Sunday, January 13, 2013

Dr. Satan y la Magia Negra (Mexico, 1968)

Were I bereft of all hope and happiness, the fact that, just when I think I’ve seen every giddy Mexican comic book fantasy movie from the 60s there is, I stumble upon something like Dr. Satan y la Magia Negra, would alone be enough to keep me turning the mortal page. And were that the case, I would also owe Andrew Leavold MY LIFE, for he is the one who steered me toward this minor gem. Of course, some might find the film’s limited scope and episodic structure wearing. But -- given this is a film that contains mad science, black magic, vampires, sexy lady zombies, ray guns, exploding skyscrapers, satans and cut rate spy movie intrigue -- it is for me precisely one robot and one go-go dancing number shy of perfection. (Perhaps Los Rockin’ Devils were unavailable.)

The character of Dr. Satan was introduced to the screen in 1966’s auspiciously named Dr. Satan, as here played by Joaquin Cordero. The ensuing years saw a change in directors -- from Miguel Morayta to Rogelio A. Gonzalez Jr. -- and a very welcome and well exploited transition to color. Dr. Satan y la Magia Negra’s apparent debt to the classic Republic serials leaves open the question of whether the series was influenced by William Witney’s The Mysterious Doctor Satan, though surviving publicity materials testify to a Spanish language release of that well regarded serial, so I’m just putting it out there. If that is the case, however, that means that The Mysterious Doctor Satan provided the seeds for both these films and Turkey’s The Deathless Devil, which is a very impressive legacy indeed.

Anyway, this particular iteration of Dr. Satan is an evil mortal who has been saved from Earthly justice by the Devil himself, who demands in exchange that the doctor do his bidding on Earth. Adding a somewhat halfhearted air of tragedy to the character is the fact that the Devil is holding him in a suspended state of tortured immortality -- suggesting a vestigial but never really demonstrated sense of Catholic guilt on the Doctor’s part -- with the peace of death held at bay pending satisfaction of Old Scratch’s not all that clearly delineated requirements. In this particular case, those requirements are that the Doctor head up top and take part in a Spy-vs.-Spy battle of the super-villains with a new creep on the block whose schemes threaten to grant him power greater than even that of The Beast himself.

Said creep is Yei Lin (played by the great Noe Murayama, of Blue Demon contra Cerebros Infernales) who is described as being some kind of Eastern warlock. It’s never mentioned, but Yei Lin is also a vampire in every aspect except for those that might provide a stumbling block for the screenwriter. He’s got the fangs, the cape, and the ability to turn into a bat, and is clearly observed biting people on the neck, yet is able to walk around freely in the daylight without demonstrating any real dependence on drinking blood for his survival. Perhaps this is an adaptation due to Yei Lin being, like Dr. Satan, something of a mad scientist in addition to a sorcerer. In any case, Yei Lin is in Mexico with his gang -- which includes Aurora Clavel as his dragon lady-like right hand woman and perpetual lucha movie goon Nathaniel “Frankenstein” Leon -- to steal a formula that will turn lesser metals into gold, which he handily does by cold bloodedly murdering the professor in charge of transporting it.

For his part, Dr. Satan brings to the task of defeating Yei Lin the same mixture of pulp science and folk magic that makes the tone of Dr. Satan y la Magia Negra overall so enjoyable -- if admittedly uneven. His primary weapon in this regard is a duo of attractive young women -- Luz Maria Aguilar as “Erato” and Sonia Furio as “Medusa” -- whom he has turned into superhuman zombies. Like the best Mexican horrors of its era, Dr. Satan y la Magia Negra benefits greatly from the straight faced application of some very old school spook show trappings (in short, if you’re a fan of “fog enshrouded everything”, this is the movie for you). Of course, this practice inevitably wanders into kitsch territory, as with the poorly piloted prop bat that more flops end-over-end than actually flies. Yet, for all the camp value to be mined from lady zombies in short skirts and go-go boots, there is still at times something haunting and discomforting about these two dead eyed slave women -- and that in stark contrast to the adolescent fantasy of compliant fembots so frequently proffered by films of this make and vintage.

While Dr. Satan and Yei Lin are both undisguisedly ee-vil, Dr. Satan y la Magia Negra leaves us in no confusion as to who we’re meant to root for. The Doctor, after all, is suave and handsome, with a bitchin’ red sports car and a way with the ladies, while Yei Lin is foreign, goateed and prone to maniacal laughter. Like James Bond, Dr. Satan is a master of the modern world, while Yei Lin, with all his vampirish accoutrements, is distinctly Old World -- something made all the more plain by his reliance on a medieval folk science to accomplish his world dominating scheme. As if to drive this point home even further, the movie’s primary representative of law and order, Interpol inspector Bianchi, is played by Carlos Agosti, whom I have seen in countless Mexican films, but never until this instance as anything other than the most unctuous of heels. In the end, however, Bianchi is left with little to do, as the film’s true conflict lies well outside the domain of cops and robbers, only to be settled in blood between our two warring malefactors.

Once its macguffin is established, Dr. Satan y la Magia Negra’s action follows a template that will be familiar to anyone with a sophomore knowledge of cheap 60s spy films. The coveted formula continually changes hands between our two antagonists, Dr. Satan and his zombies all the while evading Yei Lin and his gang’s repeated attempts to rub them out, with everything coming to a head in a spirited brawl inside a science-y lair. The ritualistic repetition of this scant menu of happenings -- perhaps exacerbated by the small cast of characters and limited, albeit cool looking, sets -- could prove to be an insurmountable sin in the eyes of some viewers, but to those of us for whom they are beloved tropes, they are like a cozy blanket. I should also mention that the Devil himself, magnificently bat winged and long of horn, pops up during all this business, which is not something that you see in the average Kommissar X entry. In short, I see it as my duty to whisper in your ear that you must track down and see this movie. Whether I am the angel on your shoulder or the devil is yours to decide.


Anonymous said...

Just when I think I have seen all there is to see, you bring this to the scene! Makes me wonder how many other south of the border delights are just waiting to be noticed!

Todd said...

As do I , sir. As do I.

Radio Schmaydio said...

I also am boggled to find that there was a sixties Mexican movie you hadn't seen. And a fun one!

It feels one with possibility.

Todd said...

I think that Dr. Satan y La Magia Negra has made me a kinder and generally more cheerful person.