52. SANTA SANGRE (1989)

AKA Holy Blood (literal translation)

“My mother is dead.  I had a terrible relationship with her.  She had many problems with my father, and she never caressed me.  So I didn’t have a mother who touched me.”–Alejandro Jodorowsky in La Constellation Jodorowsky

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Jodorowsky

FEATURING: Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, , Sabrina Dennison, Guy Stockwell

PLOT:  Fenix, a young carnival boy is understandably traumatized when he sees his knife-thrower father cut off his mother’s arms in a domestic melee.  Years later, he lives an animalistic existence in a mental asylum, until one day he escapes when his armless mother calls to him from outside his cell window.  The two perform a stage act where the son serves as the arms of his mother; she dominates his every move offstage, makes him serve as her arms, and orders him to kill, repeatedly.

Still from Santa Sangre (1989)

BACKGROUND:

  • After completing The Holy Mountain in 1973, Jodorowsky planned to make an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel “Dune,” which fell through.  He did not direct again until 1980’s poorly regarded Tusk, a film over which he had little creative control and which he has since disowned.
  • Santa Sangre is supposedly inspired by the story of a real life Mexican serial killer (whose name is variously given as Gregorio Cárdenas or Gojo Cardinas).
  • Young Fenix and adult Fenix are played by Adan and Axel, Jodorowsky’s sons.
  • The MPAA originally rated Santa Sangre R for “bizarre, graphic violence;” when the NC-17 designation began in 1990, the film was reclassified to the more restictive rating for “extremely explicit violence.”
  • Empire Magazine’s combined readers/critics poll voted Santa Sangre the 476th best movie of all time.
  • Before making this film Jodorowsky had founded an unofficial school of psychotherapy called “psycho-magic”; one of the basic tenets of the theory is a belief in a “family unconscious.”
  • The mother’s given name—“Concha”—is slang for “vagina” in many Latin American countries, including Jodorowsky’s native Chile.
  • The movie is an Italian/Mexican co-production, and was co-written and co-produced by Claudio (brother of horror maestro Dario) Argento.
  • OBSCURE CONNECTION: Producer Rene Cardona, Jr., himself a prolific B-movie director, was the son of the Rene Cardona who directed El Santo movies and appeared in Brainiac.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The most representative images are any of the moments where Fenix stands behind his mother and acts as her hands, especially when he is wearing his long red plastic nails.  The most affecting sight, however, may be a dying elephant with blood trickling out of his trunk.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  You could argue that Santa Sangre isn’t that weird, but that


Original trailer for Santa Sangre (German)

would only be in comparison to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s previous films.  Although he does deliver Felliniesque carnivals, an elephant funeral, a cult that worships an armless girl, a hermaphrodite wrestler, and graveside hallucinations featuring zombie brides, the obscure auteur actually scales back his mystical obtuseness a tad in this psychedelic slasher movie.  The result is his most popular and accessible film—if anything by Jodorowsky can be considered accessible.

COMMENTS: In a way, Santa Sangre is Jodorowsky lite.  Compared to his hippie-era midnight movies (Fando y Lis, El Topo and The Holy Mountain), this weirded-up Freudian mishmash of Psycho and Hands of Orlac by way of Fellini is less mystical and more psychological, less pretentious and more exploitative, less obscure and more universal.  While exceedingly odd things happen, the narrative is easy to follow and the Oedipal themes easy to grasp.  True to slasher-movie conventions, he spares neither erotic excess nor stage blood, but adds an arthouse sheen of psychological depth and surrealistic wonder, thereby appealing both to exploitation movie fans looking for something a little more weighty and to arthouse fans looking for a defensible guilty pleasure.  That’s not to say Santa Sangre is better or worse than the earlier films, but it does appeal more to the casual fan than do Jodorowsky’s earlier movies.  Some will prefer the more disciplined and narrative approach taken here, while others may miss the anarchy and cosmic scope of the 1970s work.

Although Santa Sangre is much easier to follow and comprehend than Jodorowsky’s previous works, I don’t mean to imply that Jodorowsky strayed too far from his avant-garde roots.  This is, after all, still a movie where a random man in a marketplace tears off his own ear for no apparent reason.  Many themes and symbols from the 1970s films recur in this film made fifteen years later.  Most significantly, the structure and theme of the film is still a quest for understanding.  In El Topo and The Holy Mountain that quest was for cosmic illumination, an understanding of God and ultimate reality; in Santa Sangre, the quest is turned inward, as Fenix grapples to comprehend his own psychological reality as twisted by his peculiar relationship with his mother.  As in El Topo, there is a religious cult with a unique symbology (an all-seeing eye in the pyramid in the Western, the crossed severed arms here).  As in The Holy Mountain, birds in flight are used as an elegant symbol of transcendence.  And the director remains obsessed with human deformity, in unsavory ways.  Although the real-life armless freaks from El Topo have been replaced by an actress playing a woman with no arms, the genetically disadvantaged make an unsettling appearance here in the form of actors with Down’s Syndrome, who sniff cocaine and take a trip to see an obese prostitute.

Jodorowsky, though a Ukrainian Jew by heritage, Chilean by birth, and French by choice, chooses to make movies in Mexico.  In El Topo and The Holy Mountain he was attracted to the spiritual serenity of the desert, but here the story plays out in an urban setting, and the director transforms the country into a phantasmagorical land trapped in an eternal carnivale. It’s a divided land country sanctity and licentiousness fight an eternal war.  Mystical Mexican Catholicism is paid tribute through Concha’s heretical Santa Sangre cult, which worships a non-canonized saint, an armless rape victim.  The shrine is a small masterpiece of indigenous folk religion, mixing Christian and pagan elements with its pool of blood, gory primitivist frescoes, and walls decorated with cowboy hats and homemade flower garlands, all lit by a mixture of candles and neon.  Outside, prostitutes troll the streets for customers.  The streets are patrolled by circus processions, mariachi bands and rolling advertisements for lucha libre (wrestling) exhibitions.  Outside of the insane asylum Fenix finds himself imprisoned in, the city seems to be little more than a neverending red light district, full of dancing in the streets, drunken soldiers, burlesque houses, and whores, whores, whores.  Jodorowsky even adds some social commentary on the baneful cultural influences of Mexico’s northern neighbor, represented by Guy Stockwell’s knife-throwing Orgo, the dictatorial proprietor of the “Circo del Gringo,” who tattoos a symbol that looks suspiciously like the eagle from the American dollar onto his son’s chest.  There is also commentary on Mexican poverty, when gray-faced villagers living in a pitiful gully gleefully pillage the coffin of a circus elephant for meat.

As if this lunatic, fantastical Mexico of his imagination did not add enough color, Jodorowsky heaps on the carnival ambiance by setting half the movie in a circus.  Our antihero Fenix, a boy magician who’s the product of a union between a knife-thrower and a trapeze artist, grows up with a dwarf as a best friend, a deaf-mute as a love interest, and a chorus of silent clowns providing amusement and solace to carry him over the rough patches in the tough existence of a carny boy.  There’s plenty of circus pomp and spectacle to fill up the background of these early scenes, and a voluptuous head-to-toe tattooed temptress to stir the psycho-sexual pot.  The processional during the elephant funeral, set to a jazzy mariachi dirge, is a parade of pageantry that would have brought a tear to Fellini’s eye. At the very least, he would have appreciated the obscene tears the black-clad clowns squirt as they sadly bid their pachyderm pal farewell.

The movie segues easily from the halcyon carnival days, which grow more and more turbulent until they end in a bloody blast of vengeance, into the movie’s second half, where slasher and horror movie conventions begin to dominate.  The action moves from the carnival and red light district into bare, rocky interiors in the house where Fenix and his mother come to live.  Freed from his asylum and seemingly cured of his madness, the son reluctantly assumes his position behind his mother, thrusting his arms through her sleeves so he can play piano for her or lift her morning coffee to her lips.  He has plenty of hallucinations, as well.  Mom even mocks him: “it’s always roosters or swans.  You never see anything else in your ridiculous hallucinations!”  (Her accusation isn’t entirely accurate: he does also see pale nude bodies, presumably of women he’s slain, rising from their graves to clutch at him).  We watch Fenix murder three women (well, two women and one borderline case) at the direction of Concha, who psychically controls his limbs; the killings are suitably bloody, and sometimes absurd (as when he kills a lucharore).  By the end, the house has transformed into a twisted Expressionistic nightmare, with wooden beams suddenly spouting out of the walls at irrational angles.  It all ends in broadly predictable but satisfying horror movie fashion, with Fenix conquering his internal and external demons, and a host of carny folk from his past life making ghostly farewell cameos.

The actors playing out this bizarre tale are competent, but never upstage Jodorowsky’s tableaux, which is how it should be.  At times, the acting is decidedly non-naturalistic.  Jodorowsky studied pantomime under Marcel Marceau, and although silent comedy skits popped up from time to time in his previous works, never before had nonverbal communication taken center stage as it does here.  An important character is a deaf-mute, who mimes out of necessity.  The tattooed lady’s seductions, and Concha’s anger at her gringo husband’s philandering ways, both play out in dance rather than dialogue, with a band of harlequins providing the score.  Young Fenix’s woos the deaf-mute with a magic trick, and she expresses her appreciation in mime; this quiet, beautiful scene is poetic and universal.  Sante Sangre also underscores the fact that it’s impossible to act as if your arms are being psychically possessed and forced to kill by an unseen force without appearing hopelessly melodramatic.  The saving grace is that any movie in which you are asked to act as if your arms are being psychically possessed and forced to kill by an unseen force is probably a hopeless melodrama at heart.  Too much dialogue and verbal explication could have made Santa Sangre appear ludicrous; instead, the pantomime and storytelling through choreography give the film an abstract, theatrical quality that recalls silent film and lulls our disbelief into suspension.

Santa Sangre was Jodorowsky’s most critically acclaimed film, as well as his most popular and accessible.  Anyone with a passing interest in strange film is likely to be pleasantly astounded and even charmed by its visions.  The only ones who should steer clear are those who have a low tolerance for blood and violence; though informed by arty surrealism, this film is a true modern horror movie (which is a large reason for its crossover appeal).  Santa Sangre is the perfect place to begin exploring the weird world of Jodorwosky, which exists in a cinematic netherworld somewhere between academic surrealism and B-movie madness.   If you like  Santa Sangre but have a nagging feeling that it’s just not weird enough, then make Jodorowsky’s surrealist spaghetti western El Topo your next stop.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…nonsense of a very extravagant, alienating, private sort… A massive clearance sale of leftover psychedelia, ‘Santa Sangre’ is enough to make a movie critic toss his notebook across a screening room.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

“…watchable and fun in a campy, sub-Fellini sort of way—if only because of its dogged devotion to surrealist excess.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

“…after waiting patiently through countless Dead Teenager Movies, I am reminded by Alejandro Jodorowsky that true psychic horror is possible on the screen–horror, poetry, surrealism, psychological pain and wicked humor, all at once.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (Great Movies series)

IMDB LINKSanta Sangre (1989)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

At the Movies – Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert discuss the film on their television program (verdict: one thumbs up, one thumbs down)

Santa Sangre at The Image Grows – There’s not much Santa Sangre material at this Jodorowsky fansite, but there are a few reviews and images, plus links to other Jodorowsky material

Alejandro Jodorowsky – David Church’s career retrospective of Jodorowsky from Senses of Cinema includes a few paragraphs analyzing Santa Sangre and putting it in the context of the director’s entire canon

DVD INFO: Jodorowsky movies and home video releases have always had a tempestuous relationship.  El Topo and The Holy Mountain were tied up in rights disputes for many years, and could only be seen in bootleg versions.  Santa Sangre did get a wide release on VHS (search for a used copy) and was eventually issued in a very nice 2-DVD special edition licensed for distribution in Singapore (buy), but the run was short and copies are now rarer and more expensive than they should be for a film of this reputation.  More copies seem to be popping up lately; interested parties may want to search Ebay or other resellers for bargains (we secured a copy for about $20).  When you receive the sturdy and attractively packaged set, you’ll get the dubbed movie on disc one (as far as I know the movie is only available dubbed in English, with subtitles for other languages).  Disc 2 contains numerous extras, including “Echek,” an interesting 4-minute, black and white silent film from Jodorowsky’s son Adan (who played young Fenix in the movie); a deleted “Trumpet/Hooker” scene from the film with commentary by Jodorowsky; and a question and answer session from a Santa Sangre screening, with Jodorowsky speaking in broken English.  The jewel of the supplements is the feature length French documentary La constellation Jodorowsky [The Jodorowsky Constellation] (1994), which discusses the man and his art and features interviews and recollections from the director, Marcel Marceau (who taught Jodorowsky mime), surrealist playwright and author Fernando Arrabal, and fan Peter Gabriel, among others.  The only complaint with the otherwise illuminating documentary is that it focuses too much on Jodorowsky’s “psycho-magic” therapy, finishing by taking us through an entire, agonizingly long public psychoanalysis session.

UPDATE 1/27/2011: Severin Films has righted a great wrong by releasing a reverent new 2-disc version of Santa Sangre (buy), complete with 5 hours (!) of bonus material and a new commentary track supplied by Jodorowsky and journalist Alan Jones. We don’t have full details on all the supplemental material at this time. Severin is also offering the same package on Blu-ray (buy).

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Ylenia.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “52. SANTA SANGRE (1989)”

  1. La verdad es que nunca tuve la oportunidad de ver esta pelicula, lo que leí me gustó mucho, seguramente no tardaré en verla. Sería genial ver como combina toda esa magia con lo mistico. Suena interesante.

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