It’s hard to write an article on lucha libre monster movies without feeling like you’re treading on already walked upon ground. I soul searched a bit and decided that anyone reading this should already know all about Santo and Blue Demon, as well as their battles with vampires and werewolves. I wanted to get in deep on enmascardo movies and discuss the third big star that movie producer Luis Enrique Vergara foisted on the public: Mil Mascaras, or the Man of 1,000 Masks. And I wondered, how did he ever come to engage John Carradine in combat?
By 1966, wrestling and horror provided quite the potent cocktail for Mexican movie audiences. However, the two biggest stars — Santo and Blue Demon — were unavailable due to a contract dispute and an injury. Enter bodybuilder Aaron Rodríguez Arellano, who would become Mil Mascaras, despite never competing in the ring. He would go into his career with a backward trajectory, with his entire persona and in-ring style established via the cinema, not the squared circle.
In his origin film, 1966’s Mil Mascaras, our hero gets Doc Savage’s origin story. As a newborn babe, he’s found in his dead mother’s arms after a European WW2 battle. A group of scientists adopts and raises him, giving him an intensive upbringing of physical and mental training. These scientists then send Mil out into the world to no sell the offense of other wrestlers (that’s an editorial note, Mil has had decades of negative sentiment in locker room worldwide) and improve the lives of the poor. Oh yeah — he should fight monsters, too.
In his first two outings, Mil fought common criminals. But he was about to content with (ominous music here) John Carradine! In 1968’s Enigma of Death, Mil tracks down an underground Nazi organization to a carnival, which he infiltrates. Carradine is, of course, the leader. What you may not expect is that he is also one of the clowns. And later that year, Carradine would return as the vampiric leader of a female coven that would bedevil Mil in Las Vampiras. As the “King of the Vampires,” Carradine spends most of the film locked in a cage, acting like a gorilla! That’s because Van Helsing got the staking wrong and staked him in the brain instead of the heart, leading to an entire film of scene chewing madness. Don’t worry — it’s all a ruse and Carradine’s Count Branos escapes and goes on a mad tear at the end.
So how did Carradine get to Mexico? It seems that Carradine was following in the path of Boris Karloff, who quickly filmed his scenes and appears as more of special guest star. Karloff couldn’t handle the high altitude of Mexico City, so he filmed his scenes in Los Angeles. Carradine would actually travel and film all of his work in country as part of his five picture deal with Vergara. The craziest title that he worked on sounds like Autopsy de un Fantasma — the final feature film of Basil Rathbone’s career — which also starred Cameron Mitchell of Blood and Black Lace fame (amongst many, many others). Due to the aforementioned rigors of Mexico City’s altitude and air quality, Rathbone would die of a sudden heart attack after filming.
Carradine ended up in these movies as a result of a money losing theatrical touring company. Needing money and as many roles as he could get, Carradine went from John Ford stock player to Ted Mikels movies in short order. He’d go on to play Dracula many, many times. But you know all that. Like I stated above — this is all about finding new ground and exploring Carradine’s jaunt to Mexico, well before Mil Mascaras would become an international wrestling sensation. After viewing these opuses, this author wishes that he’d filmed twenty, thirty, nay forty more outings!
This originally appeared in Drive-In Asylum #8.