The gorgeous luchadoras of wrestling

Get ready for some gorgeous luchadoras of wrestling and two gorgeous movies about them: The Batwoman (1968) and The Panther Women (1967). On Thursday, September 8, starting at 7:30 PM, these recently restored Mexican films will screen at the Music Box Theatre. 

The event is hosted by Raul Benitez, a local film programmer, and Viviana Garcia-Besne, an archivist from the Permanencia Voluntaria Archivo Cinematográfico (based in Tepoztlán) who coordinated the 4K DCP restorations of the two films from the original 35mm negatives.

A short description on the archive’s Instagram profile declares that the organization’s mission is “safeguarding the memory of popular Mexican cinema.” Garcia-Besne’s family played a critical role in the history of those films, including the two screening in this program; she descends from the Calderóns, whose cinematic journey began when brothers José and Rafael opened dozens of movie theaters in 1920s Mexico and expanded into production and distribution, the latter in both their home country and the United States. They also co-produced Antonio Moreno’s Santa, the first feature-length Mexican sound film. 

Both of the films screening were directed by René Cardona. The Cuban-born Cardona was prolific during the Golden Age of Mexican cinema; he also wrote, directed, and starred in the first entirely Spanish-language film made in Hollywood, Havana Shadows (1930). Later, he directed several Mexploitation films starring El Santo, perhaps the most famous luchador. His son, René Cardona Jr., followed in his footsteps, going on to direct low-budget films across a variety of genres. 

In The Batwoman, a masked luchadora—her mask resembling a bat, à la another incog crusader—comes to the rescue after male wrestlers start being killed for their spinal fluid, which a retired surgeon is collecting to create a half-man, half-fish hybrid creature. Cardona combined elements of Batman, which had become a worldwide success following the 1966 film with Adam West, and the sexy female lucha libre films (informally known as the Wrestling Women series) that he and screenwriter Alfredo Salazar had pioneered. 

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Batwoman (played by Italian actress Maura Monti) is a wealthy socialite who spends her time fighting crime decked out in the aforementioned mask, what appears to be a bathing suit, and a cape. She also excels in wrestling (footage of which is interspersed throughout the film), but mostly she solves crimes. With the help of a detective who knows her true identity, she homes in on the surgeon.

His half-man, half-fish monster may move slowly, but it’s unsettling nonetheless. One critic compares it to the fish-like creature from Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, wondering if the film served as del Toro’s inspiration. Thankfully there’s no bizarre interspecies fornicating in Cardona’s film, which has a sense of its own ridiculousness. Most striking about the film, however, is how it looks. 

It was shot by Mexican cinematographer Agustín Jiménez, who figured into the country’s burgeoning avant-garde movement as a photographer, later becoming involved with cinema in the 1930s. He photographed films for Luis Buñuel (The Brute, Wuthering Heights, The Criminal Life Of Archibaldo De La Cruz) and collaborated with Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein while he was in Mexico working on ¡Que viva México! 

The rich color elevates the film exponentially. Every shot is gorgeous, from the various shades of blue in the sky and water to the tanned flush of the actors’ skin. It’s almost vaguely Tashlinesque, not just in how it looks but in what the vibrant hues add to the film. The underwater sequences are especially tantalizing, and there’s some ambitious framing, like at the beginning when we see two fishermen standing precariously on a cliff above the sweltering waves. 

The Batwoman + The Panther WomenThursday, September 8, 7:30 PMMusic Box

The Panther Women, on the other hand, is shot in black-and-white, also by Jiménez. Where the first film took on the superhero genre, this takes on the supernatural. Because of a decades-old curse, a group of—you guessed it—panther women set out to revive the demon Eloím by killing descendants of the person who slayed him and then allowing him to kill that family’s last born child (or something like that). One of these family members is a luchadora who, along with her wrestling partner, helps investigate the murders; they eventually track down the killers to the satanic cult that counted her murdered cousin’s fiance as a member. 

Though luchadoras figure heavily in the film, it’s a luchador, El Angel (pro wrestler Gerardo Zepeda), who’s made out to be the main hero. He’s also a chemist and inventor, activities he apparently undertakes in full wrestling costume. But it’s the luchadoras and the panther women who are the most interesting characters, with their complex motivations and kick-ass cat-eye makeup. The Eloím creature is also quite disturbing, bringing an element of raw horror into the otherwise campy proceedings. Between the chiaroscuro and the propensity of some of its characters to turn into panthers, it vaguely recalls Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 classic Cat People.

This is the Chicago theatrical premiere of The Batwoman and the U.S. theatrical premiere of The Panther Women. Two luchadoras will be in attendance with whom audience members can take photos; vintage posters and autographed pictures of Maura Monti will be available for purchase. The event is sponsored by the National Museum of Mexican Art, and both films are in Spanish with English subtitles.

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