Coming to DVD Tuesday, March 11th
Adam Huss as Alphonse
Leyla Milani as Dallas
Margaret Scarborough as Debbie
Jeremy Radin as Steve
Catherine Wreford as Daisy
Zack Bennett as Jimbo
Rey Misterio Sr. as El Mascarado
Irwin Keyes as Stranger
Directed by Jesse Baget
Based on the campy vibe of its title and premise, which suggests “Nacho Libre” Meets “Friday the 13th,” I had worries that “Wrestlemaniac” would be a film that was doomed to sound better on paper. And even on paper, well…let’s just say it’d take some awfully fancy paper to make this tale of a rampaging luchador not look like a sucker’s bet. But all hesitations aside, I was ready to step into the ring and take my chances.
Written and directed by Jesse Baget, “Wrestlemaniac” opens with six twenty-somethings traveling in a van through Mexico, looking to shoot an amateur porn flick. In tried and true horror movie fashion, this smutty sextet are driving down roads they’ve already been warned about (by “House of 1,000 Corpses’ Irwin Keyes as the obligatory Creepy Old-Timer, referred to in “Wrestlemaniac’s credits as ‘The Stranger’) and are primed with the inside dope on the colorful local legend of El Mascarado (more on that later). The problem here (aside from the ass-numbing familiarity of the set-up) is that these characters are not at all endearing. In particular, actor Adam Huss’ strained performance as Alfonse, the group’s garrulous leader and coke-snorting director, is just too hard to take.
Regarding “Wrestlemaniac’s other protagonists, two are all but comatose (Catherine Wreford’s Daisy spends most of her time asleep on the floor of Alfonse’s van and Zack Bennett’s Jimbo is busy getting blissfully stoned), which leaves the majority of remaining screen time to the likes of Jeremy Radin as Steve, the film’s portly Spanish-speaking cinematographer (and as convenience would have it, a Mexican wrestling enthusiast as well) and Alfonse’s two nubile star players, Debbie (Margaret Scarborough) and Dallas (Leyla Milani).
Some might think that tagging along with an amateur porn crew would be a good time but during this early stretch of “Wrestlemaniac,” I wanted out of this van and out of this movie. It’s a mystery to me why so many of today’s horror filmmakers find it so difficult to depict likeable characters. Do today’s filmmakers just not know what ‘likeable’ is? For decades, horror fans could count on empathetic heroes in their films. But in recent years, it seems like filmmakers are afraid to bore irony-weaned audiences with straightforward protagonists like “Halloween’s Laurie Strode or “Friday the 13th’s Alice. Characters defined by their levelheaded decency, inner strength and resourcefulness aren’t in vogue any more â now it’s increasingly about snarky attitude and boorish behavior. I’ll give “Wrestlemaniac” a slight pass on this count as its characters are inhabiting a situation that calls for some exaggeration but still, even the most over-the-top films of old, like “Re-Animator” or “Dead Alive,” used to include people that had endearing qualities.
But as much as I was gritting my teeth through the first half of “Wrestlemaniac,” at some point I found myself starting to actually enjoy the movie. Maybe it’s the fact that once they finally stop at the legendary ghost town of Le Sangre de Dios, Alfonse and co. get down to shooting their porno that made me reconsider how well “Wrestlemaniac” was coming along (although it should be said that Alfonse is apparently out to shoot the tamest porno ever) or maybe it’s just that I realized I wasn’t supposed to like these characters anyway (after awhile I had to admire Huss’ committed work in making Alfonse an irredeemable asshole) but either way, I suddenly found myself taking a less hostile view of “Wrestlemaniac.”
But what really turned my head around was the introduction of El Mascarado. Played by real-life lucha wrestler Rey Misterio, this hulking menace is hard to dismiss. Schooling his crewmates in local lore, Steve explains El Mascarado’s pulpy back story: many years ago, in their quest to create the perfect wrestler in order to win the Olympic gold, the Mexican government utilized outlaw scientific experiments which left them with the man-monster known as El Mascarado. After going uncontrollably ape-shit at the very Olympics that His Freakishness was created to compete in, and after a series of lobotomies failed to calm his ass down, El Mascarado was left to languish within the forgotten walls of Le Sangre de Dios.
As played by Misterio, El Mascarado isn’t the impossible-to-shut-up braggart that American pro wrestling is famous for; instead he’s a silent brute that conveys real intimidation. Fans of Mexican horror, and of the famous series of ‘Santos’ films (like 1962’s “Santo vs. the Vampire Women”), which portrayed its mysterious masked wrestler as a crime fighter who had to vanquish an array of supernatural evils, might take some issue with the fact that the look of El Mascarado is clearly modeled after Santos but yet Baget chose to make his character a slasher villain rather than the comic book-style folk hero that Santos was. But that aside, El Mascarado is an inarguably imposing figure. Misterio is so hardcore in his role (loved the homage to “Deep Red,” by the way), that I started to feel some sympathy towards even the most obnoxious of “Wrestlemaniac’s outmatched protagonists.
Once El Mascarado starts putting his lethal moves on the hapless crew of would-be pornographers, “Wrestlemaniac” confirms its status as a by-the-numbers slasher picture (albeit with impressive cinematography for a low budget effort) that won’t be worth the time of anyone who’s already bored with the conventions of the genre. But for those die hards who are always game for watching a psycho annihilating a cast of chumps, this is agreeably mid-range stuff.
Just as classic movie monsters like the Wolf Man and Dracula have their respective Achilles’ Heels, so too does El Mascarado. But knowing how to end El Mascarado’s rampage and having the chance to implement that knowledge are two different things. On that count, there’ll be no specific spoilers here but I did get a kick out of how “Wrestlemaniac” played out. I can’t be sure whether what transpires was a calculated, subversive move on the part of Baget (doubtful), an example of his amateur writing skills (likely), or just a simple desire to not be disingenuous about setting up a sequel (bingo!) but it worked for me. Just imagine if Wes Craven had allowed “A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Nancy to deduce that in order to make Freddy vulnerable, she had to bring him out of her dreams and into the real world but that Craven decided not to give Nancy the opportunity to put her theory to the test. That wouldn’t represent smart writing but on the other hand it would have the virtue of being unexpected. On a similar note, I wasn’t keen on the character that Baget chose to be the last of the group to go up against El Mascarado, but at least I can say that I was surprised.
A bumper sticker on Alfonse’s van reads “Keep It Simple” and although it’s flawed, Baget’s film exemplifies how a low budget horror movie can always at least break even on that principle. El Mascarado himself may not have won the gold for Mexico but with “Wrestlemaniac,” Baget at least earns a gold star for his efforts.