Mil Mascaras lucha film plays in Columbia

Thursday, September 10, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:11 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 10, 2009

COLUMBIA — MU may not seem the ideal place to create and produce a film about a masked Mexican wrestler.

Jeff Uhlmann helped make it happen.

Uhlmann, associate professor in the computer science department, wrote, edited, produced and acted in the film “Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec Mummy,” which has its first showing in Columbia on Thursday.

The cult favorite shows at 7 p.m. in Jesse Hall and is free to the public.

It stars Mil Mascaras, a semi-retired professional Mexican wrestler, who must save humanity from a mind-controlling Aztec mummy who wants to take over the world.

The film belongs to a genre known as lucha, popular in Mexico and the international film festival market. Lucha films feature luchadores, wrestlers who are heroes in Mexican culture.

It was completed in 2007 by a collaboration of film and engineering students at MU. After that, it was shown at international film festivals and just now makes its way to mid-Missouri.

Signing "Mil Mascaras" ("A Thousand Masks") for the movie was a major triumph for Uhlmann. Mascaras is considered the most famous living luchador, who has appeared in 17 luchador action films.

Although Mascaras stars in the film, other well-known luchadores appear as well, including El Hijo del Santo and Blue Demon Jr.

"There's no cultural equivalent in the U.S.," Uhlmann said. "Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec Mummy" was the first authentic lucha film produced in English.

The film is delightfully campy. Imagine seductive go-go dancers turning into vampires, a mummy with an evil laugh, a police station that looks suspiciously like Jesse Hall and lots of sequins and Spandex.

Luchadores never remove their masks, no matter where they are. Befitting the genre, the way to stop an evil Aztec mummy lies in the power of the mask.

Uhlmann came to teach at MU in 2000. He brought with him his "Mil Mascaras" script and a desire to start filmmaking and media engineering programs for students.

By 2005 the College of Engineering had begun offering an information technology degree that included an emphasis in entertainment engineering, thanks in large part to Uhlmann. Four years later, the program has developed into a production company that has generated three feature-length films, with a fourth in the works.

"Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec Mummy" was the first of the three films .  The second was "Academy of Doom," filmed in 2006 along with "Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec Mummy." The third, "Mil Mascaras: Aztec Revenge" is the most ambitious to date. It was filmed last spring and has yet to be released. The fourth film is in the pre-production phase.

All of the films were produced and shot exclusively in Columbia and the surrounding area. They involved a collaborative effort between MU students and faculty, Columbia residents, experienced professionals in film and Mexican celebrities.

Creating "Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec Mummy," especially when the majority of people involved are inexperienced, was a daunting task, Uhlmann said.

He described the process as a “fiasco.”

Mike Sullivan, a graduate student who became the art director of "Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec Mummy," remembers the challenge of making a film with limited experience.

“The level of knowledge of everyone involved kept increasing with each shot,” Sullivan said.

Uhlmann referred to Sullivan as an example of the interdisciplinary effort needed for the film’s success. Sullivan studied art and was working toward a master's degree in computer science at the time of the production.

Because of his background he was able to get many professors and students in the art department involved, along with people from computer science.

“The film project allowed him to bring together all of his skills and experience in both art and computer science,” Uhlmann said.

Others at MU contributed their skills. Textile and apparel management students were recruited to make the costumes.

Graphic design students created posters needed for the set. Theater majors served as extras. A film pre-production and planning course was even offered to those in the film studies program.

“Working on the movie was an experience you think you’d only get in film school,” said Sullivan.

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