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Wrestling with the Strange: The Fantastical World of Lucha Libre

If there’s one thing I love as much as cult cinema it’s professional wrestling, and I’ve been watching both since my diaper days.  Growing up in the 1990s, I experienced the Monday Night Wars first hand, which was arguably when the industry was at its creative and commercial peak.  The Monday Night Wars saw the two major promotions in the industry, WWF (World Wrestling Federation) and WCW (World Championship Wrestling), go head-to-head in a weekly ratings spar as their respective network time slots experienced a head-on collision, which meant both companies were forced to go above and beyond to ensure they didn’t lose their respective viewership to their rival. As such, characters, storylines and concepts were born that embraced the sensibilities of cult entertainment to a heightened degree.  At the same time, both companies mined pop culture for inspiration, and had done since their inceptions.  Wrestling’s history of embracing the fantastical stems decades, as we’ll discover with this series.

Genre entertainment and professional wrestling might not seem like the most natural bedfellows on paper, but when you consider the crossover elements of both phenomena you’ll realise that they have more in common than you think.  Like horror cinema, storylines which take place in the squared circle feature good versus evil story arcs, with the good guys (the faces) going up against the bad guys (the heels) in battles which often end up brutal and bloody. Wrestling villains often wear masks, or are portrayed as deranged ‘monsters’ hell-bent on destruction not unlike our favourite slasher icons and movie monsters.  Other times, the bad guys are portrayed as menacing sociopaths who’ve stalked, manipulated and tormented their victims until the hero has stepped up and put an end to their wicked ways. Heroes, on the other hand, tend to reflect the badass antiheroes of action cinema, or are portrayed as vigilantes, superheroes and freaks/monsters we can sympathise with and root for.

When you traverse the history of horror cinema and take its myriad of protagonists and antagonists into account, then do the same with professional wrestling, you’ll find that the latter has imitated the former on numerous occasions.  At the time of writing, the world’s largest wrestling conglomerate, WWE,  features several characters in their programming schedule inspired by genre pop culture, including: backwoods cult leaders (Bray Wyatt), undead outlaws (The Undertaker), Celtic demons (Finn Balor), psychotic hellspawn (Kane), unstoppable monsters (Braun Strowman), wasteland warriors (The Ascension) and unhinged chaos merchants (Sanity).  And that’s just the contemporary product…

‘The Demon’ (Finn Balor)

As for storylines, some have been lifted directly from horror fare.  One of the most common is seeing monster heels ravage their way through opponents until the hero with the mettle steps up and puts an end to their rampage. This elicits the same type of thrill we experience from movies where giant monsters wreak havoc in cities or madmen with machetes rack up high body counts in summer camps.  Additionally, there have been countless stories where a company’s most popular female roster members find themselves targeted by creeps; the final outcome tends to be a good guy saving the day or the woman surviving and getting her comeuppance like that of a final girl in a horror film.

From voodoo priests, demented cults, demons, tribal cannibals, Gothic vampires, zombies, yetis, doomsday soldiers, giants, complex monsters, action heroes, ants, giant turkeys, caped crusaders and countless more, wrestling’s rich history is littered with outlandish gimmicks inspired by horror, fantasy and science fiction.  However, sports entertainment’s association with fantastical storytelling extends way beyond simple characters; there are even entire companies rooted in worlds where comic book ethos dictates the rules, with storylines featuring time travel, monster battles and more.  Additionally, wrestling and cult cinema have intertwined regularly for decades, with some of the squared circle’s most popular (and unpopular) stars making the jump to the screen and appearing in genre fare. With this article, I will be exploring the longstanding relationship between wrestling and genre entertainment in its various forms; so without further ado: LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!

As we’ve already established, American wrestling has developed its own fantastical identity throughout the years, but it didn’t find its way into the zeitgeist until the late 1970s.  However, such elements were present in wrestling before then, notably in Mexico’s lucha libre.  In lucha libre, cartoonish theatrics have always been embraced, as wrestlers are presented as mythical warriors rooted in cultural traditions.  Although there have been many exceptions, Mexican wrestlers (luchadores) are typically defined by their masks: A luchadore’s mask is their identity and it is one of almost supernatural mystique.  It is also a symbol of the traits which represent their personality:  As Pereda and Murrieta-Flores (1) note, “[lucha libre] became famous mainly due to its masked wrestlers, who incorporated their own family traditions, beliefs and fears into the design of their masks, transforming an ordinary person into a fearless character.’’  For a luchadore, his or her mask is synonymous with their being, just like the hockey mask is to Jason Voorhees or the arachnid mask is to Spider-Man (when he’s not plain old Peter Parker anyway).  Masks allow the wrestler to develop and maintain a persona, just like they do for superheroes and slasher icons. And throughout the years their significance has taken effect in wrestling all over the world.

Lucha libre: El Santo and Blue Demon.

Lucha libre, like American wrestling, began as a regional sport in the early 1900s, but in 1933 it would become a nationwide cultural phenomenon after businessman Salvador Lutteroth saw its potential and formed the Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre (Mexican Wrestling Enterprise), which would go on to become capitalise on television and broadcast the sport across the nation. Wrestling exploded in Mexico during the 1950s once televisions were commonplace in homes across the country, which would see wrestlers become national celebrities and make their way to the silver screen.

In addition to lucha libre becoming a phenomenon, the 1930s would also horror creep its way into Mexican cinema following the success of Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931).  This would lead to Universal also producing a Spanish-language version directed by George Melford, starring Spanish and Mexican actors.  This would be the first horror film to be released in Mexico, and throughout the decade more would follow, but it wasn’t until the 1950s when the genre would experience a Golden Age, which would coincide with the emergence of Cine de Luchadores (Wrestlers Cinema). Starting with 1952’s Huracán Ramírez (Hurricane Ramirez), a sports drama featuring the titular hero rising against corruption in the wrestling industry, would usher in the hip, new trend.

The introduction of masked wrestlers appearing in entertainment outside of the squared circle was inspired by comic books, with artist Jose G. Cruz using the likeness of superstar luchadore, El Santo, in stories where he would battle an assortment of supernatural beasts. The popularity of the comics – along with the star power of Santo – would ultimately attract the attention of movie producers.  Naturally, El Santo was approached to star, which he declined at first.  El Enmascarado de Plata (The Silver Masked Man, 1952), was the first movie based on the El Santo character, but it wasn’t the commercial success they’d hoped it would be because it lacked the star presence of the real Santo. But it did well enough to inspire one of the strangest sub-genres in cinema history.  Eventually, Santo would agree to star in a number of them – 54 to be exact – and go on to become a major film star as well as a top drawing wrestler.

Santo was like James Bond, only better.  On top of espionage adventures, he would defeat monsters, protect the Earth from alien invaders and canoodle with the ladies.  Other luchadore movies wouldn’t buck this trend, nor did they need to as it worked so well.  Santo’s first cinematic appearance would arrive in 1958 when in El Cerebro del Mal (The Bad Brain), but it was a mere supporting role, unfit for the talents of a star of Santo’s magnitude.  His first headline screen appearance would see him take on the undead in Santo contra los Zombie (Santo vs. the Zombies, 1961).  Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro (Santo vs. the Vampire Women, 1962) is his most famous starring role, which sees our hero protecting a young damsel from vampire women at the behest of a vampire who wants to make her his bride.  The film was featured in a 1995 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and is one of only four Santo movies to have been released with English dubbing.  Over the years, he would appear in numerous gems, but his finest outing came in 1970 when he teamed up with fellow wrestling icon Blue Demon (who starred in 25 films of his own) for Santo el enmascarado de plata y Blue Demon contra los monstruos (Santo and Blue Demon vs. the Monsters), an unheralded masterpiece of cinema which sees our heroic twosome foil the plans of a mad scientist and his army of beasts.  Blue Demon and Santo proved to be a formidable tag team, appearing in nine films together to save the day from ghouls and villains knocked off from whatever was popular in American cinema at the time.

Titanes en el ring (Titans in the Ring).

In the ring, Argentinian lucha libre promotion, Titanes en el ring (Titans in the Ring), were one of the first to incorporate fantastical elements into their weekly programming through a host of bizarre characters.  For instance, Don Quijote y Sancho Panza was a jouster who’d enter the arena on a horse wielding a lance, while El Vikingo was… well, he was a viking.  The company was also one of the first to remove the veil between kayfabe and reality to acknowledge that wrestling wasn’t ‘real’ by embracing fantasy elements by hosting a match featuring El Hombre invicible (The Invisible Man), a character from the 1967 film El Hombre invicible ataca (The Invisible Man Attacks).  In contemporary wrestling, such outlandish concepts have been amplified in American interpretations of lucha libre.

CHIKARA is an independent wrestling promotion based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Founded in 2002 by professional wrestlers Mike Quackenbush and Reckless Youth, the company has established itself as quite the oddity by implementing comic book storytelling with traditional wrestling, with focus primarily on the lucha libre style. CHIKARA has angered many purists with its wacky theatrics; it doesn’t even try to pretend that the ‘sport’ is legitimate like most of its peers do. The roster is comprised of wrestlers pretending to be ants, pharaohs, ice cream, goblins, baseball players, dragons, and everything in between. Matches often entail time slowing down, with the occasional invisible hand grenade thrown in for good measure, forcing opponents to duck for cover or be blown into smithereens.  The company operates in ‘seasons,’ where a singular narrative takes front and centre, with separate branches stemming from it accordingly.  Like a television show, there is a main villain to overcome, and the season leads to the culmination of a final climactic payoff. The seasons do have crossover elements with previous instalments from time to time, but it’s all connected to a specific vision – and nothing stops them from seeing their vision through to the end.  In 2013, the company shut itself down for 11 months for the sake of a storyline, which in wrestling is just unheard of.  Here was a company willing to risk everything just for the sake of an absurd, fictitious prank involving a make believe evil conglomerate.  The company was run by a madman who opted to shut everything down when good was about to prevail, and this was sold for close to a year, with no roster members letting the media in on the act.  Subsequently, seeds were placed all over the Internet and throughout the American indie wrestling circuit; in 2014 it returned in mighty fashion, picking up right where they left off.

CHIKARA is essentially a comic book universe set in a wrestling gymnasium, and it contains more nods to comics, video games, cartoons and fantastical storytelling than it does conventional wrestling.  That said, the athleticism of the sport isn’t compromised at the expense of absurd entertainment either, and you won’t see a CHIKARA show that doesn’t feature excellent in-ring action (but chances are matches will be interrupted by the occasional dancing spot).  CHIKARA is the melting pot of pure fantasy and wrestling, and despite not being massively popular, its influence cannot be denied, clearly inspiring other niche promotions – of which there are other – to emerge.

The comic book universe of CHIKARA.

One such promotion is Lucha Underground, a series which airs on Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network and enjoys substantial popularity and mainstream coverage.  Like CHIKARA, Lucha Underground integrates lucha libre with fantasy, but it differentiates itself through quality production values and straight-faced approach.  Lucha Underground takes place in an ancient temple; it’s an underground society run by an evil multi-millionaire who gathers mythical warriors, destructive monsters, and various archetypes of heroes and villains to fight for his own sinister pleasure and selfish gain.  Storylines often incorporate Mexican folklore, horror and fantasy.  Like a television series, characters are regularly brought in only to be “killed off,’’ making it feel more like a drama than a wrestling show.  Furthermore, episodes contain cinematic short films which help tell the stories taking place, and they range from Grindhouse soap opera to fully-fledged fantasy.  It’s a strange concoction, but it pays off dividends in terms of originality.  Lucha Underground takes the common parallels between wrestling and genre entertainment and blurs the line with style, in turn creating some captivating television with strong dramatic story arcs.

Lucha libre is imbued in Mexico’s cultural lifeblood, with wrestlers projecting an aura of mystique that makes them feel more like superheroes than mere mortals.  With masks that allude to a mystical connection to the country’s cultural and spiritual heritage, as well as a history of battling monsters in some of its finest cult cinema, the appeal of luchadores is the same as that of caped crusaders and bionic beings.  Lucha libre has never shied away from embracing pantomime, and it’s a prime example of how wrestling provides the entertaining escapism we experience with fantasy cinema.

Pereda J, & Murietta-Flores, P. “The Role of Lucha Libre in the Construction of Mexican Male Identity.’’ Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2011), pp. 1

About Kieran Fisher

Kieran is an avid genre film fan and proud dog owner. In addition to Diabolique, you can find him over at Film School Rejects and a few other outlets. His favourite movie is Ben Wheatley's 'Kill List' and he lovingly obeys the King of the Monsters, Godzilla.

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