Mexican cinema has always been a law unto itself. Over the years its stars – like the legendary siren Dolores del Rio who came to international prominence during the 1930’s and the larger-than-life Cantinflas, star of the Academy Award winning adventure-comedy Around the World in 80 Days (1956), as well as ground-breaking filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro, writer and director of the vampire curiosity Cronos (1993) – have ensured that the country has made a consistently memorable contribution to the film industry both at home and further afield.
However, even for Mexico, whose films could never be accused of being tame, the ‘pseudo horror’ Santa Sangre (1989) by writer and director Alejandro Jodorowsky, takes bizarre to a whole new level. This film is one long exercise in weird, interspersed with occasional bouts of normality.
Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky) is a seriously damaged young man. He has been confined for most of his adolescence to a mental institution after witnessing his father Orgo (Guy Stockwell), a circus knife-thrower, mutilating his mother Concha (Bianca Guerra) by cutting off her arms after she caught him in flagrante with another circus performer. In a fit of remorse Orgo takes his own life, all in front of the understandably traumatised Fenix.
Jump forward several years and the grown Fenix escapes from the asylum with the help of Concha, who survived the terrible ordeal at the hands of her husband. Now she is out for revenge and with the aid of Fenix she embarks on a grisly killing spree, destroying anyone she sees as having wronged her or her son.
Dismissing Santa Sangre as a straight horror film would do it an injustice, though there are admittedly plenty of macabre elements present. Placing the film within a circus setting – an environment which over the years has provided much fodder for the genre of the grotesque, from Tod Browning’s notorious Freaks (1932) to the Joan Crawford vehicle Berserk (1967), which was equally infamous though not, one suspects, for the reasons originally intended – heightens its elements of surreal comedy which are as, if not more, unsettling than much of its gore. The violence is done in such an over-the-top and un-realistic manner that most of the horror is lost by dilution.
What is more arresting is the film’s striking and original imagery. Its depiction of Mexico’s vibrant and gaudy street culture and its realisation of religious symbolism, which pervades every aspect of Fenix and Concha’s lives through the Catholic church and the cult of ‘Santa Sangra’ of which Orgo was the leader, make the film come alive on the screen much better than any viscerality ever could. Scenes such as the funeral procession for one of the circus’ beloved elephants, ending in it being dismembered and disembowelled by hoards of hysterical street urchins, or the sight of the asylum inmates reaching out to touch Fenix who at one point resembles a Christ-like figure, are as shocking as a lot of the bloodletting on display.
Of the performances it is Axel Jodorowsky who is, unsurprisingly, most impressive. His transformation from an introverted and mentally damaged youth, to an apparently confident and outgoing young man at the beck and call of his domineering and controlling mother is totally believable and wonderfully creepy.
Ultimately the viewer should ignore the fact that Santa Sangre’s director Alejandro Jodorowsky has the dubious accolade of being heralded as ‘the best filmmaker ever’ by Marilyn Manson, and simply wallow in the film’s psychedelic attack on the senses.
Santa Sangre was released on DVD by Mr Bongo (UK) on 5th November.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.