I first watched Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1989 film Santa Sangre on an old VHS tape that a friend loaned me. I still remember him saying, “You’ve never seen anything like this.” The cover was intriguing and featured an image of a young woman posed with her face painted, arms held out as if welcoming me to a new world.
I went home that night and threw it in, thinking this’ll at the very least be interesting. It ended up being so much more. For the entire duration of the film my jaw tickled the carpet. A door had been opened for me to a place I never knew existed. This film was intriguing. It was brave. It was dangerous. The characters were unlike anything I’d seen before. Where other films would shy away from the weird or cut away before things get ugly, Jodorowsky grabs the viewer by the collar and drags them into the thick of it.
I was in heaven.
See, Santa Sangre came to me at a time where jump-scares, fast-moving bodies (a tactic that I will never not loathe), and pale CGI ghosts were dominating most modern horror films. I wanted more from the genre that shaped me as a kid. I wanted something that was visceral, thought-provoking, and challenging—and this film did just that.
Every time I watch Santa Sangre I notice something new or my interpretations branch off into different directions, like I’m noticing details or brushstrokes in a painting I couldn’t see before. To me, this is the true strength of great art. Yes, there are intentional themes and symbols behind a lot of the images in the film, but one can’t help but find new meaning in shots of destroyed churches or clowns spewing water from their eyes during an elephant’s funeral procession.
Jodorowsky has said himself that he isn’t sure of the meaning behind certain moments in the film. For example, when the man in the street rubs his prosthetic ear into Alma’s face, the director says came straight from his subconscious. Now while I’m sure some people will cry, “That’s because Jodorowsky is full of shit!” at that statement, I’m inclined to think the Chilean mastermind does fully believe he was channeling something from the depths of his mind—and if you don’t get it or aren’t at the very least willing to ask yourself what it means to you’re doing yourself a disservice.
I won’t bore you with my lofty ideas of that particular scene, but it does play into another aspect of Santa Sangre that I love: the territory of the film. Lurking underneath these locales that we identify as familiar and safe—be it a circus, place of worship, or theater—are hideous scars and agendas. It sets a tone throughout the rest of the film that the world these characters inhabit is never what it seems to be, that lurking underneath the veneer of performance lights and altar candles is an ugly reality most are trying to ignore.
This is also one of the best films about the emotional impact of growing up in a toxic environment I’ve seen. The actions of Fenix’s parents have molded his mind and pushed it to the breaking point. One of the most haunting things about this is for the majority of the film Fenix is never able to establish himself as an individual. When he’s not enacting his mother’s vengeance, we see him dressed in the gaudy outfits of his father as he tries to woo the women he will inevitably murder. He’s both mother and father no matter how hard he tries to separate himself, and to me, the lack of identity is one of the most horrifying things one could experience.
Lastly, I want to point out that quite a few films act like their sex scenes are “erotic,” when in reality they have all the tact and artistic merit of the soft-core porn parody of Lord of the Rings. Santa Sangre, however, handles eroticism in a way that is both off-putting and, dare I say, sexy. When Orgo is throwing knives at the tattooed woman she cries out in ecstasy as each blade hits the wood. Yet, we can see that she’s lost in a moment of passion rather than hysterical from fear. This act portrays the sexual enjoyment of danger, rather than trying to purport that sex is risky.
It’s my hope that more and more people see this film. Jodorowsky’s work always inspires me, but Santa Sangre is the one film of his that I hold closest to my heart. It taught me that good stories make you uncomfortable; they take you to new places; and most of all, they’re dangerous.
Anthony Trevino is the author of the New Bizarro Author Series 2015-16 novella King Space Void published by Eraserhead Press, the horror comic Fruition, and also made an appearance in the True Detective tribute anthology Walk Hand in Hand into Extinction from CLASH books.