For the writer of these lines there is hardly anything more nightmare-inducing than a circus. With horrific clowns, knife-throwers, dwarves dressed in humiliating costumes and sad-eyed caged animals, the circus somehow manages to encapsulate and represent everything that is wrong and amoral about spectacle, mass entertainment and hierarchical collectives. It comes as no real surprise, then, that Alejandro Jodorowsky picked up such carnivalesque context to stage the traumatic childhood events that unfold into the full adult horror that is Santa Sangre (Holy Blood). This work, which marked Jodorowsky’s return to film making after a 9 year hiatus triggered by the fiasco of the Dune project (which, as we all know, ended up in David Lynch’s hands) and the commercial failure of Tusk, is, however, a story of redemption. The surprisingly optimistic message that emerges amidst this clammy landscape of gruesome murder, orphanhood and paranoia is that, no matter how low one falls, there is always the possibility of starting anew through love, regret and self-awareness. Even the name of the protagonist, Fenix (Phoenix), points to the act of rebirth, the celebration of a new self born from the ashes of a damaged, exhausted carcass.
Jodorowsky is not only celebrated for the bizarrely sublime visual universe he brought to life in films like The Holy Mountain, Fando y Lis or El Topo. He is also well-known as a comic and book author, as a committed tarot reader and also for his development of an alternative therapy he called “psychomagic”, which blends devices from psychoanalysis with esoteric and mystic beliefs and a penchant for implementation through actions (known as “psychomagic acts”) that, seen in another light, could very well be considered performance art. Santa Sangre, filmed in 1989 when Jodorowsky had just turned 60, became the perfect vehicle to explore his particular mélange of interests, turning eventually into a very personal exploration of his relationship with his family, as he himself has acknowledged in several interviews.
Despite having become a slightly facile tool in film studies, a psychoanalytic approach seems unavoidable here. To begin with, the character of Fenix, both as a child and as an adult, are played by Jodorowsky’s sons Adan and Axel (aka Cristobal). Their uncanny likeness reinforces the continuity and credibility of the character as he navigates the narrative’s timeline. Moreover, both actors strongly resemble their father, so every frame oozes a disturbing autobiographical aura. Jodorowsky’s parents never ran a circus in Mexico City, to be sure, only a small shop in Santiago de Chile, but the stifling and overprotective behaviour displayed by Fenix’s parents in the film somehow brings to mind what Jodorowsky reveals of his own progenitors in his autobiography The Dance of Reality, which was first published in 2001. Reading the chapters where he examines his childhood (a period he dramatically entitled “The dark years”) the reader infers that Jodorowsky grew up feeling incredibly frustrated by his parents’ mediocre existence and their desires for him to follow their path, choosing instead to hide in a world of fantasy he eventually materialised through the creative work he came to be known for. Throughout Santa Sangre, Fenix also struggles to rebel against what his parents want of him. As a child, he becomes the collateral damage of his philandering and murderous father’s actions. As an adult, the ghost of his assassinated mother, who visits him in the form of a terrible psychosis, orders him to slaughter every female who flaunts her sexual organs and appetites, and thus embodying the Tattooed Woman, that member of the circus who stole Fenix’s father from her mother and got her killed. Santa Sangre is the story of Fenix’s bitter battle with these demons which, by the end of the film, he miraculously manages to overcome.
Oedipal symbols succeed one another in a constant stream. In one particularly powerful scene, the young Fenix performs his daily illusionist act, transforming his sweetheart, the tightrope walker mute girl, into his own mother. It doesn’t really get more Freudian than that, does it? Also, the Tattooed Woman, Fenix’s foe, is the surrogate mother of the mute girl, Fenix’s good fairy, in case you were wondering. The overbearing mother figure has indeed had a stellar trajectory in the history of horror films. There is nothing like a castrating woman to launch a successful serial killer career. Examples range from Norma Bates in Psycho to Carrie’s mother, Margareth White, with a special mention to Pamela Vorhees of Friday the 13th, who inverts the Oedipal paradigm by becoming a killer mummy herself in order to avenge her son’s brutal death. Along with the sexy, nightgown-clad damsel in distress, the smothering mother is perhaps the most resilient and ingrained psychological fixation that sustains the (horror) genre’s alignment with “patriarchal” female/male archetypes.
As with much of Jodorowsky’s production, Santa Sangre defies classification. It is indeed a horror film, full of spurting blood and gory murder (not in vain was it produced and co-written by Claudio Argento, producer of most films directed by his older brother Dario and of various jewels of the genre such as Dawn of the dead). But Santa Sangre is also a social satire that wittily problematises the manipulation intrinsic to religions and cults, psychiatric wards and other social collectives (who else but Jodorowsky would dare to shoot a scene involving two gay youngsters with down syndrome kissing and being forced to snort cocaine on a trip outside the asylum gone horribly wrong?). Santa Sangre is also a dramatization of real events, namely the gruesome murders and posterior rehabilitation of the first known Mexican multiple killer: Goyo Cárdenas. Finally, with its lush and oneiric use of the streets and architecture of Mexico City, as well as the colours, sounds and gestures typical of the country, this film can be also be seen as a moving image version of its famous ex-voto paintings: tableaux vivants depicting prosaic miracles attributed to the Virgin Mary and other saints. The Mexicans have always had a fondness for finding the miraculous in the everyday, just like Jodorowsky. But while some call it religion, others prefer to call it (psycho)magic.
This text was commissioned in 2013 by the artist Darren Banks for his project The Annotated Palace Collection, a weekly blog post inviting writers to respond to one of the fifteen horror films that make up the Palace Collection.