the secrets of perpetual energy and "molecular mutation" from Credmore...
... who is none other than Señor Mendoza, the owner of the circus!
What were the odds?
Now, here's the even wackier thing: certain members of the Earth's governments actually knew about the existence of Rago Credmore. Even the Campeones are aware of it, though they don't know exactly who or where he is. The Campeones have also managed to figure out that the invaders are from the dead planet Uranus, and that they can only exist on Earth for three hours at a time before they have to go back to their own environment... they seem to have learned this from staring down at pieces of paper, nodding their heads and pointing. I would have expected some cone-shaped flasks to be involved at some point, but perhaps the budget did not allow them.
Blue Demon finds out that an American mathematician named Marshall is due to meet with Credmore in the morning. Blue's plan is to follow him to see where he goes, and then try to rendezvous with Credmore later. Thus, when Credmore/Mendoza's niece picks Marshall up at the airport, they both fail to notice the enormous man in the blue mask and flowing spangled cape who pulls out in a convertible — a convertible! — and follows them.
It's a good thing Blue Demon does follow them to the circus, for a number of reasons. First of all, Marshall turns out to be an American secret agent who intends to take Credmore back to the U.S. It's for his own good, Marshall insists; a scientist of his stature should have adequate resources available to him, and he can only get that in America. And if his advanced knowledge helped give the United States an advantage, well... that would be a bonus. But Credmore insists he wants no part of it: his knowledge is too far advanced for the Earth at this stage of its history. He is better off staying a simple circus manager. This is the point in the discussion at which Marshall pulls a gun and insists.
Blue intervenes and tries to stop him, but that's the point at which the next complication pops up. The Uranians and their robot-men arrive on the scene, intent on kidnapping Credmore themselves. When the Uranians start beating up on Blue, the other Champions of Justice arrive via the big top's trapeze — which turns out to be much less dramatic than it sounds — and try to even up the fight. In the confusion, Marshall manages to kidnap the hapless Venus, while the Uranians dematerialize and take both Credmore and Lila with them.
Here's where things really get tricky and hard to follow: Superzan surprises Marshall in his hotel room by (ahem) knocking on his door. I guess it isn't hard to trace a foreigner dragging a superhero-costumed woman at gunpoint across a city... but when the guy goes straight to his hotel, it's clear he's just not trying. Anyway, Superzan knocks Marshall unconscious and frees Venus — but he leaves Marshall behind. He doesn't even stop to check if he's OK, still less bring him to the police. Some Champion of Justice.
This is a bad move on Superzan's part, because Quisisarél takes the opportunity to teleport Marshall into his dimension. It turns out Marshall wasn't just a secret agent for the Americans. He was Quisisarél's agent, too — but had betrayed him; the scientists who died in that plane crash were killed trying to prevent Quisisarél from crossing dimensions. I think. Quisisarél has Marshall murdered as a lesson for Credmore, showing him what will happen if he doesn't cooperate. Marshall's last words to Credmore are something about the formulas being hidden in the hotel.
In the meantime, since he now has Credmore and Lila, Quisisarél decides to send Herschell back to the circus. After all, with the invasion of Earth impending, it wouldn't do for there to be an interruption at a small Guatemalan circus. People might get suspicious. Oh — and he decides to send the freshly-kidnaped Lila back, too (Is anybody still following this? If so, could you explain it to me?).
But let's go back to those formulas. Credmore is living proof that his "molecular mutation" formulas work... but even though they keep him alive on our planet, he doesn't remember what they are. It would take him too long to reconstitute them from memory, so everybody — including Credmore — is looking for his previous notes.
This is the first anybody's heard of the formulas being in Marshall's hotel, and we'll actually find out later they've been thrown away by the cleaning crew.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, comes the discovery that the Inspector, the Campeones' liaison with the government, is actually a Uranian duplicate. Blue Demon manages to delay him past the point at which his energy runs out, and he disintegrates into a pile of green glop.
And what tipped our heroes off to the imposture? The fact that the Inspector had chartered a single-prop plane for the next day, and was scheduled to use it to carry five atomic detonators to an undisclosed location. Nothing, in other words, that would have aroused suspicion in ordinary circumstances. But the Champions of Justice are subtle!
This leads to a reasonably well-executed fight scene on (and off) a plane, though it's not quite as convincing as the similar scene in the original movie. Certainly there's less reason for the scene even to exist... except for the fact that planes pop up in Agrasánchez productions almost as often as Little People. At least it ends with a pretty good punch line: after Superzan and Fantasma Blanco have been knocked out of the cockpit and are hanging by the landing gear, and Birsi and his henchmen have teleported back to their lair in distress, the pilot suddenly realizes there's nobody left in his plane and goes nuts.
You know what else pops up in most Agrasánchez flicks? Boats. After Venus tracks Birsi to the Uranians' Earth lair, Birsi and the robot-men overwhelm her in what is probably Venus's blondest moment yet. They take her and Credmore to the lair by boat, and Blue Demon attempts to stop them... by plane. Yeah: Blue's resuce attempt works about as well as you'd imagine (i.e., not at all), though you can't blame Bluecito for wanting a Plane Scene of his very own. Having wasted all that valuable time flying around and alerting the Uranians to his presence, Blue finally decides to land and get in a boat. This leads to the obligatory boat-to-boat fight, which is about on par with the boat scenes in the pervious two films... but has the added peculiarity of being one of the only instances I can think of in which Blue Demon actually kills somebody.
With Credmore once more in the hands of the Good Guys, the search begins for the formulas the Uranian scientist has apparently forgotten. You know — the very formulas which keep him alive on Earth? Yeah; those formulas. Credmore mentions that he made a backup of his formulas, and surreptitiously gave them to Herschell on what Herschell thought was a music cassette5
. Unfortunately, somebody stole it... Credmore doesn't know who. It couldn't have been Quisisarél, or he wouldn't be searching so frantically now. All Credmore knows is that the theft was accomplished by two men in black.
That's when the penny drops for Blue Demon: the two men he was chasing at the beginning of the movie must have hidden Credmore's cassette somewhere on the Tower of the Reformer before they turned into guacamole! Pausing only to put on his driving cape, Blue rushes off alone to look for the missing tape. Venus suggests everybody else just wait for Blue to come back — after all, what could possibly go wrong? It's not as though Quisisarél is watching their every move from some kind of telepathic video monitor, right?
Meanwhile, Quisisarél is watching Blue Demon's every move with his telepathic video monitor6
Actually — and this is a beautiful example of cost-cutting that actually works, in the days before inexpensive video compositing — it looks like the "video monitor" is really a metallic panel with a window-shaped hole in it. The camera shoots the action through the hole as though it were an image on a video screen.. Why on earth would Blue be speeding back to the place where Quisisarél's agents had been defeated trying to steal the formulas... that is, the last place where the formulas might have been before they disappeared? It's all too much for his massive Uranian brain to comprehend. Then he sees Blue find the cassette, and all becomes clear. Immediately, he orders two of his henchmen to materialize at the base of the Tower and get the cassette from Blue.
And while we're on the subject of brilliant decisions, this is the point at which Blue Demon decides it might be a good idea to have some backup. He calls the other Campeones to help him... at which point the watching Quisisarél decides to send in his backup: the remaining four or five Uranians (here there's a funny bit of botched editing, as we see the wrestlers and the Uranians lined up on their marks, waiting for the call for "action!", just before the fight scene starts).
The fight on the ground is, as usual for these movies, a little on the silly side. There's a whole crowd of people to manage within the frame, and Lanuza does a pretty good job keeping the choreography clear. The real trouble comes from the fight on the Tower. Some of the shots are good at conveying the impression that Blue and his opponents are dangerously high off the ground:
This makes it exciting when one of the Uranian henchmen starts stomping Blue's fingers as he dangles from a girder...
But then, we get some shots from underneath that spoil the illusion pretty dramatically. We realize that Blue is really only about six feet off the ground:
In the melee, the Uranian henchmen manage to get their hands on the tape. At that moment, Quisisarél zaps them back into the parallel dimension. The tape is his! exults the Grand Chancellor. At last he has the chance to give a good, gloating Mua-ha-ha-haa! at his enemies' expense. Now... all he has to do is scour his alternative dimension for an Earth-type cassette player, and the planet is his, too!
With the formulas now in Quisisarél's hands, Credmore says it may take as little as 24 hours for the evil genius to use them to create his Dimensional Prisms and translate himself permanently into human form. Then he, Birsi, two robot men and about a half-dozen black-clad henchmen will be ready to conquer the world!
The Earth's only hope is for the Campeones to find Credmore's notes. For some reason, this matter of life and death requires stealth: Fantasma Blanco turns into a puff of cigarette smoke and insinuates himself into the deceased triple-agent Marshall's hotel room. It's currently occupied by a pretty young girl; the wisp of white smoke takes a suspiciously long time drifting over her sleeping form before searching the rest of the room for clues. Unfortunately for Fantasma Blanco, the girl awakens. Mistaking Fantasma Blanco for a smoldering fire, she tosses a glass of water on him. Exit one wet wrestler.
It's obvious the written notes have disappeared from the hotel room — not that anybody's explained how they could have got there... if Marshall already had them and understood what they were, what was he doing trying to kidnap Credmore? Anyway, it doesn't really matter... because after all this fuss, Credmore claims he's remembered the formula after all. In fact, he's had a fully-functional set of Dimensional Prisms all this time, and with the formulas he should be able to send Quisiarél and his invaders into the Negative Dimension. Once they're transformed into antimatter, they will never be able to enter our universe again.
As for the Uranians, even though they have the formulas, they lack the raw materials to actually build the Prisms themselves. It's going to take them a week to mine the necessary radioactive silicon from the moon! This plot is getting much too comvoluted for poor Quisisarél, so he orders Birsi to go back to Earth and bring him Credmore once again.
We've already established that nothing, not even world-domination plans, could be more important than the show going on at the circus. While the performance is going on, the Campeones assemble under one part of the bleachers, and the Uranians assemble under the other, waiting for their chance. Meanwhile Credmore has produced his fabulous Dimensional Prisms and shown Lila how to use them. He entrusts Lila with the device and a set of instructions, and sends her to meet the Campeones. Those instructions are going to turn out to be much different than Lila's been expecting.
Venus is waiting in the stands with the crowd, cleverly disguised with a trench coat and scarf. This brilliant disguise isn't enough to fool the Uranians, two of whom sit down next to her and attempt to intimidate her into submission. It doesn't work: she stuns them both with karate chops and disappears behing the curtain. There's only one way out for her, and that's to jump directly into the act that's going on... the trapeze act. The acrobats seem to take this new member of the team completely in stride, and soon Venus (or somebody dressed like Venus, at any rate) is floating through the air with the greatest of ease.
While Lila is watching this strange turn of events, one of the clowns comes to give her some terrible news: Mendoza — that is, Credmore — is dead.
Credmore has realized that his knowledge is too dangerous for a primitive planet like Earth. As long as he holds the secrets of Dimensional Translation, someone — either on Earth or from beyond — will want to steal it and use it for conquest... the Earth will never be at peace. So he's chosen simply to fade away, and take his secrets with him. Except, that is, for the existing Dimensional Prisms and the set of formulas he's just handed to Lila... I guess they don't count.
Credmore's sacrifice leads to what should have been the emotional highlight of the movie. Lila goes to tell Herschell what's happened, while Herschell is putting on his clown makeup. It's the fully-dressed Farolito who receives this crushing blow, the anguish in his face struggling to break through the painted smile. It's an overused image, the heartbroken clown... but I suppose it comes as near to working here as it's done anywhere else in the last century. Curiously, the shots of Herschell with the tears streaming down his makeup are less effective than the moment when Herschell goes to collect Credmore's farewell note from the ground... as he bends to retrieve it, we see the raspberry-blowing face painted on the seat of his pants. This crude joke in the face of death is much more poignant than the slightly contrived image of the crying clown.
It gets even better: Herschell — "Farolito" — has to go out immediately and start his act. But rather than clown around, Herschell launches himself in a fury at the Uranians hiding in the stands. Naturally, he gets the stuffing beaten out of him... but this is the cue for the circus to turn into a huge wrestling match, as the Campeones and the Uranians come out of hiding and begin wailing on each other. The match escalates until Herschell manages to cram one of the invaders' weapons down his baggy pants and dash off in his clumsy clown shoes... and then dashes off to find Lila and the prisms for the final smackdown.
And the circus spectators are delighted.
I'm sure you can imagine how the rest of the movie plays out, if not from experience with these kinds of movies, then certainly from the title. Quisisarél is banished to the Negative Dimension. Lila, who is revealed to be Credmore's Uranian daughter, inherits the circus. As for Sir William Herschell, he resolves to become Farolito permanently, and use his skills as a clown to cheer up the bereaved young woman. That's an unfortunate decision: I'm sure there's a better fate for a world-hopping ageless scientist and a young girl named Lila (pronounced "Leela"). I was hoping he'd either go off in a strange blue box, or get a bumbling assistant named Frye.
You can see from the outline the movie has some problems. It's ambitious well beyond its means (which is a nice way of saying it's a confused mess). It's episodic... as all these wrestling movies are; but this one is disjointed and incoherent far beyond the norm. Things might have been less fragmented had this not been a nominal campeones justicieros movie; that is, if it had confined itself to one or two superhero-wrestlers... or even (heretical thought) none at all.
When Lanuza made the second installment in the Superzan saga, the character had not been clearly defined yet; Lanuza was able to make a movie in which Superzan wasn't really the main focus of attention... and it worked. For Mansion de los siete momias, Lanuza made a film that was neither a sequel to nor a remake of Las momias de San Angel, but rather a complete re-imagining of the raw material of the first film. But Triunfo de los campeones justicieros, as the third episode in a series, was tied to its predecessors in ways Lanuza's other lucha films were not. The Campeones had already been established as a decidedly down-to-earth bunch of motorcycle-riding tough guys, fighting mad scientist super-criminals. Lanuza's film is more of a throwback to the old-school Santo fantasies of the mid-sixties: the Campeones are shown as idealized superhero types, equally at home with advanced mathematical equations as with general whoop-ass... and the transformation really isn't convincing. As they stand there, scratching their chins as they examine scientific documents, you get the feeling they'd all be happier jumping back on their motorcycles.
In fact, you get the feeling this whole film should have been Herschell's story — that it would have been better had the ageless super-scientist been the main focus of the film, rather than a marginal character who frequently gets lost in the shuffle. Certainly Claudio Lanuza could have handled a larger role; he was a talented actor and a gifted physical comedian... and for crying out loud, his brother was the writer/director7
Ironically, his next role in a Rafael Lanuza film, the hunchback in Mansion de las siete momias, would be even more marginal.! Failing that, it would have been an improvement if Rago Credmore had been given a clearer and less-passive role in the goings on. Credmore is played by another talented comic actor, whose name (I think) was Carlos Figueroa (sometimes it's difficult to put names to the faces in some of these movies, but I was able to guess his identity by tracking down his performances in Superzan y el niño del espacio and El Robo de los momias de Guanajuato). Here are two brilliant scientists: one too advanced for the world he's trapped on, and the other having outlived the world he knew, yet both finding meaning for their lives in entertaining poor children in Guatemala... and these two must band together to save the whole world from evil. With a setup like that, who needs wrestlers?
But we did get wrestlers, because whatever Lanuza's storytelling inclinations might have been, at this point it was lucha pictures that generated the funding. Triunfo de los campeones justicieros is at its best when it tries to soar beyond the limitations of its series, even though its budget makes it impossible to achieve what it sets out to do. It's at its worst when it's forced to rely on convention. Nevertheless, it's my favorite entry in the series, and one of my favorite lucha films of the 70's, because it aims to be something much grander than it could ever hope to be. Like Rago Credmore's broken-down circus, it may be a poor thing, but it gives its audience a little heartfelt entertainment.