Santa Sangre

Santa Sangre (1989)

Santa Sangre first published by Little White Lies

When Midnight Movie maestro Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain) was commissioned by producer Claudio Argento, brother of giallo king Dario, to “make a picture where a man kills a lot of women”, the upstart director/mystic/prankster/mime-artist certainly delivered on his remit. Yet Santa Sangre (or ‘Holy Blood’) relates to your average by-numbers slasher in much the same way that Jodorowsky’s earlier El Topo relates to the western, using the identifiable trappings of genre to stage a psychological, philosophical, theological and political rite of passage that expands both viewers’ minds and the possibilities of cinema. It is a Fellini-esque headtrip of psychos and circuses, set beyond America’s borders and well outside  the mainstream (despite being remarkably accessible).

We first meet Fenix (played by Jodorowsky’s son Axel) as a mute, Jesus-like manchild residing in an idyllic Mexican asylum, and identifying himself so closely with the phoenix tattooed on his chest that he has for years been perched on a branch, squawking like a Birdy. If the caring institution and its Edenic garden represent a sort of Paradise, Fenix and four Down’s syndrome boys will soon venture beyond its protective confines into the fallen city, where they will immediately be led astray by a coke-pushing Pimp (played by another of Jodorowsky’s sons, Teo). While his young friends enjoy the forbidden fruits of a plump prostitute, Fenix spots a lubricious tattooed woman (Thelma Tixou) from his past, and is reminded (in vivid flashback) of an earlier loss of innocence when, as a child (played by a third Jodorowsky son, Adan) in a circus, he was forced to witness the acid-induced emasculation (and subsequent suicide) of his philandering knife-thrower father (Guy Stockwell) and the literal disarming of his fanatical mother Concha (Blanca Guerra).

Fenix flies the coop – and, with a revenant Concha now dominating his life anew and insisting he do her vengeful bidding with his own arms, the young man finds himself torn between his father’s hyperphallic drives and his mother’s twisted puritanism. When Alma (Sabrina Dennison), the deaf-mute girl whom he innocently loved as a child, also returns, the psychosexual conflicts that are Fenix’s traumatic legacy come to a bloody head. As all the props and costumes that make up the theatre of Fenix’s distorted fantasy are laid aside one by one, he greets bittersweet reality with arms that are at last truly his own.
From the big, brassy rhythms of its opening Perez Prado number, to its overcoded imagery, brutal violence and many surreal excursions (the elephant funeral! the john who tears off his own ear! the Mexican wrestling! the literal trouser snake!), Santa Sangre grabs viewers by their metaphorical balls with its sheer creative excess. Part circus carnival, part Oedipal nightmare, part gnostic allegory of self-discovery, part Buñuelian pantomime, part psychothriller, part satire of church hypocrisy and colonial predation, Santa Sangre is a magical realist poem written in blood and set to a Latin beat, full of bold colours and grand gestures.

The performances are appropriately over-theatrical, the sets breathtakingly rococo, the costumes exquisitely lavish – and the rapid moodswings from melodrama to farce to tragedy to horror create a genuinely disorienting experience for the viewer, as do the frequent evocations of Fenix’s dreams, fantasies and hallucinations. It is one (every)man’s mystical journey from infancy to adulthood, from illusion to reality, and from Freudian baggage to unencumbered selfdom, in a south-of-the-border demi-monde peopled by freaks, cripples, transvestites, dwarves, prostitutes, and clowns. So see this fully remastered version on the big screen where it belongs, and feel life’s holy blood pulsing once again through your veins, urgently and irresistibly.

Anticipation: The director of El Topo and The Holy Mountain does the slasher in his own inimitable way.

Enjoyment: Mummy, mania, murder, mambo!

In Retrospect: Jodorowsky’s bold, brassy tale of psychos and circuses, Freud and fanaticism, still stirs the blood.

© Anton Bitel