2 Hrs., 3 Mins.
Santa Sangre October 30, 2020
catchingly bizarre images. But you’re glad you’ve watched it.
Santa Sangre is a Mexican-Italian co-production; it was produced by horror-maven Dario Argento's brother, Claudio — a promising sign if there ever was one. It is, if to pare everything seen down to just its fundamentals, a slasher movie. It’s especially evocative of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Santa Sangre follows a little boy, Fenix (played in childhood by Jodorowsky’s son Adán and in adulthood by another one of Jodorowsky’s sons, Axel), who grows up in the Mexican-circus milieu. Around the time he turns 10, he’s sent to a mental hospital after witnessing his trapeze-artist mother, Concha (Blanca Guerra), get both her arms chopped off with blink-or-miss-it speed by his knife-thrower father, Orgo (Guy Stockwell). Concha walked in on Orgo in bed with one of their colleagues — a thoroughly tattooed sword swallower played by Thelma Tixou — and the subsequent confrontation’s furor didn’t go anywhere but up. Orgo slit his own throat at the end of it all.
Once Fenix gets into his 20s, he’s coaxed out of the hospital by Concha. She manipulates him into acting as her arms and hands as she embarks on a vengeful, murderous rampage. Fenix puts on sharp, fire-engine-red acrylics to better fit the part; we don’t know exactly what’s up until after the dreamlike introductory murder by the duo — the revenge killing of the Tattooed Woman with a shiny katana, with those colorful claws tightly wrapped around the handle, reflecting its gleam. We never see the perpetrator’s face — just the victim’s varying states of anguish.
The performances by the Jodorowsky siblings are one-notedly overwrought. There isn’t any shading to their work; you leave the movie not remembering their acting but rather frozen images of their faces sopped with tears, their mouths open just so to release their aggrieved cries. But Guerra is delectably wicked, saturating her bloodthirsty seething with a twisted kind of glamour. Watching her, I thought particularly of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard
(1950): she’s a wounded woman who also wants to make sure she’s doing an astounding job playing the part of the wounded woman. Plain-old hurt is miserable to wallow in. Why not imbue it with some theatricality? There’s a layer of unreality to both Guerra’s work and Jodorowsky’s framing of it. It's odd, even for him. Eventually we find out why.
Santa Sangre is busy with unforgettable, eagerly laid-out images. We see a funeral for an elephant who died from a trunk hemorrhage; the coffin is ceremoniously kicked off a cliff’s edge. We move around the gaudy interiors of a church whose disciples worship a young woman who had both her arms cut off (a parallel!) after an attack; all of its architecture is centered around what is said to be a pool of the martyr’s blood. (“This is paint!” a visiting priest exclaims just before the church is demolished by the local government.) We watch a woman carefully amble across a tightrope licked by flames; a giantess fight off a swordsman being commanded to kill by a woman dressed up as Cleopatra; Fenix frolicking around naked in a hospital room designed like a monkey’s humble abode. For the first part of Santa Sangre, there’s a cheeky charm to the eccentricity — no doubt comparable to the lighter, wiggier films of Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini, the surrealist filmmakers to whom Jodorowsky is regularly compared.
But once the movie evolves into horror-movie-style freakiness, that
eccentricity comfortably moves along with it. Santa Sangre is wonderfully
perverse. Part of the enjoyment we get from watching it comes from being so aware of slasher-movie tropes and then discovering how Jodorowsky is going to revise them to his liking. Once you’ve seen one slasher, frequently you have seen many. Clichés, after a while, are tiresome. Jodorowsky’s revisions give slasher-movie platitudes their initial shock value back. When we think about how Fenix is someone who doesn’t know much aside from trauma and the infliction of violence, it affects us — we have at least a semblance of a grasp of how he sees the world, and what kind of effect that can take. Like Norman Bates before him, he helps complicate how we react to the movie in which he stars. We’re thrilled by its offerings, but the notes of sympathy he provides are haunting too. B+
xpectedly for a film written and directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean-French surrealist, 1989’s Santa Sangre (or Holy Blood) isn’t really interested in logic. Much of it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But its imagery is so consistently fun to take in that it doesn’t matter. At upward of two hours, it can in moments have some difficulty grabbing
us — sometimes there’s a hollowness to its assembly line of eye-