Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre is the kind of film that makes you fall in love with cinema. Even though it’s almost exactly two hours, it feels longer – not because it’s dull or slow, but because it’s so full to bursting with different styles, genres and stories that it seems impossible that it could all fit inside a two-hour movie. It’s a four-hour sprawling epic that is somehow, through some kind of time warp, only two hours long.
Jodorowsky has one of the most interesting lead sections in the history of Wikipedia, which states that he “has worked as a novelist, screenwriter, a poet, a playwright, an essayist, a film and theater director and producer, an actor, a film editor, a comics writer, a musician and composer, a philosopher, a puppeteer, a mime, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, a draughtsman, a painter, a sculptor, and a spiritual guru.” In 1970, he directed the acid western El Topo, which became a cult hit on the back of support from John Lennon, who convinced Allen Klein to distribute the film in the United States. Klein funded Jodorowsky’s next film, The Holy Mountain, before they fell out over a potential adaptation of Story of O. By the time Jodorowsky made Santa Sangre in 1989, he hadn’t directed a film in eight years, and that film – children’s fable Tusk, never given a wide release – had been his first film since The Holy Mountain in 1973.
It would be easy to imagine Santa Sangre being a bit creaky, to feel like it was made while its director got back into his rhythms. But it’s not only a confident production, it’s audacious. It’s such a mad melding of such disparate styles and genres and periods that it feels, in some ways, like the culmination of the whole art form. It’s Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus and Luis Buñuel’s surrealist films and Hitchcock’s Psycho, featuring a very moving elephant funeral and a bunch of guys with Down’s syndrome doing cocaine, all shot in gorgeously rich, bold colours. The dialogue is sparse enough that it feels like a silent film. It’s funny and gross and wonderful. It’s cinema itself.
Fenix, played by two of Jodorowsky’s sons (Adán as a child, Axel as an adult), is a boy magician raised in the circus. His father Orgo is a knife thrower and his mother Concha is an acrobat, while Alma, a deaf-mute girl who is a mime and tightrope walker, is the object of his affections. We spend a good forty minutes or so with Fenix as a child at the circus. It feels like a fairytale: something old and strange and by turns sweet and dark. There isn’t any magic – even out-there stuff like the elephant funeral is basically within the bounds of possibility – but the stylisation, the mingling of circus and carnival imagery with Catholic iconography, imbues the world with magic anyway. Concha is the leader of a religious cult that worships an uncanonised saint – a girl whose arms were cut off by rapists – whose church is about to be demolished. She insists to the Catholic Monsignor that the red pool in the centre of their church is “santa sangre” (holy blood), but he says that it’s just red paint. It is, I suppose, a commentary on gender in the Catholic Church. But mostly, it fizzles with an unlimited imagination, as the whole film does – generating beautiful and grotesque images that cut right to the core in ways that can’t be articulated.
Orgo cheats on Concha with a tattooed lady: the woman he throws knives at as part of his sexualised routine. When Concha sees them together, suspended in the air by her ponytail, she demands to be lowered to the ground. She attacks Orgo and the tattooed lady, throwing acid on Orgo’s genitals. He cuts both of her arms off, just like her saint, and then kills himself.
Fenix sees it all. He watches helplessly, locked inside the family’s trailer, banging against the windows. When we meet him again as an adult, he lives in a mental asylum, seemingly having had a psychotic break. In one scene, he perches naked on a branch, while doctors offer him food – one normal meal and one whole raw fish – and he screams wordlessly at the meal and chooses the raw fish. Suddenly the film is, however briefly, basically One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
After seeing the tattooed lady by chance, Fenix’s memories return. He escapes from the asylum and meets up with his armless mother. (It doesn’t take long: she’s right outside his window.) Here is where we see the shift into out-and-out horror. Fenix becomes Concha’s missing arms: allowing his own arms to take the place of hers both in elaborate dance routines on the vaudeville circuit and in everyday domestic tasks. Fenix submits his will to Concha’s so thoroughly that his arms move with a spooky synchronicity, like she has more control over them than he does. It’s both, at a technical level, very beautiful – the kind of bone-deep satisfaction you get from Gene Kelly tap dancing on roller skates – and extremely creepy.
At night, he seduces women, getting them to take part in the same sexualised knife throwing routine that his dad performed with the tattooed lady. In each case, Concha forces him to kill them. “I’m not asking you,” she tells him, “I’m ordering. My hands. To kill her.” It’s suddenly a slasher movie, not instead of all those things it was before, but in addition to them. The links to Psycho are obvious – Fenix’s pathologies are a close cousin to grandfather of all slasher villains, Norman Bates – but Santa Sangre isn’t just interested in slasher movies’ older, classier relative. It has a taste for gore that feels rooted both in Italian giallo films and American horror films from the 1980s. Roger Ebert wrote about it as a refutation of what he called Dead Teenager Movies, reminding us of the possibility for horror on-screen. But it seems, to me, more like a celebratory participant in exactly the kind of gory slashers that Ebert reviled: twisting them up with Buñuel and Chaplin and Fellini and Hitchcock in Jodorowsky’s mad cinematic tapestry.