Saoirse’s Cult Corner #4: Santa Sangre (1989)

In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.

This fortnight marks the beginning of a deep dive into the career of Alejandro Jodorowsky to tie into the fabulous new Arrow Video release in March. For now, though we will take you through the back catalogue of Jodorowsky, not on the release to sufficiently contextualise what comes next.

Today we talk about horror film Santa Sangre.

Content warning, this article discusses rape and childhood trauma

An Alejandro Jodorowsky horror movie is a weird thing. After ‘Tenebrae’, Dario Argento sibling Claudio Argento wanted time away from the great Argento family machine and went to explore pastures new, after having produced five films for his brother. In 1989 Jodorowsky was coming off the back of his longest break from filmmaking ever at that time and was about to embark on an even longer break between 1990 & 2013. It’d been 19 years since the film that put him on the midnight movie map, ‘El Topo’, and 16 years since his last released film and widely considered masterpiece ‘The Holy Mountain’. In 1980 Jodorowsky made a movie called ‘Tusk’ about a strange relationship between a young English girl and an elephant that never got a release. These days all that’s available to the ordinary consumer is a trailer, and the film is by all accounts awful. Claudio’s post-Argento career hadn’t been going too well either with two Italian films that I really doubt anyone’s seen called ‘Distant Lights’ & ‘Little Flames’ – and in fact right after ‘Santa Sangre’ Claudio Argento went back to the Argento machine for ‘Two Evil Eyes’. So on paper, it might not look to good for ‘Santa Sangre’ but it is truly transfixing as soon as you turn it on.

The film opens with a man who’s convinced that he’s a bird. He is being held in what seems to be a care home or a mental asylum. His only furniture is a tall leafless tree trunk that he perches on. A man comes in, his doctor, (who isn’t but looks eerily like Alex’s truancy officer from ‘A Clockwork Orange’), comes in and offers him fish, professing a wish for him to ‘eat like a normal human’, something he’ll only do after a cocaine-fuelled bender that seems to open strange new crevices of his mind, long-buried. The man transforms into what looks like an eagle, similar to the tattoo emblazoned on his chest, although he is named Phoenix, and he takes across the skies, seemingly our guide through this twisted story, but we soon realise this is some surreal flashback. Phoenix is a child who works in a circus, his mother runs a church that’s about to be knocked down. They invite a bishop who calls heresy on the church which devolves into a back of forth of ‘yes’, and ‘no’, seemingly a parody of all religious debate. This platform the condemned church holds may not be within traditional Catholic lore but it is certainly a spiritual place to its congregation. Already at this early point in the story, many potential symbols and ideas have been thrown up, provoking oblique inspections of its potential metaphors. ‘Santa Sangre’ may well be the best Jodorowsky film to start with actually because in terms of it’s metaphor it is probably his most straightforward. Its emotional core is really clear if you put the least modicum of thought into it. Basically, if you take standard ideas of Surrealism & Freudian symbols it won’t be too hard to unpick what’s going on here. This ain’t ‘The Holy Mountain’. That being said it does frequently what most Jodorowsky films do best: the film assaults you with symbols and signifiers. Symbols of ideas, themes, or emotions, – and signifiers of inherent properties – in the case of ‘Santa Sangre’, it most prominently plays on gender signifiers. This assault of vagaries is always just vague enough to invite further thought, but just solid enough to make the idea of further thought seem rewarding. In this way, Jodorowsky’s movies invite you to unpick it with the promise it’ll mean something. You know that truly understanding it in its full complexity isn’t the point, the point is the act of trying, and the revelations of self that happens to you as you do so. Surrealist films like ‘Santa Sangre’ are often like black mirrors, reflecting our own demons back at us through these oblique metaphors. Dan Olsen has talked about how modern film criticism approaches plot as something to be unpacked and solved, but if you’re doing that with a Jodorowsky movie, you are missing the goddamn point.

The film is pretty clearly split up into 4 parts

  1. Eagle Man: The Early Years
  2. Eagle Man: The Druggie Years
  3. Eagle Man: The Vagabond Years
  4. Eagle Man: Slasher Villain

Each has its own distinct character, and each sets up individual aspects of the central character’s psychosis that culminates into full-on terror. Claudio Argento’s influence is clear in several sections, taking on the manner of a Giallo murder sequence in all it’s style & brutality. You even have the typical faceless killer murdering through gloved, knife-wielding hands. It must be said though that Jodorowsky holds his own against the most stylistic of Giallo filmmakers. His mise-en-scene, his use of lighting, his brutal editing clearly takes cues from Argento films like ‘Tenebrae’, ‘Suspiria’, & ‘The Bird With The Crystal Plumage’, yet finds it’s own feet in its depiction of brutal murder. Even in other moments, the cinematography is typically beautiful for Jodorowsky, often taking on a strange, pop-art-by-way-of-tripped-out-acid-fuelled-folk-parade aesthetic that feels like if you were to take the weirder moments of the album ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ and translate that into a colour palate.

Now because the film is so, well, intertwined with ideas of gender, it is worth approaching Jodorowsky’s troubling relationship with gender. The goal of these columns that I write for you are not to review these movies but provide a frame of appreciation. However, the issue of sexism does need to be touched on. Alejandro Jodorowsky is alleged to have admitted raping an actress on camera in a rape scene in ‘El Topo’, although reading the quote it more comes across like Jodorowsky doesn’t quite know what rape is, or maybe something got lost in translation. Although he does have other, very well recorded misogynistic quotes outside of that. Jodorowsky has problems with women, there’s no getting around it. Then, to look at a movie about a serial killer and the traumas in his childhood that he repeats through his murdering of women… this premise interacts with these ideas of who Jodorowsky is, surely? Especially as it’s a serial killer who is motivated by the symbol of his own hands being his mother’s hands. Surely the crossing of the masculine and the feminine is what is slowly driving him mad? This perversion of the strict lines of masculinity. What then, do we make of the recurring elements of autobiography in Jodorowsky’s movies and how it interplays with these ideas? It’s an interesting playground of intellectual frisson, with genuine philosophical stakes.

I take a different look at things to the argument I have just laid out, although the possibility of that reading always lingers troublingly in the back of my mind. It may well be that Jodorowsky is expressing a true feeling he feels about childhood trauma or trauma in general, but really it’s quite explicit that the film is a damning condemnation of toxic masculinity. It is the very aforementioned tattoo of a phoenix, put on him by an abusive father to turn him into a “man”, that is used as an explicit symbol of the repressed trauma at the heart of his insanity. In terms of the film depicting the mixture of masculine & feminine signifiers as monstrous, upon any close inspection is absurd. One of the main character’s victims is a mixture of the almost cartoonish extremes of both masculine & feminine and it’s treated as honestly, something beautiful.

Again it just comes back to the conventions of Freudian Surrealist analysis. The original surrealists took cues from Freudian ideas of psychoanalysis through free association. In the same way, as Freud put forward ideas that games of word association reveal inner workings of a particular mind, Salvador Dalí & Luis Buñuel posited that if they each describe a scene reacting to the other’s, a coherent worldview would emerge, and thus art would be created. Then, if we look at the most Freudian ideas we can find, what we discover, as it always is with Freud, is that it’s always about the mother. It’s about the mental complex of trying to return to the foetus as Freud would put it, to basically not be independent of the ideation of the mother. It’s Norman Bates is what I’m saying basically.

 Also fundamentally, I think the film expects us as adults to understand that murder is wrong. Is that a stretch? A movie expecting us to be troubled by murder? In the way as all the best first-person perspective serial killer fiction does. If I was to read ‘American Psycho’, ‘The Collector’, or ‘Hangover Square’, and condemn them because they feature killers of women and say that that’s inherently misogynistic, I’d be risible. That being said, yes, to pretend like Alejandro Jodorowsky doesn’t have a problem with women that constantly makes itself present in his films would be ridiculous, but also it’d be a fool’s errand to try and come up with a definite interpretation of anything he makes. Which is uh, thinking about it, exactly what I just tried to do. So I suppose that means I should probably wrap up.

I’ll leave you with this quote about ‘Santa Sangre’ from Philadelphia Enquirer writer Carrie Rickley, “You can say this: it’s never boring”, I think that should be the perfect draw.

 Adios.

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