If you stopped me in the street like Billy Eichner with a microphone and screamed: “Who’s your favorite director?” I would likely say either Ranier Werner Fassbinder or Alejandro Jodorowsky. For the sake of this piece, we’ll pretend like this happened and that I answered with the latter. Alejandro Jodorowsky is possibly the most idiosyncratic filmmaker alive. None of his films could be considered boring, lackluster, or forgettable. This is why I was very happy to finally see SANTA SANGRE in the theater as part of Alamo Drafthouse NYC’s Weird Wednesdays series. Most of the time, in the New York reparatory world, if it’s a Jodorowsky movie, it’s going to be either El Topo or Holy Mountain that will be screened. As most of you know, El Topo was the first “midnight movie” to ever be shown to a wide audience in New York City, and while it is one of my favorite films of all time and I could likely talk about it for hours, that’s not what we’re here for today.
SANTA SANGRE is what I would classify as Jodorowsky’s stab at horror. While El Topo is a Western, Fando y Lis is (kind of) a romantic comedy and Holy Mountain is well… Holy Mountain; SANTA SANGRE is very firmly rooted in terror. As a lot of great horror films have done over the ages, its horror comes from what can be the most damaging of psychological places: childhood. The film is at its core about Fenix (played by both Adan and Axel Jodorowsky as a child and a young adult, respectively) growing up and coming to terms with his childhood traumas, which were plenty. Based partially on Jodorowsky’s real life experience of running away to join the circus as a teenager, the film’s set pieces are fantastic and the horror, though outlandish, is also quite saddening when you realize where it comes from.
I enjoy that the central character is played by both of Jodorowsky’s sons, because if you’ve seen any of his earlier films, they both look almost exactly like him. Fenix has a lot more baggage, as he grows older, all tied up in his vainglorious religious zealot mother (Blanca Guerra, whose performance is arguably the best in the film) who worships an (false?) armless saint and ends up being armless herself, at the hands of her husband. The incident begins when Fenix’s mother, Concha, catches Fenix’s father (Guy Stockwell) cheating with the circus’s tattooed woman (Thelma Tixou). Orgo, Fenix’s father gets physically injured in a gruesome way and cuts off Concha’s arms as revenge, then killing himself afterwards. Young Fenix is locked in a trailer and sees the whole thing. This results in his being institutionalized into adulthood until his mother breaks him out. Conversely, the tattooed woman has a charge, it’s unclear to me whether or not the girl is her child or not, but her name is Alma (Faviola Elenka Tapia/Sabrina Dennison) and she is deaf and mute. The tattooed woman treats her horribly, as a child and as a young adult. When Alma gets the chance to escape the tattooed woman, she sets out to find Fenix.
This film has the most straightforward narrative of Jodorowsky’s earlier canon, and I think that might be attributed to the fact that it was co-written by Claudio Argento (Dario’s brother, for those of you who don’t know). The murders are very much akin to those that happen in giallo, with a big focus on the hands, although the black gloves are traded in for red fingernails. You feel sorry for the killer more than you do for the victims, which is the hallmark of great horror writing. If you have never seen an Alejandro Jodorowsky film, I might suggest you start with this one and go backwards, to see how his chaotic storytelling evolved into this masterpiece. I highly suggest buying this film on DVD/Blu-ray if you haven’t seen it before. It’s of a quality that most horror or experimental films don’t regularly possess anymore. It gives Hitchcock and Argento a run for their money.
Join me at Alamo Drafthouse NYC in downtown Brooklyn next week for Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday, which will feature Demons (speaking of Argento) and Love Serenade respectively. If you can’t show up in person, stay tuned for my reviews!