Alejandro Jodorowsky became an underground-cinema superstar after the release of his 1970 psychedelic Western El Topo, which he followed with his first real masterpiece: the surreal 1973 religious satire The Holy Mountain. But then he had a long wilderness period. Jodorowsky tried and failed to adapt Frank Herbert’s science-fiction epic Dune. He made the quickly forgotten children’s film Tusk. He’d more or less settled into a career as a comic-book writer—one of his many other careers—when Dario Argento’s brother Claudio and screenwriter Roberto Leoni called to ask if he’d be interested in directing their script about a vicious serial killer. Jodorowsky signed on and made 1989’s Santa Sangre, a movie so potent that it could’ve come immediately after The Holy Mountain, not 16 years later.
Shot in Mexico City, Santa Sangre was by all accounts an intense experience for the cast and crew, fraught with squalor, pain, and peril. Though the project originated elsewhere, Santa Sangre is every inch a Jodorowsky film, wheeling between genres, styles, and spiritual traditions as easily as its soundtrack shifts from traditional Mexican music to a pulsating horror-movie score. Drawing on his training in mime and his fascination with Gnosticism, Jodorowsky converted a story about a bizarre murderer into a grand work of art, full of symbols and imagery that reach beyond language to something primal and original.
Which isn’t to say that Santa Sangre is obscure or “difficult.” Graphic violence and grotesquerie aside, the movie is so straightforward that it barely needs even its few lines of dialogue. A young boy (played by Jodorowsky’s son Adan) sees his mother get her arms hacked off by his father, a circus performer who’d been dallying with the tattooed lady. The boy grows to manhood (where he’s played by another of Jodorowsky’s sons, Axel) and becomes part of an act where he allows his arms to take the place of his mother’s in elaborate dances and pantomime. Then at night, the boy seduces women and brings them back to his lair, where under his mother’s mental control, he slices them up and buries them.
In its second half, Santa Sangre sometimes resembles one of the campier Hammer films, peppered with David Lynch at his nuttiest. But even when the gothic horror elements verge on the silly, Jodorowsky keeps coming up with scenes that cut deep: an elephant funeral turning into a flesh-ripping mêlée; a man tearing his ear off and trying to shove it down a deaf-mute’s throat; the pale nude bodies of dozens of murder victims rising from their graves; and so on. Jodorowsky has said that Santa Sangre is his favorite of his movies because it’s about feelings, not ideas, and that sounds about right. He wants viewers to be like the boy in the story, seeing more atrocity than he can really handle, such that, as Jodorowsky puts it, “There’s no intellectual reading… it goes straight to the subconscious.”
Key features: Deleted scenes, a Jodorowsky commentary track, a 90-minute documentary about the making of the film, and hours of additional interviews, featurettes and tributes.