A ridiculous, pretentious, fascinating, and unforgettable horror film from one of cinema's true originals.

csjlong's picture

While the phrase "over the top" leaps to mind after a first (or fiftieth) viewing of "Santa Sangre" (1989), I think the term "overstuffed" might be more appropriate. I picture director Alejandro Jodorowsky spending the better part of a decade scribbling down notes and ideas for scenes and images he would like to put into a movie and then using every single one of them in the same film. It's as if he has grabbed every ingredient off the shelves, mashed them into the same stewpot, then screwed the lid down and waited for everything to come to an explosive boil. The subsequent splatter caking the walls is "Santa Sangre," a ridiculous, pretentious, fascinating, and unforgettable horror film from one of cinema's true originals.

Jodorowsky certainly had enough time to concoct this mad scientist recipe. After the acid Western "El Topo" (1970) became one of the first juggernaut midnight movies in America, the cult director (embraced by "trippy" celebs like John Lennon and Dennis Hopper) made only two films in the next 19 years, the deranged "The Holy Mountain" (1973) and the little-seen, little-admired "Tusk," his disappointing experience on the latter film allegedly driving him from the business for most of the 1980s.

"Santa Sangre" showed the previous 20 years or so had not dulled the provocateur's blades. Drawing on his own childhood experiences in the circus and the real story of a Mexican serial killer who he (allegedly) met in a bar one night, Jodorowsky, working with screenwriter Roberto Leoni, let his imagination soar like the eagles and other randomly-appearing birds that populate the film.

Young Fenix (Adan Jodorowsky) has a very rough day. He discovers his first love in the deaf-mute girl Alma, just brought to the circus by her cruel mother who also happens to be the resident Tattooed Woman. His knife-throwing father (Guy Stockwell) has the hots for said Tattoo-laden female, which proves to be a point of contention with Fenix' mother Concha (Blanca Guerra), who splits her time between the circus and leading a group of worshippers at a makeshift shrine built around a pool of blood supposedly spilled by their saint, a young girl who was raped and dismembered. Concha deals with her husband's philandering in definitive terms (thank god there happened to be a bottle of hydrochloric acid conveniently located in a nearby locker) and darling hubby gets his own revenge by chopping off her arms. Fenix not only observes the entire spectacle, but even loses Alma who is whisked away by her loathsome mother.

No wonder he spends the next ten years in a mental institution (where he first meet him), naked and behaving like an animal. A night out on the town helps him out and he escapes. He soon reunites with his armless mother and gives her a hand or two. In faintly Cronenbergian fashion, they become one, Concha singing and dancing with adult Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky) functioning as her arms. Concha has other plans for her and her son's life, however, and she'll be damned if her hands are going to disobey her commands. She's pissed off at pretty much everybody, and pretty much everybody is going to pay. Fortunately, Fenix has inherited his father's facility with knives. You can guess what follows, but only up to a point (pun intended).

If I have provided a few spoilers, this is really just the necessary set-up for a film that is far stranger than it already sounds though, it should be noted, is also significantly more conventional (though no less garish) than either "El Topo" or "The Holy Mountain." Among the highlights in this hodge-podge film: an omnipresent clown chorus, a sprawling Gandhi-like funeral for an elephant, a trans-gendered (sort of – it's kinda hard to tell) wrestler, a hypnotized woman who needs to be snapped out of a trance before she realizes she is dead, and enough chickens to make Werner Herzog consider filing suit.

The film was produced by Claudio Argento though Jodorowsky downplays his role as anything other than the money man. The film fits loosely into the giallo tradition, but shoehorning it into a single category is counter-productive. "Santa Sangre" is a wild, unrestrained exercise in grotesquerie and melodrama that happily wanders into maudlin territory from time to time as it blazes a drunkard's zigzag path through the serial killer genre.

If, like me, you feel that there is virtually nothing interesting about the circus, you might not be as mesmerized by "Santa Sangre" as some of its most ardent fans, but it is punctuated by so many indelible images that it's difficult to resist its charms (though I have resisted referring to it as "disarming"), and its sheer audacity is undeniably admirable. A phenomenal, propulsive soundtrack by Simon Boswell is the icing on this exotic cake.


The film is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. This is indicated as a digitally restored transfer and though I doubt it has been given a full-blown, meticulous restoration, the result is quite strong. I have only previously seen "Santa Sangre" on VHS, so it's silly to observe that this version is a vast improvement. I suspect, considering the circus setting and other design-cues, that the color is not quite as vibrant as it would look on film, or perhaps on Blu-Ray (Severin has also released this on Blu-Ray, but we have no copy available for reference) but it's still a fairly rich palette. Image resolution is sharp, flesh tones are warm and blood is suitably bloody.

The film was shot in English and is presented with a Dolby Digital 2.0 English mix. There are also options to listen to it in Spanish Mono or Italian Mono dubs. While the sound mix is more than respectable, I don't think it's quite dynamic enough to capture Simon Boswell's score in all its glory. Dialogue and other sound effects sound just fine. Unfortunately, no subtitles are offered on any of the audio options and they would have been helpful for some of the characters, esp. Concha, who have thicker accents. But you'll be able to make out everything. I can't attest to the clarity of the Spanish or Italian dubs.


Much like Jodorowsky, Severin Films has held back nothing on this two-disc special edition of "Santa Sangre."

Disc One houses the film which is accompanied by a commentary track with Alejandro Jodorowsky and journalist Alan Jones. I sampled the first 20 minutes, and was surprised at how matter-of-fact the director sounds, considering his penchant for showmanship. Perhaps he perks up later in the commentary, but he provides plenty of information about the genesis of the project.

Disc One also has 8 minutes of Deletes Scenes with commentary by Jodorowsky as well as a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.), a Japanese Trailer (3 min.) and trailers for several other Severin films.

The fully-loaded Disc Two kicks off with the new feature-length documentary "Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen: The World of ‘Santa Sangre'" (96 min.) which features interviews with the now very patrician-looking director as well as his family (who also made up much of his cast) and other collaborators.

"For One Week Only: Alejandro Jodorowsky" (32 min.) is a 1990 UK documentary from Channel X Ltd. Also featuring interviews with the director and an all-star cast including Omar Sharif, Dennis Hopper and Marcel Marceau (Jodorowsky trained with him as a mime for a few years). This documentary is an excellent introduction to the director and will even provide new information for more devoted fans. It will also do precisely nothing to deflate claims that he is a pretentious egotist, but who would want that? The cult is built around the man as much as his films.

The disc also includes an "On Stage Q&A" with the director (25 min.) from Dec 2002 at the ICA in London, and an unidentified 2003 interview (31 min.) They cover some of the same material, but the man is certainly a magnetic presence.

A short documentary about Goyo Cardenas, the real-life serial killer who provided a partial inspiration for the film, runs 18 minutes. I can't say it grabbed my attention in the first few minutes so I moved on. There's a lot here!

Composer Simon Boswell interviews Jodorowsky (8 min.) and cuts two short videos highlighting the hypnotic qualities of the director's personality.

Finally, the short film "Echek" (2000, 4 min.) by Adan Jodorowsky (who played young Fenix) is included and is quite good in its faintly Maddin-esque way.


"Santa Sangre" represented an impressive comeback for a beloved cult director who many thought had been lost in the wilderness. Unfortunately, it did not represent a renaissance. His next film "The Rainbow Thief" (1990) was a surprisingly conventional "for hire" project that barely made a ripple, and he hasn't directed a film since.

This is the first release I've gotten from Severin Films. I'm not a horror fan in general, but I am impressed by this elaborate and comprehensive two-disc special edition. It's as packed with extras as just about any Criterion DVD and its solid transfer will please Jodorowsky fans who have been waiting quite a while for a Region 1 release of "Santa Sangre." The wait has been worth it – this is a top notch production by Severin.

"Santa Sangre" has also been released on Blu-Ray. It retails at $34.95 vs. $29.95 for the SD release.


Film Value