Let’s pretend that it’s January, 1998 again and that I’m sitting in my Media Business class next to this kid from Detroit. It’s only days after I’d given a business plan proposal to my class as a project demonstrating my understanding of the process and in order to distract from the glaring faults of my abilities as a public speaker, I put on a video compilation of scenes from various European and Japanese horror movies since the plan was for a theoretical company that sold gray market VHS releases of Byrne Act-protected movies. This tape did exactly what I needed it to do and everyone, instructors included, didn’t pay much attention to me mumbling my way through a dodgy plan to sell movies that I had no actual right to sell. So I become the horror movie guy in my class and everyone has to talk to me about horror movies, which I’m more than happy to entertain. This kid from Detroit, though; he knew what was going on and when he wasn’t enthusiastically going apeshit about his amazement that our school had numerous vending machines selling thirty five cent cans of Faygo or his insistence that I listen to a mixtape he made of Esham’s many recordings, he made sure that I heard everything he had to say on the topic of the movie Santa Sangre.
I was aware of director Alejandro Jodorowsky at the time but only as the guy who made El Topo, a tape I’d shelled out way too much for in order to buy the “Special Edition” that Revok Film Prodigies was selling at the time but beyond that I didn’t know anything else about him or the other movies that he’d made. You’d think, though, that this kid from Detroit only wanted me to see this movie because of a scene where a fanatical woman screams the words “HOLY BLOOD!” at a priest over and over. With some hesitation, I relented and took the tape home that he lent me as well as this weirdo early 90’s flick with Phyllis Diller, Boneyard. Consequences would never be the same.
Fenix has serious mental issues. He lives naked in a makeshift tree in his room at a mental hospital, the results of a fucked up childhood in a shabby Mexico City circus run by his bloated, knife throwing father. While his dad drinks tequila and fondles the tattooed lady all day, his mother holds court over a ramshackle church built in a vacant lot dedicated to an armless saint whose spilled blood fills a small pool and never dries. Meanwhile, romance blooms between Fenix and the deaf/mute tight-rope walking clown girl but everything goes to hell one night when a violent confrontation between father and mother results in his father cutting his mother’s arms off before killing himself. Back to adult Fenix, a hospital-sponsored night on the town unintentionally puts him the care of the most gleefully irresponsible chaperon of all time – discovering that his boyhood romance, Alma, is now a prostitute on the streets. Later, his armless mother calls to him from the streets and he escapes back to her home where his arms become her arms creating a twisted symbiosis that results in a lot of dead bodies.
I’m going to put this on front street: Santa Sangre is, hands down, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s finest hour. Santa Sangre is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho steeped in Jungian and Freudian ideas. Prior Jodorowsky flicks are outstanding but they’re weighted down with intense bouts of art school posturing with heavy handed symbolism and jarring scenes of avant garde nonsense. Santa Sangre finds Jodorowsky with one foot planted firmly in those earlier, artsy fartsy modes but the other foot stays in the realm of lucid storytelling and what you wind up with is a bizarro piece of psychedelia that is accessible to the common viewer on the fringe. It is an amazing nightmare couched in familiar exploitation movie themes that juggles sex and violence in the same hands as genuine tragedy and black comedy. Behind this lurid veil, though, Jodorowsky (an actual psychotherapist) explores the relationship between child and parents and how that relationship forms our personalities. It’s fucking astonishing to see these unique concepts come to life on the screen as a mother’s anxieties manifest in her son quite literally becoming her arms as his own arms slip through the sleeves of whatever she wears.
As with most Jodorowsky flicks, his cast takes the production down a notch as everyone involved seems to be local community players but the cast finds strength in leads Axel Jodorowsky, Jodorowsky’s son, and Blanca Guerra, playing the role of adult Fenix and Fenix’s mom, respectivelyt. Roles such as those can’t be easy as most of their screen time is spent in physical contact, metaphorically occupying the same body but if they weren’t any good at acting, this entire picture would be a disaster. Where the rest of the cast fails, however, Jodorowosky draws your eye away with a menu of colorful photography and patent absurdity giving us, the viewers, the opportunity to witness a circus funeral for an elephant which concludes with the filthy poor of Mexico City tearing the body apart for meat as well as a really good attempt by Fenix to put an end to his mother’s violence by way of himself when he courts a masked female wrestler whom he is convinced can kick his ass.
Beyond some shortcomings in the cast, I am hard pressed to point out any negative criticism in the Santa Sangre proceedings. Jodorowsky’s filmography is woefully short but it feels as though all previous attempts at filmmaking were all leading up to this moment when every device he has ever employed finally clicked into place perfectly. Santa Sangre is way out there but unlike The Holy Mountain or El Topo it never feels like it’s trying to sell you some heady cosmic concept obscured behind layers of Gnostic and Hermetic mysticism. Santa Sangre becomes whatever you need it to be. Feel free to peel back the many onion layers of obscurity and enjoy each one individually.
Lastly, I don’t often comment on the actual release of the movie I review. Even when I enjoy a movie from front to back, I rarely feel like it’s something I need to own but in the case of this release, Severin Films’ release, Santa Sangre becomes a must-own title. The DVD and Blu-ray are absolutely packed with insight into the making of the movie and fans of Jodorowsky will find everything they wished they could know about Santa Sangre right here in one place. Severin’s release of this criminally unavailable movie is the final word on the title. Fans and newcomers alike are encouraged to add this one to their collection.