The 13th Floor

Holy Blood: Revisiting Alejandro Jodorowsky’s SANTA SANGRE

Alejandro Jodorowsky, the brilliant Chilean-born film director, once said in an interview that he wants his audiences to experience his films the same way they would LSD — cinema, for Jodorowsky, is one of the better means to providing a transcendent mental and psychedelic experience. If you’ve seen any of his works, you know this to be strikingly true.

In films like EL TOPO, and his magnum opus THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, audiences are confronted with surreal, colorful, mind-spinning images, the likes of which have not been matched by many modern filmmakers… and Jodorowsky shows no signs of losing his passion for the art. At 88, he is at work on a sequel to his recent autobiographical film THE DANCE OF REALITY… and is still planning on making a sequel to EL TOPO.

In 1989,  Jodorowsky made what can be considered his sole entry in the horror genre — a circus-influenced, religiously themed PSYCHO riff called SANTA SANGRE. Featuring Jodorowsky’s son Axel in the lead role, SANTA SANGRE is one of the more intense horror films you may encounter, and is widely celebrated by those souls lucky enough to have viewed it; legendary film critic Roger Ebert not only gave the film a glowing review, but, in 2003, included it in his “Great Movies” series.

SANTA SANGRE is at least as good as PSYCHO — clearly one of its primary inspirations — and is easily one of the best horror movies of the 1980s.

Jodorowsky’s stories are varied and odd, and characters’ personal story arcs tend to follow the logic of a dream. We understand the longing and the lust and the madness to a degree… but Jodorowsky stages recognizable human emotions through a kaleidoscopic remix of his own childhood memories, intense and unknowable tribal rituals, Catholic guilt, and downright 1960s acid-influenced psychedelia.

SANTA SANGRE is about a young boy named Fenix (Aden Jodorowsky) who is growing up in the circus, just as Alejandro did. His father Orgo (Guy Stockwell), a loud, bullish man, is the resident knife-thrower, who is having a pretty open affair with the show’s buxom tattooed lady (Thelma Tixou). Fenix’s mother, Concha (Blanca Guerra), the show’s trapeze artist, has meanwhile become the leader of a local Catholic cult wherein worshipers pay homage to an armless young woman who, as legend has it, was raped and had her limbs amputated by her brothers. In the middle of mother’s church is an impluvium full of human blood, which seems to miraculously refill itself constantly, without clotting or congealing.

Fenix’s world is bizarre and emotionally intense, and his relationships all revolve around the circus. He has a mutual crush with a girl mime, but they rarely speak. When the circus elephant dies — a horrible tragedy for everyone — Fenix is thrown into extreme mourning. His father, trying in his own demented way to give him strength, carves a phoenix into his chest — indicating he is now a man. Masculinity and femininity are themes that will be revisited repeatedly throughout SANTA SANGRE.

When Concha sees Orgo and the tattooed lady canoodling, she reacts violently, pouring acid on her husband’s crotch; in retaliation, he cuts off Concha’s arms, transforming her into the saint she always praised. Then, robbed of his only tool to approach life, Orgo slits his own throat.

In the world of SANTA SANGRE, this notion of violence as the ultimate symbol of male masculinity is balanced by the infinite suffering of women — men are all sexual and physical aggressors in this universe, while women are all gentle martyrs, unintentionally absorbing the wickedness of testosterone. Having witnessed this violence firsthand, Fenix is committed to a mental institution.

Flash forward to the present: Fenix, now played by Axel Jodorowsky, breaks out of the asylum to join his now-armless mother as part of a circus act, wherein he acts as her arms via a behind-the-back pantomime as she sings — an arrangement they also enact backstage. Mother is now darker, more bitter, and frequently orders Fenix around. Fenix, meanwhile, finds he may have rediscovered his childhood crush (Sabrina Dennison), and that his own sexuality may just now be blossoming. It’s a dodgy proposition for such a damaged soul.

There are further twists, of course… but I will leave those for you to discover.

It’s been said that PSYCHO is the ultimate Freudian horror film — blending, as it does, the sexuality and personalities of a son and his mother. Given the backstory witnessed in the PSYCHO follow-ups and TV shows, this is starkly outlined even further. I would, however, argue that SANTA SANGRE seems to nail Freudian darkness more accurately. For one, it’s allowed to be fleshier, bloodier and sexier — this is an NC-17-rated film, after all — and when it comes to the bizarre sexual regard between a child and his parents, SANTA SANGRE takes a very frank approach. It’s not exploitative in an incestuous sort of way — but it is unblinking in its view of sexuality.

What’s more, we have the very potent symbol of a man literally behaving as his mother’s hands; as a child, he is the instrument of his mother’s will. In many ways, we are all the servants of our parents — whether we acknowledge it or not — and Jodorowsky uses psychedelic images, circus performances, pantomime, and other performance-based iconography to illustrate these roles. What was that quotation Shakespeare had about the world being a stage, and the men and women on it merely players? In keeping with this idea, Jodorowsky has crafted a metaphysical piece of horror surrealism that banks on our awareness of our own place in that drama.

While surrealism can sometimes be intellectually cold and emotionally distant, we sense an honesty from SANTA SANGRE we don’t get from, say, the aggressive politicking of Luis Buñuel. SANTA SANGRE is, in a very real sense, autobiographical — the mimetic performances, the circus details, and the undercurrent of angst all feel entirely too accurate to be mere artistic constructions. They are arch and weird, yes — but the emotions in the details are clearly very real. Jodorowsky, in short, knew what he was talking about.

But even if the Freudian discomfort doesn’t prick up your ears, SANTA SANGRE is an amazing film simply on a visceral level. The bright colors, the lakes of blood, the brutal violence, the pure performances — these are all ecstatic, bracing, and infinitely compelling. Getting lost in the film’s psychology provides a thrill, but that thrill would be academic were it not for the blood — the holy blood — that keeps us connected to the earth, and to the unavoidable fleshiness of each other’s bodies.

SANTA SANGRE is available on Blu-ray via Severin Films; purchase your copy here.