Amongst the innumerable film directors that have come and gone over the roughly 100 years of motion picture history, there have always been a few who have stood out for being mavericks. Directors such as Samuel Fuller, Orson Welles, Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah made names for themselves by going against the established studio system, turning out films that expressed their personal passions rather than what the studios wanted. That’s not to say their counter-culture films were all good, but by the sheer fact that they were subversive to the ‘system’, they gained notoriety amongst the self-proclaimed cinematic cognoscenti.
Perhaps the most maverick of these maverick directors is Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean who operated mostly in France and Mexico, and was the consummate artiste. In a career dating back to the mid-1950s, Jodorowsky has been a puppeteer, a circus performer, a mime, a playwright, a film director, a novelist and a comic book author. Prolific as he may be, we all know that quantity doesn’t always equal quality, and so it is with Jodorowsky.
An early proponent of the surrealist film style, and getting his inspiration from genre legend Luis Bunuel, Jodorowsky saturates his films with his own brand of holier-than-thou social criticism that would be infuriatingly condescending if it weren’t for the lush and often shocking visuals that compliments them. I own Jodorowsky’s notorious “El Topo” and the surreal “Fando y Lis”, and I’ve seen “The Holy Mountain.” In each of those three films, I was struck by the complex, even inspired, visuals, but frustrated by the ponderous and often heavy-handed stories. Thus, I was intrigued to see what Jodorowsky could do with “Santa Sangre.” I was prepared for the full-on Jodorowsky weirdness, but was surprised, and perhaps a little disappointed, at just how conventional the film ultimately was.
“Santa Sangre” deals with paternal obsession and the terrible psychosis it inflicts on a severely and emotionally damaged boy (which sounds a lot like Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” doesn’t it?). The boy, Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky, one of the director’s own sons), is a performer in a circus. His mother Concha (Blanca Guerra) is a trapeze artist who swings from her own hair, and his father Orgo (Guy Stockwell) is a knife thrower who drinks way too much. To complicate matters, little Fenix is in puppy love with the Tattooed Woman’s deaf-mute daughter.
When the father isn’t busy getting drunk and making out with the Tattooed Women, he’s tying up Fenix and carving tattoos into his chest with a knife. Fenix’s mother, on the other hand, is a member of some strange cult that worships a woman who was attacked by two men who chopped off her arms, raped her and left her for dead in a pool of her own blood. One day, while performing her high-wire act, Concha spies Orgo making out with the Tattooed Woman. In a rage, she storms off the circus floor and follows Orgo to his tryst, where she grabs a bottle of sulfuric acid and douses Orgo’s jewels. Insane with pain and anger, Orgo grabs his knives, chops off Concha’s arms (how ironic), and then slits his own throat — all of it taking place in front of young Fenix.
Naturally, Fenix is a little messed up, and we find him in a mental hospital 20 years later. Through a twisted sequence of circumstances involving a group of Downs Syndrome kids, a drug dealing pimp, a dead elephant and a morbidly obese Madame, Fenix is reunited with not only the Tattooed woman, but her deaf-mute daughter and his now armless mother. What follows is a twisted tale of manipulation in the most literal sense, as Concha uses Fenix as her instrument of vengeance.
The film plays like “Psycho” as directed by Dario Argento, who was generally considered the ‘Italian Hitchcock.’ The classic Jodorowsky touches are all present, including vibrant imagery, odd characters, appalling situations and plenty of blasphemous commentary. The film displays a Fellini-esque celebration of the off-kilter side of life, with a generous helping of Freudian and Oedipal overtones. Jodorowsky even takes the opportunity to showcase his love of miming with some truly inspired sequences. Yet, despite all the imagery and symbolism, “Santa Sangre” is a fairly conventional gory slasher flick. It’s also easily Jodorowsky’s biggest budgeted film, showcasing some slick camera work and vivid sets.
Jodorowsky’s films are definitely an acquired taste, and casual viewers will be put off, perhaps even offended, by most of his work. Although “Santa Sangre” is his most accessible and mainstream film to date, it’s still weird enough to creep out the uninitiated, but not so weird as to scare them off.
Alejandro Jodorowsky (director) / Alejandro Jodorowsky, Roberto Leoni, Claudio Argento (screenplay)
CAST: Axel Jodorowsky …. Fe Nix
Blanca Guerra …. Concha
Guy Stockwell …. Orgo
Thelma Tixou …. The Tattooed Woman
Sabrina Dennison …. Alma