SANTA SANGRE (1989)

A former circus artist escapes from a mental hospital to rejoin his armless mother (the leader of a strange religious cult), and is forced to enact brutal murders in her name as he becomes "her arms"...
4 out of 5 stars

Santa Sangre is a volatile cocktail of lurid imagery and cruelly twisted characters. It’s so intensely harrowing at times that it borders on farce and puts one into an uncomfortable position, somewhere between a gasp of horror and nervous guffaw.

30 years on and it’s still a refreshingly unusual horror film, crammed with images that would be sickening if it weren’t for their raw beauty. It’s a shining example of just what can be achieved by a passionate filmmaker working outside of the Hollywood system. It still feels dangerous and has a habit of prodding the tender spots of one’s psyche. It feels like Grand Guignol, burlesque style; a deranged circus with a defrocked priest or maybe a disgruntled psychologist as its ringmaster. No surprise there then, as it springs from the mind of Mexico’s maestro of the seductively macabre, Alejandro Jodorowsky—who, among many things, was once a circus performer, psychologist, and to some a priest of sorts…

Can we approach Santa Sangre as autobiography? For Jodorowsky’s sake, I sincerely hope not!

The story is the biography of the fictional Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky) whom we first meet in an asylum for the insane. He’s nude and thinks he’s an eagle. He also has an image of this bird of prey ostentatiously tattooed across his chest. In one scene he joins a group of fellow inmates who are taken to the cinema to see Robinson Crusoe—a fellow castaway. But this group of vulnerable people is intercepted by a pimp (Teo Jodorowsky), who takes them to a fat prostitute and uses their cinema ticket money to pay. After deducting his own percentage, of course.

This experience and someone from his dark past glimpsed on the street triggers a flood of memories that overwhelm Fenix. In his imagination, he escapes in the form of an eagle and flies back in time, taking us with him to bear witness to his traumatic childhood and the events that put him in the madhouse…

As a young boy, he performed in the circus for his abusive father and ringmaster, Orgo (Guy Stockwell), a grossly overweight alcoholic who seems to get vicarious sexual kicks through his knife-throwing act and, so we’re told, is incognito having once killed a woman in the US. This is a late career role for Stockwell, who was a popular hunk of 1960s TV soaps and 1970s detective series, bearing more than a passing resemblance to his brother Dean. Though perhaps not so much here, as he plays the lecherous lothario Orgo as some kind of primal beast whose rhinestone jackets and long blond wig just make him look even sleazier.

Concha (Blanca Guerra), his wife and mother of Fenix is the trapeze artist who also has a sideline as a religious cult leader in a local church. They worship a teenage girl who was raped and dismembered by her attackers and proclaimed her a saint. Their shanty church is built on the spot where she died, around a pool of her holy blood that never dries. Allegedly. The cult has been designated heretical by the local Monsignor and, as the bulldozers move in to demolish the tin church and make way for development, she clings to the wooden statue of their armless saint. Fenix rushes into the collapsing church and, in turn, flings his arms around his mother in an attempt to save her. She seems to come to her senses and leaves just in time, in order to save her son.

Well, that’s your assignment this week: discuss. There is so much symbolism crammed into the first 20-minutes to teach the likes of Federico Fellini a thing or two! The arms and the lack of arms motif is a central one here and a clear reference to Jesus and the crucifixion, an essential ingredient for any Jodorowsky film!

So, the young Fenix (Adan Jodorowsky) is already likely to be ‘scarred for life’ and relies on his best friend Aladdin (Jesús Juárez), the circus dwarf, for moral support. He’s also immediately taken with the new act, Alma (Faviola Elenka Tapia), a young deaf-mute mime who’s being trained by the jealousy cruel illustrated lady. Alma and Fenix immediately find solace in each other’s company, but he’s not allowed to enjoy his newfound happiness at feeling ‘first love’ for long. He watches another of his best friends, the old circus elephant, haemorrhage to death. As a way of comforting his weeping boy, Orgo takes him aside and carves the eagle motif into his chest with a knife to, as he explains, “make him a man,” as he is.

Okay, so far so traumatic… but you ain’t seen nothing yet!

The circus setting, which sits comfortably in the Nick Cave-style Carney landscape, is drawn from the director’s own life experience. After shunning a career in psychology, he joined the circus and trained as a clown and formed his own troupe! This was a successful career move for him and he eventually ended up in Paris working with world-famous mime-artist Marcel Marceau and writing several of his routines. ‘The Creation of the World’ scenario, originally performed by Marceau, is re-imagined and performed by Fenix and his mother on stage, albeit laced with lashings of Catholic guilt.

I know it’s not unusual to dislike clowns, so although I appreciate their long tradition they’ve always made me slightly nauseous. I mean they’re basically ‘the loser’ we’re given license to laugh at. It’s alright for us to behave like a bunch of ringside bullies. I understand they’re supposed to be tinged with sadness and the inherent cruelty is intentional. It’s said that the day you stop laughing at clowns and start crying with them marks the end of your childhood. It’s similar to how nursery rhymes and fairy tales seem darker the older you get.

Santa Sangre is a fairy tale populated with familiar archetypal figures and motifs. That’s no accident and won’t surprise anyone who’s seen Jodorowsky’s two earlier surrealists ventures, El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973). It may seem to some that his use of Freudian metaphor is contrived, but he maintains that the images he uses to tell his stories come to him purely through imagination, yet he strives to realise those dreamlike images as accurately as he possibly can. For example, Sabrina Dennison, who plays the grown-up Alma, is a deaf actress who impressed Jodorowsky in a play about Helen Keller. Santa Sangre marked her screen debut and Dennison continued acting, mainly in theatre, to later become the world’s leading Director of Artistic Sign Language for live productions.

There are plenty of outrageous characters—conmen, cut-throats, home-wreckers, whores, back-stabbing fools, unconscious murdering tools (to quote lyrics from the Circle Jerks song “I and I”)—and one of the most memorable is the tattooed lady, who’s pretty much the catalyst for the psychological drama that plays out through the narrative. So, it may strike the viewer as a little odd that her tattoos appear to be fake. They are.

Although Jodorowsky endeavoured to find the right woman with the right tattoos, he wanted to avoid recognisable motifs and explicit symbolism. The illustrated lady’s designs had to be only natural forms, animals and plants, like a wild jungle. A sublime beauty, attractive in a primal sort of way, yet rife with hidden dangers, from ticks to tigers. As one can imagine, it was an impossible task to find an actress of the right shape and raw sexuality with exactly the right sort of all-over tattoos.

He found the woman with the suitably striking figure in Thelma Tixou, a superstar of Mexican Burlesque awarded the rare title of ‘First Vedette’. For those unfamiliar with that term, as I was, a ‘Vedette’ is the female star of a major cabaret-style stage show who’s mastered multiple stage crafts that must include singing, dancing, and acting. A ‘first’ vedette will also be well-versed in most circus skills (such as conjuring, juggling, stand-up, physical comedy, performing with trained animals), and on top of all that must have a strong and sexy stage presence. Tixou certainly ticked all the right boxes and, at the age of 45, had more than 30 years ‘vedetting’ experience, having started her career aged 13 in Buenos Aires. So, the tattoos may be greasepaint, but the actress is certainly the real deal!

The fake tattoos also serve an important purpose of drawing our attention to the artifice of surface and the illusion that cinema has relied upon. We see a world up there on the screen but, of course, it’s nothing but patterns of light moving across a flat plane. This has been an enduring problem in the wider world of fine art for centuries. How can an artist show a truth about a person when they’re only dealing with an image of that person’s outer surface, painted onto another surface?

In our era of the selfie and self-obsessed social media, it’s more obvious than ever that we are more than we appear to be. Okay, sometimes less! But how can a simple representation of a person’s exterior convey anywhere near enough information? Traditionally, artists have used symbolism, including details that give hints about the life of the subject, plants or animals are ascribed meanings that in some way represent attributes the subject had or wished to have. With tattoos, an individual is attempting to take ownership of their bodily vessel and express something of what may be within, by adorning it with symbols that they, or others, have ascribed meaning to.

Likewise, a film remains simply patterns on a wall until those shapes are given recognisable form and ascribed meanings. To bring any depth to those meanings, the forms must be carefully choreographed to become what film theorists call ‘signifiers’. What those signifiers actually ‘signify’, is culturally dependent and can be interpreted differently by each viewer, depending on associations linked to their own background and life experience. Analysing a film can be approached in much the same way as a psychologist may analyse a client, and this is perhaps more so in the case of Santa Sangre.

Now, this all starts to become relevant to the films of Jodorowsky when we’re reminded that he’s a qualified psychologist who shunned his formal training and instead practised his own brand of therapy known as ‘Psychomagic’. There’s plenty of info and interviews with him about this online, so I won’t go into it now… but, clearly, he’s fascinated with how the inner world of the self and the outer world of consensus ‘reality’ interact. He also places very great importance on the psychological constructs we build when we engage in dreams, art, and religion. He’s very interested in dreams, highly critical of religion, and champions art above all else, which he considers a high form of magic.

The film’s subtext is driven by his belief that we really need to be aware of how our subconscious motivates our desires in life. He asserts that if we are honest with ourselves, we really do know what we want. Our desires may be strange. They may even be unacceptable to the community in which we live, but whatever they are, the only path to mental health is to realise those desires as fully as we possibly can.

Sounds a bit dangerous, right? No, he’s not advocating that we should act out our darkest desires for real, no matter what they are. (I think Santa Sangre could be taken as a cautionary tale in that respect!) For one thing, we just wouldn’t have time to fulfil every desire we have, so it’s important to focus on those that will lead us to freedom and happiness.

He also points out that our desires are within us and intangible—they are expressed through feelings, thoughts, and dreams and we can make them come true in the real world through our art. He believes that film is, or at least has the potential to be the highest art-form because it most resembles our dreams. What goes on beneath the surface and beyond the screen isn’t reality but a reflection of the reality we can all see and share. Perhaps expressing and sharing is more important than understanding?

The weird, almost trippy imagery of Santa Sangre maintains its power because Jodorowsky struggled for authenticity throughout. Nearly all the street scenes were shot on real streets, with no filming license, and the extras were the local residents. They reflected the demographics of the neighbourhood—so yes, real pimps, pushers, and prostitutes were among them, although the main pimp was played by one of the director’s three sons who are in the film. The circus troupe were circus performers, the clowns were clowns, Aladdin is clearly a genuine small person.

At the time, there was some controversy surrounding the use of actors with Downs syndrome, but it has since become the politically correct thing to have characters with a disability played by actors with that disability if possible. Cast and crew spent hours socialising with the Downs actors and getting to know them so they would feel comfortable and relaxed enough to deliver convincing performances.

When asked about the memorable funeral parade for the elephant, which comes across as very dream-inspired, he recounts how he even managed to make that real. When the huge coffin—an adapted skip—is tipped into the refuse ravine, the mob who descend hungrily upon it were all people who really lived on Mexico’s rubbish tips. Their clay smeared faces did not need make-up as they do this for protection whilst scavenging under the scorching sun. Jodorowsky stopped short of actually putting the elephant in the coffin, assuring us the animal actor was returned safely to the zoo where it lived. He did fill the huge casket with raw meat and the non-actors were desperate enough that they didn’t need direction, they broke open the coffin and ate the fresh meat for real.

When Orgo gets it on with the illustrated woman, his wife spies them for her elevated viewpoint as she dangles from her hair as part of her act, which she cuts short. In her fury, she interrupts them and douses Orgo’s crotch with acid, effectively castrating him. His retaliation is swift and brutal as he pins his wife to his knife throwing board and slices off both her arms in a parody of her beloved rape victim saint. He then staggers out of his tent and cuts his own throat with the same knives. Pretty intense stuff and, understandably, the adolescent Fenix is confused about normal adult relationships from then on. It’s like his newly developed Oedipal complex has been violently acted out before his eyes!

For the rest of the film, Fenix (which you can pronounce ‘Phoenix’ if you prefer) has a hard time separating hallucination from reality, memories form real time, and his own thoughts from those of others. And because we’re carried along by his fever dream, we can never wholly rely on things being as they seem. Just like a dream, they seem real until the dream ends. Concha is the central conundrum in the plot as she manipulates her grown-up son to team-up with her and put on an unusual mime act where she provides the narration whilst Fenix stands behind her and performs her gestures, his arms becoming hers.

It seems at times she also shares his hallucinations and criticises them for being so pedestrian and tedious. It treads the same fertile ground as Roger Christian’s The Sender (1982), but I have to say it lacks that film’s timidity when it comes to the strong Freudian undercurrent as Concha’s possessive, controlling personality swamps that of Fenix and she commands him to kill any woman he’s aroused by. One of the most haunting sequences involves Fenix being confronted by the ghosts of all his past victims as they rise from their graves to demand an apology…

Around the same time Jodorowsky was finding success in Paris as a clown he also began diversifying his career, first as a stage director for famous French singer Maurice Chevalier, who also starred in a string of films including Gigi (1958). He then began dabbling in films with his debut La Cravate (1957), also known as Les Têtes Interverties/The Severed Heads. The film attracted the eye of artist-director Jean Cocteau who volunteered to write the introduction for it. It was thought that no prints of the film survived, but one eventually surfaced in 2006 and you can watch the 20-minute experimental short in its entirety here. Warning: may contain mime!

His film debut represents an important stepping-stone in Jodorowsky’s career and the seeds of his latest style, both as a filmmaker and comic-book creator. It’s essentially a silent movie and demonstrates his ability to tell his existential stories through evocatively stacked images. In France, he became very well known as a mime and theatre director before later achieving national hero status as one of their most revered writers of cutting-edge comic-books.

This approach resounds through El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Both are collections of surreal vignettes, rather than traditional linear narratives, that accrue deeper meanings through their juxtaposition. In this way, he aligns himself closely with surrealist cinema, such as the definitive Un Chien Andalou (1929) made by Luis Buñuel with Salvador Dalí.

With Santa Sangre, Jodorowsky pulled together different strands from his repertoire of styles and techniques. The surreal, religion-tinged imagery of his earlier ‘signature films’, his ability to structure and meaningfully sequence narrative imagery from his experience producing graphic novels, plus the unspoken power of expressionistic acting.

Santa Sangre can almost be read like a sumptuous graphic novel as it moves along from one beautifully lit and coloured frame to the next as a collection of short chapters, perhaps equivalent to a series of several double-page spreads in a comic-book, or one ‘splash page’ after another. A parade of images that will be indelibly etched into the memory of the viewer. For this reason, it’s probably the best Jodorowsky film for the uninitiated to start with. If one can handle its extremes and unconventional approach, then his other works will seem more accessible and rewarding.

Having said that, Santa Sangre remains an intense experience and isn’t for the fainthearted. Though it can be compared with the films of early surrealism, which also contained many a disturbing image, it sits better alongside movies from the horror and slasher genres. One of its central themes is one’s hands doing the will of another, a broad metaphor of the mind being populated with thoughts that are not your own, or living your life according to values inherited from others—your parents, priests, teachers, and bosses.

It owes a great debt to classic Universal horror films of the 1930s, not least The Invisible Man (1933) starring Claude Raines, with which Fenix is obsessed and re-enacts in his basement, and Warner Bros.’s The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) starring Peter Lorre. In some ways, Santa Sangre could be discussed as ‘cinema-cinema’—a term coined by Sergio Leone, by which he meant films that consciously draw upon film history to create a meta-layer of meaning, built-up from visual quotes and the clever reworking of established themes. Santa Sangre also evokes Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and Herk Harvey’s cult favourite Carnival of Souls (1962).

It also has much in common with the Cinema of Transgression, which was a lively underground scene during the 1980s. Typified by the films of No Wave auteurs like Beth B, Richard Kern, and Nick Zed, these films harked back to a grindhouse trash aesthetic and unapologetically tackled fringe themes—often featuring psycho-sexual murder sprees, perversion, drug-fueled mayhem, self-destruction, and Lydia Lunch! Generally, they were guerrilla films using non-actors and closely associated with New York punk.

The clowns of Santa Sangre, though creepy for sure, are rare examples that have character beyond the greasepaint and are portrayed with a subtle sensitivity that elicits sympathy. I can only think of one other example, the clown Paul Beaumont in MGM’s debut feature He Who Gets Slapped (1924), which owed its power to a bravura performance from the great Lon Chaney. (Perhaps Robert Powell in the lead role of Harlequin (1980) if harlequins count as clowns? But I digress…) This sensitivity almost certainly harks back to Jodorowsky’s own time in a circus, even before he developed a passion for mime honed with Marcel Marceau.

An exercise in Psychomagic maybe, but, ultimately, Santa Sangre is a super-stylish, delightfully schlocky slasher film that shares ingredients with many of Dario Argento’s gialli. It has a psycho-killer driven by childhood trauma and a series of gruesome, Grand Guignol death scenes. The murder of the illustrated lady, with its unseen perpetrator delivering multiple slashes as she staggers through a scene bathed in red light, would not seem out of place if spliced into Suspiria (1977).

That’s not the only connection here. Santa Sangre is a Mexican-Italian co-production and produced by Dario’s younger brother, Claudio Argento, who also lent a hand with the screenplay. Claudio had also worked with Dario and their father, Salvatore, as a producer on most of Dario’s key-works: Profondo Rosso (1975), Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980) and Tenebrae (1982). The original music was also composed by Simon Boswell, who scored many a cult favourite including Argento’s Phenomena (1985). I think it was these connections with Italian cult cinema that first attracted me to this strange Mexican horror movie, and then seeing it at a late-night screening at London’s Scala cinema, introduced by No-Wave icon and confrontationist Lydia Lunch… Oh, what a circus, what a show that was!

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Alejandro Jodorowsky.
writers: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Roberto Leoni & Claudio Argento.
starring: Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Adan Jodorowsky, Guy Stockwell & Thelma Tixou.

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