Sunday, December 11, 2011

REVIEW: Santa Sangre (1989)

The weeks before the holidays have been busy for me, but that doesn't mean I haven't been haunting the dollar theater in my spare time. There's been some good stuff showing, but while I'm getting my thoughts together, here's a review of a recently re-released cult classic by midnight movie king Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Jodorowsky is without a doubt one of my favorite filmmakers, and I'd been meaning to rewatch Santa Sangre since it was re-released by Severin Films. My previous experience was with a grainy VHS rip, so I was excited to see this film released properly, as it languished in purgatory and was out of print for far too long. Jodorowsky is known for his incredible visual style and semi-coherent plots infused with mysticism and transgressive religious themes. In the former, Santa Sangre doesn't disappoint, although it doesn't quite achieve the insane heights that Jodorowsky reached in The Holy Mountain. To be fair though, nothing does. As far as the plot is concerned, Santa Sangre is the closest he ever got to a mainstream film and feels like a fairy-tale of betrayal and revenge with more than a hint of giallo-inspired murder, likely due to the involvement of producer Claudio Argento (Dario's brother).

Santa Sangre centers upon the traumatic childhood and bizarre adulthood of Fenix, a boy raised as a circus magician by his lecherous knife-throwing father and a mother who leads a cultish offshoot of the Catholic church who worships the memory of a young girl whose arms were cut off in a violent mugging. That's really only the tip of the iceberg, and things get increasingly insane when mom's cult is demolished by the Mexican government, Dad begins cheating on her with a contortionist woman tattooed from head to toe, and the whole deal climaxes in bloody slaughter. Jodorowsky has always been fond of using his characters more as symbols than people, and this story is no exception, frequently lapsing into allegory. Some scenes seem a bit over-played, and while this sort of caricature works well in his other more surreal films, for a plot set in something that closely resembles the real world this style can be somewhat jarring.

It works far better in the second half of the film, where we follow the adult Fenix as he reverts from savage to human, and ultimately attempts to purge himself from his mothers' influence. The success of this act largely depends on Axel Jodorowsky, (Alejandro's son) who plays the adult Fenix. He utterly absorbs the character's multiple layers of insanity, and is willing to embrace all the weirdness his father can throw at him. As he emerges from a regressive state in a mental institution, he finds himself reconnecting with his armless mother, and acting as her arms, both in her new role as a stage performer and in her daily life. She's also been driven slightly insane herself, and has some sort of telepathic hold on him which she uses in fits of maternal jealousy to force him to murder anyone he becomes attached to.

One of the things I love about Jodorowsky is that he stages scenes so fantastic that you'll simply never see anything like them elsewhere. Here they're scaled back in scope somewhat, but lose none of their power. To give a taste, we get: a funeral procession for an elephant that ends with its massive coffin being dumped off a cliff and devoured by hundreds of slum dwellers, a one-man magic show performed in a cave by Fenix and his dwarf assistant. Powerful images like this overshadow any of the film's narrative weakness (of which there's more than a little.)

Santa Sangre is probably Jodorowsky at his most accessible (if you ignore the films that's he's since disowned), and stands on its own as a phantasmagoric slasher that's unlike anything else you're likely to see. Highly recommended.

9 / 10 = Must see

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