Alejandro Jodorowsky. To know that name is to have an opinion of his work. Jodorowsky is one of the most divisive directors I’ve ever seen, creating works that some see as brilliant works of art and others hate as indulgent trash. I have to admit that I err on the side of brilliant, but my first experience viewing The Holy Mountain several years ago nearly had my convinced I was watching one of the most pretentious films ever created.
It’s difficult to be neutral about the guy.
That said, in 1989 he made a crazy little Mexican-Italian horror movie called Santa Sangre. And I recently sat down and watched it and decided I had to write something up. Because no matter what your opinion on Jodorowsky (and especially if you don’t have one) this is a movie that is worth being seen.
(A note: I’m not going to spoil the ending of the movie, but really its impossible to talk about this movie without talking about things that happen throughout the first 2/3 of the run time, at least. So if you are especially sensitive to that sort of stuff, just take my word for it that this movie is worth your time and come back after you’ve seen it. )
Santa Sangre opens in flashback, a young boy named Fenix living in Mexico performing as a child magician in a circus run by his father and mother (a knife thrower and trapeze artist, respectively). His father just happens to be a philanderer, however, and his mother happens to be a religious fanatic, worshiping a local girl who had her arms cut off during a rape.
Fenix’ one friend is Alma, a deaf girl who works as a child mime in the circuit. Unfortunately, her mother is the tattooed woman of the circuit and the object of Fenix’ father’s desires. This all ends in grand tragic fashion, with Fenix witnessing his mother attacking his father and his lover, and his father cutting off the arms of his mother in a rage before killing himself.
The film picks back up with Fenix as an adult, living in an asylum seemingly completely out of touch with reality. Until on an outing with a few of the other patients he sees the tattooed woman, now a prostitute. Fenix awakens from his catatonic state into a rage. At the same time, his mother appears outside of his window at the asylum, and convinces him to escape.
Together, Fenix and his mother use their circus talents to put on a pantomime show, with Fenix acting as the arms his mother lost. But it’s more than just an act, with Fenix acting as her arms in private, many times seemingly against his will, as his mother uses her hold over him to begin committing a series of murders avenging those who act against them.
Now, if that sounds like a crazy synopsis, it is. And I haven’t even touched on half of it. Santa Sangre is typical Jodorowsky, dense with weirdness both visual and tonal. But unlike his other films like The Holy Mountain and El Topo, Santa Sangre has a plot. You know, one that mostly makes sense and can be followed by sane people. Which makes it his most accessible film by far.
That’s not to say that Santa Sangre isn’t painfully uncomfortable. Fenix fights against the supernatural impulse to kill, but there’s a surprisingly high body count in this movie. The violence is 80s Italian horror fare, not afraid of gore but shying away from the more sadistic dwelling that the genre is known for.
Fenix’ relationship with his mother takes obvious center stage, and the overtones of both familial responsibility and child abuse are tinged with an undercurrent of incest. Many of the victims are women who try to get close to Fenix, only to run across the jealousy of an overprotective mother. But the two are perfectly in lockstep for much of the film, their relationship almost more like a junky unable to resist the drug that’s killing him more than it is a normal mother and son.
The film itself is beautiful, opening with a circus atmosphere that brings to mind Fellini (if Fellini made movies with the freakshows that populate Jodorowsky’s world). The haunting images of childhood change and grow to be echoed in the present, a past that is inescapable, heavy with tragedy and sins that the characters carry with them.
In keeping with the ideas of sin, religious iconography typical of Catholic Mexico transformed into something dark and twisted, shrines built to Fenix’ mother’s unarmed saint. This central image, a woman without arms, is essentially an image of powerlessness and loss of control. And that’s what this movie is at its core, an examination of someone tortured by a perversion of the natural order of control and identity.
This is not a typical horror film, but it really explores the dark places of a person’s psyche, the places where obsession and compulsion go hand in hand (pun unintended, but I’ll take it) to create a hell for our erstwhile antihero. And while the murders are present like an ever-hanging doom, they are not the end goal. Horror movies typically dwell on the carnage but in Santa Sangre it is more of a frame by which our hero is examined. Roger Ebert put it best when he said of Santa Sangre “one difference between great horror films and all the others is that the great ones do not celebrate evil, but challenge it.”