“You can’t atone for your sins with nightmares”
Santa Sangre (Holy Blood) is a 1989 Mexican-Italian avant-garde horror film directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Divided into both a flashback and a flash-forward, the film, which is set in Mexico, tells the story of Fenix, a boy who grew up in a circus, and his life through both adolescence and early adulthood.
We begin with a naked figure (Axel Jodorowsky) sitting in a tree in what looks like a mental asylum. A doctor enters the room brings him a plate of conventional food and also one of a raw fish. As they try to coax him off of his perch, it is the fish that persuades him to come down. They help him into some overalls so he can interact with other patients and the viewer sees that he has a tattoo of a phoenix on his chest.
The film flashes back into Fenix’s childhood (Adan Jodorowsky), which he spent performing as a “child magician” in a circus. It’s run by his father Orgo (Guy Stockwell), the knife-thrower, and his mother Concha (Blanca Guerra), a trapeze artist and aerialist. The circus crew also includes, among others, a tattooed woman (Thelma Tixou) and her adopted deaf-mute daughter Alma (whom Fenix has a crush on). Additionally, Fenix’s dwarf friend Aladin (Jesús Juárez), a pack of clowns and a small elephant. Orgo carries on a very public flirtation with the tattooed woman, and their knife-throwing act is heavily sexualized.
Concha is also the leader of a religious cult that considers, as its patron saint, a little girl who was raped and had her arms cut off by two brothers. Their church is about to be bulldozed at the behest of the owner of the land, and the followers make one last stand against the police and the bulldozers. A Roman Catholic Monsignor drives into the conflict, saying that he will prevent its demolition, but after he deems it unworthy after disregarding their patron saint and dismissing their pool of holy blood as fake (he claims it to be just red paint), so the demolition is carried out. Fenix leads Concha back to the circus, where she finds out about Orgo’s affair, but Orgo, being also a hypnotist, puts Concha in a trance and rapes her.
The circus elephant then dies, much to Fenix’s grief, and a public funeral is conducted, in which the elephant is paraded through the city inside a giant casket. The casket is then dropped into the city dump, where scavengers open it up and proceed to carve up the elephant and take away the meat. Orgo consoles his son by tattooing a spread-eagled phoenix onto his chest, identical to the one on his own chest. He uses a knife dipped in red ink. This tattoo, Orgo says, will make Fenix a man.
Later on, Concha, during her trapeze act, sees Orgo and the tattooed woman sneak out of the big top. She chases after them and, seeing them sexually engaged, pours a bottle of sulphuric acid onto Orgo’s genitals. Orgo retaliates by cutting off both her arms (much like the girl previously venerated). He then walks into the street and slits his own throat. Fenix witnesses this, locked inside a trailer. He then sees the tattooed woman driving off with Alma (Faviola Elenka Tapia/Sabrina Dennison).
How could someone’s life be so destroyed in such quick succession? Will Fenix ever see Alma again?
As questionable as Santa Sangre is (from animal abuse to… everything), it’s a unique experience that will forever stick in your mind. Its memorable characters are superb, from the disturbingly erotic tattooed woman to the unsettling gaggle of clowns. I find it fairly difficult to choose a favourite as they all play their roles well, but Fenix and his mother, Concha naturally steal the show. As avant-garde as this movie is, it still manages to be coherent and easy to follow, which is pretty rare in more arty films.
What makes Santa Sangre work for me is how fantastic the story is, it really carries you through those 2 hours breezily as you hang onto every scene. The whole experience is as uncomfortable as it is fascinating and the gore is surprisingly realistic. As I was watching I was reminded of a movie I previously reviewed, The Pit and the Pendulum, in that they both felt like theatre productions – with their elaborate sets, costumes and eccentric characters. But, in Santa Sangre it didn’t look quite so cheap. Similar to The Pit and the Pendulum, I’m sure I’ll also be taking a break before watching another movie of this nature as they are strangely emotionally taxing and I don’t think I’m ready to jump into another fever dream of a movie just yet.