This week I’ve decided to line up the latest faith based cash in, The Masked Saint, in my cross hairs. I have my usual gripes about this flick: the over-reliance on “based on true events” that movies use these days, the crass marketing of any sports story with any shred of religious aspects, and the fact that these two elements mean the movie can have piss poor writing and acting. But above and beyond those gripes, I have a major problem with this movie. There is only one masked saint, and his name was El Santo, the greatest lucha libre star to have ever donned the mask.
The Usual Suspects
Faith based movies serve a niche market, one that adherents feel is under-served. I get it. Hollywood does not do a great job of spreading talent and development around. Ask any minority population, and you’ll get a scathing assessment of the state of affairs: nobody is telling their stories, or if they are, they’re a distant second thought to the main plot which is usually concerned with pretty, thin white men. So, on the one hand, you want to have more films targeting groups who are missed by the big tent-pole films. On the other hand, you want films doing so tactfully and with skill. We’re not getting that here.
There have been great films dealing with religion. The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ were substantial films, one critical of mainstream portrayals of Christianity, one very much in service to the consensus view, but both well-acted, gorgeously filmed, and unflinching in their big ideas. Spike Lee‘s Miracle at Santa Anna is a “based on true events” film that organically situates the faith of its characters in a wider cultural moment. Faith and traditional ethics are often a big component of sport biopics, and some good ones have been made, Remember the Titans being a prominent example. So why is the latest bumper crop of faith-based films so damn bad?
These films seem to fall into two major categories. The first is films made by believers (or at least starring vocally faithful stars) that seem to value the message over all other aspects of the film. Anything Kirk Cameron has made falls into this category. They don’t really have time to develop characters, write convincing dialogue, or script believable events. Everything is thrown under the wheels in service of the goal of portraying the faith as positively as possible, and trying to beat the drum for the faithful to rally around. The second category feels like crass cash grabs cynically exploiting an audience desperate for affirmation. Sean Astin has starred in tons of these films, and almost all of the “god loves our sports team best” films work this angle. People love folksy stories, especially involving people who look like them, believe like them, and happen to win at everything. It’s a great red meat bait being waved at hungry audiences, insuring that films with horrible acting, terrible scripts, and no budget will make a hearty return by servile catering to an audience that wants to be praised instead of entertained.
If you’re a fan of faith-based movies, you need to ask for better, not just more. Ask fans of Tyler Perry how much they’ve benefited from his targeted marketing to black communities with sub-par movies. At first, they’re a revelation: somebody is finally telling these stories! But then the other shoe drops: they’re telling ham-fisted stories poorly, and hoping that seeing a Christian/Black person as the lead will fool enough people into the theaters to justify trotting out another iteration. How much creativity do you think is being put into products designed to be released every four months? Precious little. The unintended consequence is that it drives away competition. You can’t compete with the established studios/directors doing these flicks, and maybe you don’t try because somebody is already mining that vein, despite doing a shoddy job of it. The only way to out-compete them is to be crasser or cheaper, and that’s a tall order. As long as people pay the hacks to keep slap-dashing it, why should they stop, or try to do any better?
See It Instead: El Santo!
OK, I’ve said my peace about why facile appeals to faith hurt not only film-making, but the very audiences they are ostensibly serving. Let’s move on to the important issue: if you make a movie based on real events called The Masked Saint, you had better be doing a biopic of luchador hero El Santo. Not familiar with “The Saint?” Let me enlighten you!
El Santo was a lucha libre wrestler in Mexico who performed for more than 40 years. Yup, four plus decades flying around the ring like God’s own angel. His fame was such at he appeared in comics, television specials, and a scad of movies. His renown was unrivaled, and he was pretty much the patron saint of Mexican pop culture from 1960 right up until his passing in 1984. He starred in 50 movies. He was so wedded to his character as “the masked man in silver” that he rarely, if ever, took off his mask. Like never. He wore it in public. He wore it going to the bank. He wore it going to restaurants (and had a special version of the mask with a mouth-hole just for meal time!) I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty sure he tucked his children to sleep in the mask. How else to explain that one of his sons still wrestles in an identical mask under the name Son of the Saint? That’s dedication to craft, baby.
So which movies should you see? Good thing you asked! Only four of his films has been dubbed in English, so here’s my play list:
The Serious Pick: Santo Vs. The Zombies
The first El Santo film to cross the border, this one is full-bore nuts. The police are unable to stop a wave of monsters (only loosely zombie-related) and call in the hero of the people, The Saint! In between bouts, Santo takes the case, going about the city in his trade-mark silver mask and a bitching cape, sneaking into crime scenes and trying to find the masked (of course) villain behind the army of strangely buff walking corpses. Black Shadow, one of Santo’s ring rivals, stars as the big bad guy.
This film is more a Santo highlight reel with a movie slapped onto it. Santo spends more time in the ring than solving crimes, which is great because he is a much better wrestler than actor. His deductive method usually involves pantomiming searching a room until bad guys show up to get a does of his meaty forearms and high-laced boots of justice. This is a decent enough starting point for those interested in the Santo legend.
The Light-Hearted Pick: Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents Samson Vs. The Vampire Women
The boys on the Satellite of Love do Santo (dubbed as Samson) proud…by eviscerating his second English dubbed film. A wealthy business man has his daughter abducted by a vampire coven and naturally turns to the masked saint in order to get some rough justice. Since this is so similar to the first entry, it really benefits from the yuks courtesy of Mike, Crow and Tom Servo, who are uniformly brutal in their take down of this cheese-fest, while still paying credit to the cultural icon that was El Santo.
The Unconventional Pick: Santo and the Mystery in Bermuda
There are more coherent El Santo films. Santo versus Dracula, and Santo versus the Son of Frankenstein are pretty decent creature features, and benefit from The Saint having a decade of acting under this belt to make them more watchable. For my money, though, you want the unbridled silliness of Santo and the Mystery in Bermuda. This is a cavalcade of lucha libre action, with long-time rivals/allies Blue Demon and Mils Mascara showing up to aid the man in silver. It’s not dubbed, so I have no clue what is going on in this flick. It looks like Enter the Dragon plus a pants-crapping number of swole dudes in masks going ham on each other. For no reason. A bad guy with a secret mansion is doing…something, and a school of luchadors show up to do… something about it. The movie is split between girls in bikinis and men in silver lamé, so there’s no complaints here. This feels like The Saint needed some R and R, and decided to film a movie when sitting on white-sand beaches got too boring for his taste!
Can I Get an Amen?