Review: Santa Sangre / Cert: 18 / Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky / Screenplay: Roberto Leoni, Claudio Argento, Alejandro Jodorowsky / Starring: Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Guy Stockwell, Thelma Tixou, Sabrina Dennison / Release Date: November 5th
Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1970 film, El Topo is often credited as kick starting the 'midnight movie' scene and while the director has not been particularly prolific film wise (he was originally going to film Dune in the mid-70s), his CV includes acting, writing (including a stint on comic books) and spiritual guru. This 1989 film was a cult hit when it was first released, and looks set to have that reputation affirmed when it hits the screens again thanks to offbeat world cinema distributors Mr Bongo Films.
Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky, one of four of the director's sons appearing in the film) is in a sanatorium, struggling to communicate with the doctors, and the other patients; most of whom are Down syndrome sufferers. Having grown up working in the family business, a travelling circus where he was a young magician, his father Orgo (Stockwell), an overweight, drunken knife thrower with designs on his assistant, the tattooed lady (Tixou) much to the irritation of deeply religious (albeit a very off beat religion) mother, Concha (Guerra). His only friends are the assorted clowns, dwarfs and Alma (Dennison), the deaf mute daughter of the tattooed lady. When Concha catches Orgo in flagrante delicto, she tips a pot of acid on his crown jewels, sending him into a rage in which he cuts both her arms off and then promptly slits his own throat. Young Fenix has witnessed all this and will never be the same again.
Things take an upward turn for the troubled Fenix when his mother later turns up at the institute and he escapes. The pair set up in showbiz again, this time retelling religious tales on stage, Fenix gesturing with his arms thrust through the sleeves of her dresses, as she sensually tells the stories. Soon, his arms would be carrying out more sinister deeds for his domineering mother.
While not as baffling, analogical or surreal as El Topo, Santa Sangre is still full of symbolism, hallucinations, gore and general insanity. The basic narrative is pure slasher horror, but there is much more to enjoy, and read into, in a tale which covers family values, religious fanatism and personal identity amongst other things, but at no time in an exploitative way. Even Jodorwsky's use of real Down's Syndrome teens and circus performers is handled well. This is the sort of world David Lynch and Federico Fellini would take us to. Rather than revelling in the weirdness, it becomes completely natural. For every uneasy or unsettling moment there is a darkly humourous one. During an elaborate and emotional funeral procession for the circus' elephant the clowns squirt tears like a soda syphon, the animal's oversized coffin is dropped into a rubbish dump, only for it to be pounced upon and torn apart by starving scavengers.
While it's not especially easy viewing, and unquestionably not for all tastes, Santa Sangre is exhilarating, challenging, enigmatic and distressing, but entirely rewarding and entertaining.