Santa Sangre (1989)

Rating: C+

Dir: Alexander Joderowsky
Star: Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Sabrina Dennison, Adan Jodorowsky

I haven’t seen this for about twenty years, and still don’t quite know what to make of it. Overall, it plays like a lurid combination of Psycho, The Hand and The Greatest Show on Earth, directed by Luis Bunuel. I know some people rate it among their all-time favourites, but I can’t go there. I will happily admit it’s one of a kind. There aren’t many films where the hero goes out on the town with a bunch of Down’s Syndrome kids, only for them all to be diverted into a coke and whore bings. Or with a funeral for an elephant, which ends with the corpse being dumped, like a ship being launched, into a ravine, where the poorest locals hack the body apart. Roger Ebert described the latter as “One of the reasons we go to the movie.” Or not, Roger: “Not” works too.

For these scenes, while memorable, are not much more than lengthy diversions, of questionable relevance to the story at hand, and seem to be there more as a cynical attempt to outrage than anything deeper. Jodorowsky has a good deal in common with Argento, it would seem – not least that Dario’s brother, Claudio, was the producer. Both are capable of stylistic genius, yet seem to let the visual side of things career away with their films, to the detriment of plot and characters [see below if you want any kind of synopsis]; it makes sense that Jodorowsky more than dabbled in comic books.

The result is something dreamlike; and, like most dreams, I reached the end without much of a reaction beyond, “Well, that was a bit strange, wasn’t it?” The relationship between mother and son, both only able to be completed through the presence of each other, is the only aspect of the film which held much resonance for me. It is the kind of film which would perhaps be most appropriately seen, projected without sound onto the walls of a bar which is too cool to let anyone in. Worth seeing once, certainly. More than that? I am unconvinced.

What we said then: [4] Not shown at Shock for contractual reasons, maybe a good thing, as I don’t know what the crowd there would have made of it. Not to say it isn’t good – you just don’t realise until the end how it all fits together and at Shock, they might not have had the patience! The first third tells of Fenix (Jodorowsky), an 8-year old living in a circus, whose mother (Guerra) finds her husband with the tattooed lady and pours sulphuric acid over them – he responds by cutting her arms off, in imitation of the religious martyr she worships.

This, understandably, traumatises Fenix and he spends years pretending to be an eagle before his mother returns and she compels him to be her ‘hands’ and extract revenge. Or is she dead, and he merely hallucinating? A slow starter, spends most of the flash-back building ‘atmosphere’ with a lot of irrelevancies – when Fenix & Mother get together, it livens up fast and the sequences of the son/mother pairing are astonishing. The director’s son Axel and Blanca Guerra are excellent in the lead roles and even if it does bear a certain resemblance to ‘Psycho’, there are more than enough original ideas and thoughts to make this one worth seeing. 8/10