Older Film Reviews: ‘Santa Sangre’ (1989)

There are movies that take you from point A to point B and there are those that take you from Point XG5 to Point GDT. Between these two walks Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Santa Sangre”; while it takes overly-long, difficult, trippy detours, you’ll see that the trip’s destination is more familiar than you thought.

Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky, the director’s son) perches upon a tree within a mental institution. After a close-up of his chest’s eagle tattoo, the film transitions to a flashback. His younger days in a circus contained his acrobatic mother, Concha (Blanca Guerra), his knife-throwing father, Orgo (Guy Stockwell), and his love interest, Alma (Sabrina Dennison). After a fight between Orgo and Concha over Orgo’s infidelity leaves Concha armless and Orgo dead, Fenix seems doomed to spend the rest of his life behind walls. But Concha reappears from a fog and recruits him, ready to reclaim her fame and her dear boy’s affections. Concha uses Fenix’s arms in her dance show, when she’s not using them to kill women.

This film, even with its scenes of intellectually disabled people snorting cocaine, has a familiar, “Psycho”-esque tinge when it comes to Fenix and Concha. But it isn’t just a retread of oedipal territory. The film’s weirdness also explores—to the point of becoming overstretched and bogged down—Americanism, violence, and gender identity, just to name a few ideas. The garish colors of cinematographer Daniele Nannuzzi and the set decorations of Enrique Estévez, which distill symbolism from a low-budget (the film was made on an estimated $787,000) look, give full power to these ideas. The pool of blood in a church dedicated to an armless “saint”, and the red lights that flash during the struggle between Orgo and Concha, all construct a threatening atmosphere. Symbols of America reappear throughout too: Fenix’s murderous, philandering dad proudly wears red, white, and blue and carves a bald eagle into his son’s chest. But just when I start thinking that Mr. Jodorowsky is portraying American masculinity as violent, the Hispanic Concha feminizes Fenix with red fingernails and makes him kill women…with phallic blades that his dad used.

These visual symbols shuttle between being obvious and being confusing. But this manic vision propels the film since the actors, while visually colorful, are emotionally monochrome. There are exceptions. Guerra’s wild eyes and hysterical, hoarse voice fit the domineering mother well. In their scenes together, she physically and emotionally dominates the bloodless Axel Jodorowsky. But all of their personalities are quick sketches. The guiltiest is Dennison; her Alma is a dumb-mute waif who only exists to be mistreated and to heal the emotionally wounded Fenix.

Santa Sangre gets points for not caring about slasher-horror film conventions, that’s for sure. But it would have been great if Jodorowsky’s tale had put less emphasis on the disorienting breadth of ideas and more on their depth. It would have made “Santa Sangre” less insane, but, when I peeled away the flashy bizarreness, I found a not-so-crazy story anyway.

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