Carnival of Horrors: Taboo and Tradition in ‘Santa Sangre’

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If there’s one thing that definitively separates 1989’s Santa Sangre from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s earlier fever dreams, it’s a degree of narrative coherence. This doesn’t necessarily make it any better – indeed, were you to ask me to single out the director’s greatest film from his notable works (this, alongside 1970’s El Topo and 1973’s The Holy Mountain), I’d be ruminating on the merits of each for days. Each is a vastly different beast, tenuously linked to the last via the director’s signature way-out symbolism, penchant for bizarre, grandiose sets and fascination with religious mysticism. With each, Jodorowsky is intent on destruction: seeking to break a culture of taboos, to shatter the conventions of classic narrative and attack the self-destructive greed of capitalist society and dominant religion.

Standing in the middle of what can perhaps be described as a loose thematic trilogy, The Holy Mountain offers up the most direct attack on these conventions (about as direct as such an experimental film can get), it’s loose narrative plotting the mental enlightenment of a group of rich businessmen and women, each corresponding to a different planet in astrological terms. As the 1973 trailer so eloquently tells us, “The Holy Mountain is a film completely outside the tradition of motion picture art” – there is nothing here that subscribes to the conventions of any cinematic genre (the ‘spiritual’ road movie, perhaps?).

El Topo and Santa Sangre, however, blatantly manoeuvre the tenants of the most commercial of genres. El Topo famously offers up a surreal, hallucinatory inversion of the classic western, mutating the ‘stranger comes to town’ archetype in a typically Jodoroskian story of spiritual awakening. With Santa Sangre, Jodorowsky finally grants the spectator a little more narrative coherence with a less-than-straight forward revenge tale that runs the gamut of the horror genre. What I find particularly fascinating in these films, is their exhibition of Jodorowsky at his most cinematically infatuated; as much as these works show a filmmaker determined to break with cinematic convention, they demonstrate Jodorowsky’s love for cinematic history and tradition.

Indeed, for all its typically Jodoroskian symbolism, Santa Sangre operates as an homage to international horror, working its way through the traditions of a vast swathe of nuanced subgenres. Naturally, the story is anything but simple. The Mexican/Italian co-production stars the director’s son Axel Jodorowsky as Fenix, a seemingly disturbed man holed up in a Mexican mental hospital. The first act of the film consists of a flashback, in which we see a young Fenix working a child magician in a cricus run by his parents, Orgo (Guy Stockwell) the knife-thrower and Concha (Blanca Guerra), an acrobat. Concha is the leader of a local religious cult that evokes a weird, twisted form of Catholicism. The church’s patron saint, Santa Sangre, is a young girl who was raped and had her arms cut off by two brothers. A Catholic Monsignor is repulsed by the cult’s weird benedictions and bloody figurehead and the church is demolished by a local landowner.

Fenix’s father Orgo is having affair with the circus’s resident tattooed woman, who is also the knife-thrower’s assistant. During a trapeze act, Concha spies Orgo openly cavorting with the tattooed woman. She follows the pair and, after finding them sexually engaged, throws a bottle of sulphuric acid onto Orgo’s genitals. Enraged, Orgo slices off both of Concha’s arms, just like her revered saint, and then slits his own throat while Fenix watches from a locked trailer. The tattooed woman leaves with her daughter – who is the subject of young fenix’s affections.

The narrative then switches back to the present, with Fenix holed up in mental hospital. After a night of leave, roaming around the city with a group of Down syndrome boys, Fenix is visited in hospital by his mother – very much alive despite her lack of upper limbs. Escaping with her, the pair goes onto to perform a musical act wherein Fenix stands behind Concha so that it appears she has arms; they perform dances and play piano. Bonding grotesquely with her son, Concha begins to use Fenix’s arms to brutally murder any woman to whom he shows sexual attraction.

Speaking at SXSW in 2014, Jodorowsky asserted, “I’m not Hitchcock. I won’t scare you here, have a cat jump out there.” Only loosely fitting the description of ‘horror’, Santa Sangre certainly doesn’t go for stereotypical scares. However, after watching the film, you’d be forgiven for believing the director to be a Hitchcock fan. Essentially a tale about a young man exercising the demons of a traumatic childhood via a twisted, possibly imaginary symbiosis with his mother, Santa Sangre mirrors Psycho at many junctures. Speaking further on his avoidance of horror archetype, Jodorowsky stated:

“Everyone who sees my pictures will have a different reaction; one will scream, one will laugh. No one will have a right to define you and how you react.”

Jodorowsky’s work, here in particular, often swings from the disturbing and grotesque to scenes of bizarre, delightful humour, provoking polarising reactions in single spectators. An elephant haemorrhages a torrent of blood from its trunk, before dying. Clad in black versions of the outfits they’ve worn so far, the mourning circus members lead the enormous, elephant sized coffin through town before dumping it into a ravine. Immediately, a crowd of starving peasants leap upon the carcass, ripping it limb from limb and devouring the meat. Soon after, the violent acts perpetrated by Fenix’s parents occur. In between these and other instances of nightmarish horror, circus acts frolic and entertain in quiet moments of playful humour: Jodorowsky has always included mute observers as characters in his films, never before have they been so Chaplinesque as the entourage of clowns.

Naturally then, one alternates from the urge to scream to the urge to laugh. As noted, Jodorowsky plays on this vacillation of emotion by paying visual tribute to a number of diverse horror subgenres and iconography. The spectator both reels in disgust and nods in knowing recognition of the reference, both horrified and amused. The visual references are not postmodernist, but, in typical Jodorowsky fashion, cryptically symbolic. As much as it references Psycho, Fenix’s psychobiological bonding with his mother references Cronenbergian body horror; The ‘Cirque de Gringo’ continuously tips its hat to the pre-code antics of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932); Concha’s grotesquely twisted version of Catholicism is inhabited by folk tradition and religion and evokes much of the feeling of the 70’s folk horror; Fenix’s killing spree is carried out with a selection of knives right out of an American slasher and a pair of black leather gloves that scream Italian Giallo (incidentally, Dario Argento’s brother Claudio produced the film); A horde of white zombies emerge from their graves to surround a traumatised Fenix. Reaching back to early universal horror, Jodorowsky has Fenix become obsessed with The Invisible Man (1933). Attempting to replicate the film’s experiment, Fenix hopes to render his whole body save his arms invisible, so he can truly become one with his mother.

As much as the film transgresses boundaries, then, it recognises a legacy of cinematic tradition. As in El Topo, Jodorowsky twists the conventions of the genre to which he pays homage, exhibiting both a disdain for stereotype and affection for cinematic history. Jodorowsky’s is a cinema in constant motion: characters wander through scenes and sets while events are either already happening, or have already happened; there is a consistent flow of action throughout. With Santa Sangre, the characters not only wander through the director’s own symbolic psychological projections, but through cinematic history itself. This Halloween, go back and experience horror tradition through the lens of one of cinema’s greatest transgressors.

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