Once seen, never forgotten: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre may not be the strangest film ever made, but you can’t claim it doesn’t try. For those of you who may not know the name Alejandro Jodorowsky, shame on you. Let me introduce you.
Alejandro Jodorowsky, according to Hoberman and Rosenbaum’s excellent book Midnight Movies, was born in 1929 or 1930 in Chile, studied theater (in particular the “theater of cruelty” theory of Antonin Artaud), became a circus clown, studied mime with Marcel Marceau, founded a radical theater group with Spanish poet Fernando Arrabal and staged violent “happenings” before turning to film. His most famous work, El Topo, a violently surreal mix of a Western and a religious allegory, became the first cult film regularly screened at midnight. (Picked up for distribution in 1971 by Beatle business manager Allen Klein at the insistence of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the film remains almost impossible to see in the US.) Jodorowsky followed El Topo with the equally odd The Holy Mountain in 1973 and made a reportedly G- rated film about an elephant called Tusk after he was replaced by David Lynch as the director of the film of Frank Herbert’s Dune. In 1989, he vaulted back with Santa Sangre, a spectacular return to the disturbing psycho-sexual film making of El Topo.
The film begins in an asylum as a young man named Fenix (played by one of the directors’ seemingly endless supply of sons, Axel Jodorowsky) screeches and perches in a tree trunk the doctors have given him. In flashback, we see the younger Fenix (now played by Adan Jodorowsky) as a boy magician in his father’s second-rate Circus in Mexico, El Circo del Gringo. Fenix’s father is called Orgo, an American with a dark past who wears a ludicrous red, white and blue cowboy outfit trimmed with silver sequins. The circus also has an over-sexed tattooed lady (Thelma Tixou) who tortures the deaf mute highwire walker Alma and flirts with Orgo. Down the street from the circus, Fenix’ mother Concha is part of a religious cult that worships a martyred saint in the guise of a young girl who was raped and had both arms cut off. The cult’s church, Santa Sangre, is destroyed by an angry landowner (with the blessings of the Church), so Concha returns to the circus, where she hangs from her hair high atop the circus tent. The circus’s elephant gets dreadfully ill, and as Orgo and Concha are climaxing during sex, it oozes blood from its trunk. The elephant dies and the entire circus gives it a spectacular funeral – the performers wear black versions of their circus costumes while Orgo holds a black and white American flag. The enormous coffin of the elephant is lowered into a gully while peasants stream down a hillside like ants to rip the elephant’s carcass apart and eat it. Fenix is so disturbed by this that Orgo decides to make him a man. With a knife, he carves a tattoo of an eagle on Fenix’ chest, and gives him a junior version of his Captain America outfit. During a performance, Concha sees Orgo dallying with the tattooed woman and begs to be lowered. She finds the pair and promptly empties a bottle of acid in his groin. Orgo then slices her hands neatly off with knives from his knife-throwing act before walking out in front of the circus and slashing his throat in front of Fenix and Alma.
And that is only the first 30 minutes. Before the movie is over, Fenix will act as his mother’s hands and start to kill under her command, taking the body of a heroin-addicted stripper in a big rabbit costume to bury in his private cemetery. He has hallucinations where he stands in his best Jesus Christ pose, complete with bloody stigmata, in a room that literally rains chickens. He slays the tattooed woman (in what has to be the goriest stabbing in any film), has the ghosts of his victims rise from their graves with bridal veils, and falls for a huge she-male wrestler in a dead-on parody of those Mexican El Santo wrestling movies.
While the film’s denouement is terribly protracted and a bit predictable (think Psycho), the explosion of surreal ideas transcends the film’s formal horror trappings (Claudio Argento, brother of Italian horror Czar Dario, produced and co-wrote it) and winds up as something wholly unique. The photography is exquisite and exaggerated, the music wonderful, and the direction is not surprisingly economical at times, recalling the relaxed, surrealist style of Luis Buñuel (to whom Jodorowsky’s films owe an enormous debt). For the brave, Santa Sangre is essential. All others beware.