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The Cult Club: Santa Sangre (1989)

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[The Cult Club is where Flixist’s writers expound the virtues of their favourite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]

I first saw Santa Sangre in high school and still have my VHS copy of the movie. One of the regulars at a video store I worked at recommended it to me. She sold me on the film with just a single sentence: “There’s a scene where a woman pours sulfuric acid on her husband’s dick, and then he chops off her arms.”

When it was announced at Cannes that Alejandro Jodorowsky would make the film, he hadn’t made a movie in several years. In fact, he hadn’t made a movie he was proud of in more than 10 years. His previous film was Tusk, a bumbling Indian production about a girl and her pet elephant. It bore none of the surrealism and mysticism that marked his most famous films, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, both of which are canonical works of cult cinema.

A journalist at Cannes told Jodorowsky that he’d be rusty as a filmmaker. Jodorowsky replied that a rusty blade is twice as deadly — it can cut you and also poison you.

Technically my first encounter with Alejandro Jodorowsky came by way of Eddie Murphy. A line from Santa Sangre appeared in the song “Whatzupwitu,” a 1993 duet with Michael Jackson. “The elephant is dying,” says a sad clown, and in thumps that 90s bassline groove. In the Jodorowsky film, the line is one of many potent declarations of childhood’s end. In the Murphy song, it’s just a bit of preface to a hackneyed declaration of earth’s renewal. (“Party All the Time” this is not.) There’s also a shot in Pulp Fiction that’s very similar to one in Santa Sangre, and it was probably intentional.

It’s all so fitting. There’s the poison of Jodorowsky’s rusty knife working its way into various veins, sure, but there’s also this play of disparate ideas and how they influence each other. A lot of what’s going on in Santa Sangre is a series of collisions and references. The Boston Globe likened the movie to Luis Buñuel remaking Psycho. There’s a moment in which James Whale’s The Invisible Man is recreated while it plays in the background. There’s a murder scene that perfectly evokes the work of Dario Argento, from the stark colors to the shots of the killer’s hands. (Claudio Argento, Dario’s brother and frequent collaborator, produced Santa Sangre.) The movie’s soundtrack is a mix of mambo hits, organ grinders, and synthetic orchestras. It’s an Italian production filmed in the seediest parts of Mexico City, dubbed into English mostly by Italian voice actors faking Mexican accents.

The film itself was born from a run-in with a notorious Mexican criminal. While in a cafe in Mexico, a man named Gregorio Cárdenas Hernández went up to Jodorowsky to tell him he was a fan of the weekly comic strips he was doing in a local paper. Hernández was a real-life serial killer who murdered four women, including his girlfriend. He had been successfully rehabilitated by the Mexican prison system, which made him a bit of a celebrity.

It’s the idea of murder and forgiveness that’s at the heart of Santa Sangre, easily Jodorowsky’s most coherent film. But Jodorowsky gives the story his own stamp, creating a madcap a circus of the deadly and surreal. You will get your fix of freaks, deformities, sex, derring-do, and spirit.

The film centers on a shell-shocked man named Fenix, played by Jodorowsky’s son Axel. At the beginning, he’s perched naked atop a tree inside a large room in an asylum. He eats a raw fish and spaces out. What follows in the next 40 minutes is a remarkable flashback. It’s not as crazy as the introductory section of The Holy Mountain (few things are), but it’s emotionally wrought and filled with compelling weirdness.

We learn about Fenix’s childhood in the circus, where he’s played by Axel’s younger brother Adan. His mother (Blanca Guerra) was a trapeze artist and religious fanatic who worshiped a blasphemous armless saint. His father (Guy Stockwell), a knife thrower and drunk, owned the circus and fled from America after killing a woman. When he’s not waddling in a daze, he’s ogling the tattooed lady (the imposing and stunning Thelma Tixou), who is eager to bend over and present to him like a dog in heat. One night, Fenix watches his parents murder each other in a fit of rage and jealousy. It’s the sulfuric acid and arm cutting scene I mentioned earlier. His young mind breaks from the violence.

We’re back in the asylum again. Fenix hears his mother’s voice out the window. She’s somehow alive. She stands there on the street, armless like her saint. Fenix escapes and becomes her arms. She’s completely domineering, controlling every aspect of his life, even accessing all of his thoughts. (Whenever Fenix stood behind his mother in the film, Guerra had her arms behind her back with her hands gripping Axel’s testicles. Perfect!)

Rest assured, I haven’t really spoiled anything. I think that’s one of the great appeals of Jodorowsky’s films for me. I’m never quite sure what will happen next, but whatever it is, it will usually blow me away. In The Holy Mountain, for instance, we watch a woman bring a giant robot to orgasm with a seven-foot dildo. There are plenty of weird detours and alleys in the story of Santa Sangre, and like Mexico City, the side streets are dark, sketchy, sometimes nightmarish and always dreamlike.

One such unexpected street is the elephant funeral. It’s one of the most unforgettable things I have ever seen in a film. (And clearly Eddie Murphy thought so too.) There’s a procession comprised of the entire circus. Even the clowns are dressed in somber black, some of them with powerful streams of tears shooting from heir eyes like novelty squirting flowers. There’s a massive coffin hauled by a truck, and a black and white American flag. This is capped by a moment so cartoon-like and unexpected that it goes from mere oddness to something like poetry, albeit dusty, brutal, desperate poetry. Following this funeral for childhood, there’s a bloody initiation into the world of man. It really needs to be seen rather than described.

And then there’s the tandem pantomime between Fenix and his mother. Jodorowsky was a student of Marcel Marceau, and wrote this routine for him to perform. Axel was also a student of Marceau, and his hands undulate like ribbons caught in the wind. It’s a moment of memorably strange beauty, part of Jodorowsky’s attempt to make images that cannot be disregarded. Again, maybe it’s silly at first, but there is such a poetry to it. It speaks to me in this odd way that isn’t intellectual. Watching Santa Sangre for the first time as a teenager, I experienced the kind of perplexed awe that you get from watching a magic show. With each odd trick, I thought both “How did he do that?” and also “You can do that?”

Jodorowosky called Santa Sangre his first emotional picture. He’s claims to have always made films with his testicles, but he considers El Topo and The Holy Mountain heady. They’re steeped in the tarot, mythic ideas, and religious/spiritual symbols. He feels Santa Sangre is a heart movie by comparison. It’s still heady, of course. There’s some blatant Freud in there and the usual spiritual concerns, but it’s a film tied to memory and childhood. Jodorowsky’s own father worked in the circus, and bits of autobiography likely slipped in, even if veiled in metaphors. All the torment of growing up is fuel for the 40-minute flashback. It also provides direction for the remainder of the film, which is all about repression, revenge, and the possibility of redemption.

Santa Sangre is also a movie about family relationships and his bond to his children. Four of Jodorowsky’s own sons appear in the film. In addition to Axel and Adan, there’s Brontis in a small role as an asylum doctor. As a boy, Brontis played the title character’s son in El Topo, which mostly involved him walking through the desert with his dad, naked except for a hat. There’s also Teo Jodorowsky as a pimp. It was Teo’s only film role. He died not long after the making of Santa Sangre, and the pain of the loss made Jodorowsky avoid any viewings of the film for years.

It’s Jodorowsky’s most personal film in another way. In numerous interviews, he’s said that making Santa Sangre made him less of a narcissist and less of a misogynist. I wonder if any of it had to do with his practice of psychomagic. Psychomagic is a type of surrealist psychotherapy that states that the unconscious mind takes metaphorical acts as a factual ones. At a lecture Jodorowsky gave in New York City, he said that if you had issues with your father, one therapeutic approach would be to stomp on a watermelon and send him the mushy remains. It’s a blend of convulsive art and emotional sublimation, which is maybe just another way of describing what Jodorowsky has been doing his entire career.

Though I don’t subscribe to the idea of psychomagic, I can at least understand its potency on some level. (It sounds silly, but, you know, silly things have the potential to become poetic.) Images are extremely important to us, as are various kinds of symbols. To see such resonant things play out on screen or on in a book or in a song moves us in an uncanny way. We get a little chill of recognition, like something inside has been stoked. It’s not like we’re just receiving stimuli, but we’re in this silent conversation with the work which reflects something of ourselves back to us.

I mentioned that watching Santa Sangre for the first time was like watching a magic trick. I tend to feel that way about any work that speaks to my own sensibilities. It just happens that those sensibilities involve things that are strange but genuine, because that’s what our winding, unpredictable emotional and intellectual lives are like. Watching Santa Sangre all those years ago, I felt the same feeling I did when I started reading Clive Barker in middle school or Italo Calvino in college — that I wasn’t quite so alone in the world, and that an act of creation can bring a sense of personal relief. That’s a little bit of psychomagic, maybe.

And while making me feel reassured, Jodorowsky was simultaneously planting new obsessions in my mind that have metastasized over time: elephants, magicians, circuses, flexible women built like Raquel Welch, and so on. Watching the film again and again, I find more of his fingerprints on my imagination, as if he’s some kind of surrogate creative father. It’s like he’d enfolded me into some great paternal hug and ushered me out of high school into adulthood, and only as I’d pulled away did I notice that the son of a bitch had stabbed me repeatedly. But that’s what happens when you wander at night through the Mexico City of the mind.


Next Month… We’ll have a look at The Apple (1980), the Citizen Kane of kitschy, future-dystopia rock musicals.

PREVIOUSLY SHOWING AT THE CULT CLUB

March:Tideland (2005)

February:House (1977)

January: They Live (1988)

December:Jingle All the Way (1996)

November: The Blood Trilogy (1963-1965)

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.