When it comes to horror cinema, I am steadfastly in the camp that appreciates its form, experimentation and psychological/thematic elements more than its scares. Fear-inducing moments definitely have their place — they are, after all, a high selling point for majority of audiences — but for me, the short and intense experience of a jump-scare never quite hits the way that elongated feelings of dread and traumatic psychological turmoil do. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre is a hard sell because not only is it not scary in the traditional sense, but its fears are also deeply personal to its filmmaker. Jodorowsky has a keen understanding of movies as empty canvasses for experimenting with his own thoughts, which is philosophically the antithesis of the rigid structural marketing model of mainstream Hollywood.
From the very beginning with his 1968 debut Fando y lis, Jodorowsky has been hellbent on creating movies that are projects of his own exploration of “cinema.” He is obsessed with the idea of uncovering truth in art, a spirituality that eludes him. While El Topo brought Jodorowsky wide notoriety, it was The Holy Mountain that drew him closer to understanding the ins and outs of cinema as an art form. Jodorowsky experiments with structure/narrative and injects his hair-brained set-design choices to create a delirious journey of self-exploration as an artist. It’s a wild and unforgettable movie, but it’s also very impersonal because Jodorowsky is in search of something outside himself.
On the other hand, horror cinema is the most passionate and personal genre there is, and by virtue, Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre — the director’s only horror film — is his most personal and introspective project. It’s the first movie in Jodorowsky’s career to include references to his relationship with his mother, his earnest beliefs in love/kindness and a confrontation with his own career as an artist up to that point. It makes sense that Jodorowsky made Santa Sangre when he did, following two tragic failures with his never-produced Dune adaptation and the financial and critical disaster of Tusk. Like Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, the movie served to be a redemption story, informed through something innate rather than arbitrarily “artistic” or external.
Santa Sangre centers on a boy named Fenix, who experiences a traumatic childhood while growing up in an undisclosed South American country (possibly Jodorowsky’s home country of Chile, but never officially named) as part of his parent’s roaming circus troupe. Fenix’s parents have an abusive and unfaithful relationship, which is witnessed by the boy from afar and haunts his dreams. Fenix’s mother, who starts her own church called “Santa Sangre” that worships a young girl who had her arms cut off by two criminals, embodies an obsessive and overprotective personality mostly due to her husband’s infidelity with his ring assistant. After a gruesome domestic fight in which Fenix’s father is killed and his mother has her arms cut off (Jodorowsky is never one to shy from earnest irony and symbolism), the boy ends up in a mental institution and lives his life into adulthood as an unresponsive schizophrenic.
It’s only after Felix reunites with his mother that he gets his life back together again… at least, for a little bit. Jodorowsky’s biggest psychological dilemmas stem from his relationship with his parents and his near-Oedipal complex with his mother. As in his later, more directly autobiographical films Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, Santa Sangre features several sequences of Jodorowsky’s childhood stand-in Fenix (played by his own sons — Adan as a child and Axel as an adult) being exposed to sex, molestation and rape. He witnesses his mother having an orgasm and going into convulsions after his father forces her on top of him. In Dance of Reality — made more than two decades later — Jodorowsky depicts his mother as near-naked during all of her encounters with his childhood persona. Sexuality in the director’s films is always coupled with either abuse or weird possessive qualities, and Jodorowsky is almost incapable of communicating it without being shocking and offensive.
It seems obvious on inspection why Jodorowsky chose to write and film Santa Sangre as a horror movie, though not as a traditional genre film but one stuffed with various elements from greats like Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, Dario Argento and even Herschell Gordon Lewis. Fear in Santa Sangre stems from a classic trope of the past coming back to haunt the present. In the case of Fenix, there is a distressing inescapability from his relationship to his mother. She is a spectre who reappears in his life and brings him into her new career as a stage magician, a revival of their old circus routine. But Fenix’s mother is now possessed by thoughts of vengeance and death. She kills the woman who slept with her husband, and her magician shows aren’t all just smoke and mirrors.
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Santa Sangre draws its horror from a place of suppressed memory that only Jodorowsky knows the true ins and outs of. This may lead viewers to see the film as inaccessible, but Jodorowsky is so earnest and unsubtle in his depictions of pain and misery that it’s impossible not to pick up on the feelings of what scares him. Psychosexual violence for the director functions in the same way that unfulfilled ambition does for Charlie Kaufmann in Synecdoche, New York, as the personal horror stories stem from very real experiences.
There are still moments of reflection on artistry in Santa Sangre and these end up being cathartic and endearing. After Jodorowsky’s biggest failure, Tusk — a movieabout an Indian boy who befriends an elephant — he includes a scene in Santa Sangre where Fenix watches the elephant from his father’s circus become sick and die. They put the animal in a giant coffin and then drop him from a truck into a garbage pit, and Fenix cries as the coffin crashes to the ground. Similarly, Fenix’s other relationship beyond the one with his mother is with a mute-deaf mime girl who becomes a friend and ultimately a love interest, and serves as the true heart and soul of Santa Sangre.
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Amid all the blood splatter and sexual perversion surrounding Fenix’s life, he finds moments of innocence in this girl; a pathway to escape the haunting ghosts from his tormenting family life. Fenix moves beyond thoughts of vengeance and begins a new life of kindness and love. Santa Sangre’s themes of empathy and hope are uniquely personal for Jodorowsky, and they help bring the film’s horrors and bloodshed into perspective for the central character who must find what will truly make him happy.
Santa Sangre is a movie for nobody but Jodorowsky himself. Whether or not some consider that concept fascinating or pretentious, it’s still a movie that draws strong reactions like great horror movie always does. Santa Sangre has revolting moments but also the most heart-filled sequences in Jodorowsky’s filmography. Ultimately, the film found its audience and celebrators beyond the mainstream Hollywood crowd.
Soham Gadre (@SohamGadre) is a writer/filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to publications such as Bustle, Frameland and Film Inquiry. Soham is currently in production for his first short film. All of his film and writing work can be found at extrasensoryfilms.com.