Santa Sangre ('Holy Blood') might just be the most elaborately garbed serial slasher/revenge flick in the history of cinema, but that comes as little shock once one takes into account the enigmatic individual at its helm. Those of you who have experienced Alejandro Jodorowsky's prior works El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) will be attuned to the incessant bombardment of unnerving and surreal imagery he imparts through his films, and his enormous fascination with circus freaks, midgets, amputees, pageantry, and the mentally disabled. Santa Sangre is a surprisingly straightforward narrative from the Chilean master, likely due to the fact that he was attempting to break into a more mainstream audience in the 80s and shared the writing with Claudio Argento (brother to famed horror director Dario) and Roberto Leoni. But fear not, because much of his trademark insanity is well intact.
This is the tale of a young circus magician (Fenix) in Mexico whose mother is brutally dispatched after splashing acid on his father's wang. That's the setup, told through a series of remarkable scenes and scenery which involve an elephant's funeral (complete with peasant scavengers tearing the beasts guts out of its enormous coffin) and father Orgo's seduction by a tattooed lady. Here we are first introduced to the various support case, including Fenix's mother (Concha) and the deaf-mute (Alma) who sort of plays the lead's 'love interest' throughout. The rest of the saga plays out as one of revenge, Concha controlling her son to use him as her 'arms' as she destroys anyone who has hurt her family or comes close to Fenix. Events occasionally jump around in between flashbacks and the 'present' of the film, but it's actually pretty easy to follow and makes a lot more sense than something like The Holy Mountain which is esoteric to a fault.
At its heart, the simplicity of the plot and it's not so unforeseen psychological twists is not really the star of this show, but the amazing flood of imagery manifest in true Jodorowsky style. We see a graveyard of white painted, veiled nudes who represent Fenix's guilt for the murders. Or a noisy, festival-like prostitute market in which a pack of hospital patients with Downs Syndrome are introduced to an obese hooker for a night of pleasure, while the street ladies and various freakish and deformed officers dance away to salsa lines. One of my favorite scenes is actually the morning AFTER the prostitute market, where we see 'day of the dead' skeletons lying strewn about a street, a mariachi band performs and the obese harlot and her pimp (played by Alejandro's late son Teo) embrace, along with two of the officers who patronized the tattooed woman the night before.
Just a prime example of Jodorowsky's consistent reuse of characters and constant 'parade' like configuration he uses in many scenes. There always seems to be something going on that adds a subtle, second (or further) layer to all of the primary action and storyline, and it makes Santa Sangre, like his other films, easy to revisit and decipher. But none of this would work without such convincing actors, and in addition to Blanca Guerra (Concha) and Guy Stockwell (Orgo), special credit should be given here to Alejandro's three sons Axel (Fenix), Adan (young Fenix) and Teo (pimp) who all treat this with the fragile balance of disenchantment and intensity that it deserves. In particular, Axel/Cristobal Jodorowsky is a living storm of talent, which has sadly not been put to use often through the years.
It's not all gold, and with a near two hour runtime, there are some scenes, certainly in the latter half of the film, which do drag just a bit. For example, a lot of the later film is shot in Fenix's Zorro meets Phantom of the Opera like magician hideaway, and some of the 'mom time' didn't really establish anything deeper about the pair's relationship. It seems like Jodorowsky used up much of the film's surreal potential before we get to this point, and it then becomes a more formulaic horror experience. I didn't feel the film was nearly as outrageous and memorable as The Holy Mountain, but then, that's a review for another time, and Santa Sangre seems as if it were intended more as a Central American giallo with a few of Jodorowsky's personal touches, rather than the other way around. Either way, though, it works fairly damn well. Not the sort of story one will easily forget, and easily deserving of its cult reverence.
Verdict: Win [8.25/10]