SantaSangreA truly amazing 1989 film by Alejandro Jodorowsky, one of the world’s most fascinating (yet woefully under appreciated) filmmakers.  Bold, violent, surreal and completely irresistible, it’s one of the decade’s finest films.

Connoisseurs of Really Weird Cinema should know the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose mind boggling EL TOPO (1970) made history as the first-ever Midnight Movie.  The even-weirder HOLY MOUNTAIN followed in 1973.  Both films are unfortunately owned by Allen Klein (the former manager of John Lennon, a huge fan of EL TOPO), who subsequently yanked ‘em from distribution for over three decades and nearly destroyed Jodorowsky’s film career (although in recent years Jodorowsky and Klein have put aside their differences).

Since his failed attempt to film Frank Herbert’s DUNE in the seventies, Jodorowsky has concentrated mainly on scripting comic serials (you’re advised to seek out the extraordinary three-part Jodorowsky-Moebious collaboration THE INCAL) and made only three films: 1980’s disastrous TUSK, 1990’s THE RAINBOW THIEF, which wasn’t much better, and SANTA SANGRE.  With it Jodorowsky, working with producer Claudio Argento (Dario’s brother), created one of his finest works.  Filmed in Mexico with largely Italian financing, Jodorowsky’s feat is all the more astonishing considering that SANTA SANGRE’S budget was a mere $800,000.

Fenix is an ex-circus performer interned in an insane asylum.  Flashbacks show his horrific childhood, dominated by a philandering father and religious fanatic mother; she was part of the “Santa Sangre” (Holy Blood) religion centered on an armless woman.  Fenix’s father, meanwhile, was obsessed with tattooing, and carved a phoenix tattoo into his son’s chest.  When dad runs off one night with the tattooed woman, mom gets revenge by throwing acid on his genitals; he in turn cuts both her arms off (turning her into the personification of her religious idol) and then slashes his own throat.

Back in the present, Phoenix spots his armless mother outside his asylum window one morning.  He promptly breaks out and runs off with her.  They starts up a stage act with Fenix providing his mother’s missing arms, an act that continues offstage…but Fenix, suffering from near-constant hallucinations, also embarks on a killing spree, brutally slaughtering women (and one transvestite) who arouse him sexually.  This continues until Alma, Fenix’s long lost childhood love, returns, forcing him to confront his ruined life and twisted relationship with his mother.

The late Billy Wilder once advised beginning filmmakers to “leave a little spring for the pearl instead of making every moment a jewel.”  Alejandro Jodorowsky is one filmmaker who definitely hasn’t followed that advice: SANTA SANGRE is literally packed to the gills with surreal wonders.  Jodorowsky’s script is a marvel of feverish imagination, yet the film contains countless wonders not explicitly related to the story.

These include the sight of a dying elephant bleeding from its trunk; when it passes, it’s placed in a giant coffin which is pushed off a cliff into a ravine, where a mob of vagrants greedily pick it apart.  Then there’s the guy who rips off one of his ears and offers it to Alma…and a nighttime jaunt through a mass of high-spirited transvestites…and the strangely hypnotic “creation of the world” act the protagonist puts on with his armless mother, using his arms in place of her own.

Yes, this is bizarre stuff, but Jodorowsky also demonstrates an awareness of classic horror cinema that he isn’t afraid to reference throughout (unsurprisingly, this film is said to be favorite of Quentin Tarantino).  Most obvious is the INVISIBLE MAN reference that crops up when Fenix tries to imitate the film, which happens to be playing on television.  The dark, cavernous interior of Fenix’s mother’s house was clearly patterned after THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, while her surrogate arms obviously come from THE HANDS OF ORLAC.  The twisted mother-son dynamic of PSYCHO is another evident influence, as is the sideshow setting of FREAKS.

Both a dreamy fantasist and a competent craftsman, Alejandro Jodorowsky remains a brilliant (though frustratingly inconsistent) filmmaker.  His incredible surreal images are utterly without precedent and he really knows how to stretch limited funds (see his HOLY MOUNTAIN, which, though saddled with a paltry $500,000 budget, has the look of a Hollywood epic).  SANTA SANGRE may be a tad overstuffed and filled with stilted performances (Jodorowsky likes using non-professional actors, a trend that’s evident throughout…and not always in a good way!), but the net result is such an incredible flood of imagination and grotesquerie that the viewer has no choice but to lower his defenses and be swept along.  And it’s quite a ride.

Vital Statistics 

Productora Filmica Real/Produzioni Intersound

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Producer: Claudio Argento
Screenplay: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Claudio Argento, Roberto Leoni
Cinematography: Daniele Nannuzzi
Editor: Mauro Bonanni
Cast: Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Guy Stockwell, Thelma Tixou, Sabrina Dennison, Adan Jodorowsky, Faviola Elenka Tapia, Teo Jodorowsky, Maria de Jesus Aranzabal, Jesus Juarez, Sergio Bustamante, Gloria Contreras, S. Rodriguez, Zonia Rangel Mora