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Cinematic: Mexico Versus the Martians

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By Brad A. Greenberg '04

Published Jul 1, 2009 10:00 AM


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Mexican moviegoers got their seagoing sci-fi watching The Monster's Ship. Photos courtesy of the Hammer Museum.

Imagine a masked Mexican wrestler replacing Sigourney Weaver in "Alien." Sprinkle science, mysticism, modernism and tradition on top of an outrageous storyline, and what do you have? The basis for the type of science-fiction films that characterized the Mexican film industry of the 1950s and '60s.

You think films like Star Trek, X-Men or Terminator require suspension of disbelief? These extraordinary flights of fancy make those American fictional universes seem tame.

Mexican sci-fi was chockfull of bizarre characters like Aztec mummies and big-brained aliens, monsters, sexy vampires and mad scientists. And it celebrated the working-class heroism of the iconic luchador, the Mexican wrestler. And of course, there was the awkward nod to Catholic values in identifying ,say, a crucifix as the only weapon that can defeat the villain.

"This was just such a highly energized factory production of high, high camp, done with such intention," says Shannon Kelley, head of public programs for the UCLA Film & Television Archive. "I don't know of another national cinema that developed to such a high degree the codes that appeared in this area, the golden period, if you want to call it that, of campy cinema."

Aztec mummies and big-brained aliens; monsters, sexy vampires and mad scientists. The working-class heroism of the luchador. The awkward nod to Catholic values in identifying, say, a crucifix as the only weapon that can defeat the villain.

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Legendary hero El Santo took on rampaging aliens in Santo the Silver Mask vs. the Invaders from Mars.

In August, the Film & Television Archive and the Hammer Museum will offer free screenings of four newly restored and subtitled Mexican sci-fi classics from the vaults of the Filmoteca at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México: The Aztec Mummy vs. the Human Robot (1957); The Monster's Ship (1959); The Planet of Female Invaders (1965); and Santo vs. the Martian Invasion (1966). Included is a fifth film, The Stonger Sex (1945), a precursor to the other four films.

Among the most-celebrated recurring elements of this genre was El Santo. A legendary entertainer, El Santo was to lucha libre — "free fighting," the Spanish term for professional wrestling — what Hulk Hogan was to the World Wrestling Federation. But El Santo, who appeared in more than 50 films, didn't limit his triumphs to the ring.

He was a folk hero, defeating supernatural creatures with nothing but his bare chest, bulging biceps and masked identity. Now, thanks to his films, El Santo is a cult hero too.

¡Aztec Mummies and Martian Invaders!: Mexican Sci-Fi Classics. UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Hammer Museum. August 2009. Billy Wilder Theater. For more information, call (310) 206-FILM or visit www.cinema.ucla.edu.

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