Thanks to the runaway success of El Topo (1970) on the midnight movie circuit, Alejandro Jodorowsky will always be viewed as a cult director par excellence. His 1989 masterpiece Santa Sangre – now available on a Blu-ray release bursting with extras – confirms that he is that and more.
After a short, arresting prologue in which we meet Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky) – a naked madman who, under the impression that he is an eagle, sits perched atop a tree-trunk within his cell and eats raw fish – we are taken on a lengthy excursion into his traumatic boyhood. His father – a knife thrower rejoicing in the name of El Gran Orgo – recruits a tattooed lady into his circus troupe, then falls under her spell while his jealous wife looks on in fury. The affair’s denouement is violent and bloody with young Fenix (a heartbreaking performance from Adan Jodorowsky) present to witness every blistering detail.
Back in the present day, on a cinema outing with his fellow inmates Fenix stumbles upon the hated tattooed lady once again. Burning with a desire for vengeance, he encounters his mother (the entrancing Blanca Guerra), escapes the clinic, and revives his circus career. But when a sexy burlesque dancer warms to Fenix, his mother disapproves. The trollop has to go and it’s time to think about finding a nice, secluded burial plot with room for multiple graves.
The first half hour of Sante Sangre shows Jodorowsky at his best. Its melange of the sublime, the absurd and the horrifying – a white horse tethered to the chrome bumper of a 50s Pontiac, the funeral of an elephant which ends with hungry locals setting upon the corpse, the defence of a chapel from developers that results in farce when an investigating bishop discovers that its spring of holy blood is coloured with red paint – has the exhilarating free-associative quality of Fellini’s Amarcord (1973) but with Jodorowsky’s own unique insights.
Swaggering through these sequences is Orgo (Guy Stockwell). Grossly overweight, dressed in sparkling rhinestones and fitted out with a blond wig and mascara, he is a walking joke but also a haunted man (he’s said to have killed a girl in America). Given to communicating in grunts and growls, his true medium of expression is knife-play. When young Fenix cries at the elephant’s funeral, Orgo takes the boy aside and pricks out a tattoo on his chest, an initiation that will make his son a man. As he goes to work with his knife, the boy weeps and the blood flows, but it’s a perverse act of tenderness that somehow convinces you that there is a caring father beneath the clownish make-up. In that one scene Jodorowsky defines the relationship between pain, love and family.
Settling down into a revenge drama with plenty of macabre laughs, the last hour can’t sustain this pitch of initial inspiration, but Axel Jodorowsky drives the storyline onwards with his tortured lead performance. A sequence where Fenix romances a musclebound female wrestler is perhaps a misstep, but otherwise the director delights with his baroque invention and eye for detail – the wilting paper skeletons that litter the street the morning after a party, the floppy-eared animal costume that serves as a body bag for the dead burlesque dancer. Helping to drive these images even deeper is a luscious Latin-flavoured soundtrack of dance numbers and heartfelt laments. While Stockwell and Guerra tower over the other actors, Thelma Tixou is eye-catching as the tattooed lady (her wordless seduction of Orgo is like the mating ritual of a grotesquely enlarged jungle fancy-bird,) as are the members of the Jodorowsky clan who appear in various roles. You could argue that Santa Sangre fails to deliver on its early promise, but it’s hard to feel cheated by a film that takes so many brilliant risks.
"God directed Santa Sangre," Jodorowsky once claimed. Well, maybe the first reel…
The Blu-ray release has over five hours of supplements including new interviews with cast and crew.