‘A dream in the middle of reality’ is the phrase used at one point by visionary Chilean filmmaker, actor and artiste Alejandro Jodorowsky to describe his unique 1989 film “Santa Sangre” (“Holy Blood”) during a commentary for the work, recorded some years ago with critic Alan Jones, which can be heard once more accompanying this splendid UK Blu-ray release from Mr Bongo Films. Jodorowsky’s succinct summation provides the key to analysing the disorientating nature of the experience of viewing the film for the first time -- a film which has often been described as a modern surrealist masterpiece. Largely shot on the streets of Mexico City, its imagery is saturated throughout with the local flavours and atmospheres of the country Jodorowsky made his home for many years during the sixties: the riot of colour amid the squalor & thriving street life and the character of the country’s popular culture are all critical to fleshing out the detail of the film’s subject matter, and capture the specific feel of a milieu with a documentarian’s eye for authenticity.
Yet the palpable sense of a people’s experience being captured in the raw (and soundtracked with a potent cocktail of indigenous mariachi and spicy mamba music), is made concurrent with Jodorowsky’s use of the setting as a backdrop for his characteristically striking, deeply personal and symbolic dreamlike set-pieces – a circus elephant’s funeral parade for instance, or the bulldozing of a bizarre religious cult’s chapel. In the former case, the circus troupe’s clown-led, black and white ceremony for a fallen giant takes place amid the real-life crowds seen lining the route to watch, and the actions of the starving shanty dwellers, who later plunder the huge coffin for elephant meat after it is launched off of a ravine at the climax of the animal’s theatrically staged funeral, were unpremeditated and largely unplanned -- filmed as they happened and on the fly. Artifice and reality are interwoven and blended throughout the sequence which occurs near the start of the film and depicts the authorities’ violent destruction of the cult of Santa Sangre’s church and its perversely kitschy shrine -- which is outlandishly dedicated to an armless schoolgirl martyr, raped and murdered by bandits. The blind, red-robed followers who defiantly but joyfully line up in front of the bulldozers to sing in the face of destruction, really were blind, recruited from a local band found nearby; and the extras in the crowded streets in this and many other scenes are simply the local people who happened to be around at the time, wandering among the Mexican prostitutes, shown in the midst of this carnival atmosphere, selecting their clients from the patiently waiting patrons who line the roads amid the hurly-burly of the bustling throngs.
The manner in which the film’s production origins are uniquely bound up with its content is at the crux of Jodorowsky’s filmmaking genius: after the failure of his attempt to film a version of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel “Dune” (later directed rather unsuccessfully by David Lynch), Jodorowsky -- whose handful of pictures still amount to little more than six films spread across a period of almost forty years -- was offered the chance to make another, much smaller-scale feature, by the Italian producer Claudio Argento. As the producer brother of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, Claudio was, according to Jodorowsky’s account, looking to expand his producer-ship beyond his sibling’s niche output, and to that extent he allowed Alejandro the opportunity to write and film whatever he wanted, although perhaps he was hedging his bets slightly because this ‘freedom’ came with the stipulation that the resultant film had to feature ‘a man who kills a lot of women’!
The way in which Jodorowsky incorporates this required horror motif, and numerous other references to horror movies, into a work which deals with personal elements of his own biography very much rooted in memories of his upbringing in Chile and which concern his feelings of resentment and dislike for his violently dysfunctional parents, while also examining the cultural character of Mexico itself -- an element inspired by Jodorowsky’s chance meeting with a true-life reformed serial killer in a bar -- produces a baroque cocktail of feverish surreal circus imagery, which sits in the midst of an urban landscape that feels utterly real. The results are almost as if Jodorowsky had projected the psychic history of a city into the present in a form filled with distorted symbolic themes interwoven with his own personal experiences.
The central conceit of the film is fairly coherent (indeed, this is by far the most narrative-based work in Jodorowsky’s filmography, discounting the made-to-order “The Rainbow Thief”), possibly because the involvement of giallo writer Roberto Leoni (credited as one of the co-writers) helped to lend shape and some degree of order to Jodorowsky’s sprawling ideas; the film is made up of an inspired amalgamation of themes appropriated from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and “The Hands of Orlac”/”The Beast with Five Fingers”/”Mad Love”, in which a man who has spent years confined to an institution because of mental trauma inflicted on him as a child after he witnessed his flamboyant circus owning father cut off his trapeze artist mother’s arms (in retaliation for her pouring a jar of acid on his genitals after catching him in flagrante with the tattooed woman!) and then slit his own throat, emerges back into the world only to fall under the influence of his domineering mother -- who uses him as her arms in a burlesque act on the stage, but also overpowers his psyche to the extent that his own personality is made subservient to hers and he is forced to play the same role for her in her offstage activities, which include taking murderous revenge on the tattooed lady, now working as a prostitute who pimps out her angelic, deaf-mute tightrope-walking daughter, Alma.
The Felliniesque circus imagery which predominates in the first half of the film, and the story Jodorowsky weaves around it, with its incorporation of pronounced elements of mime and theatrical performance, is one of the major tropes important to Jodorowsky himself, who grew up with a deep love of traditional circus acts, was involved with avant-garde theatre in the sixties, and wrote performances pieces for French mime artist Marcel Marceau. It also feeds into the mosaic of allusions to horror cinema threading through the narrative, in that one of the director’s favourite films is Tod Browning’s famously ill-conceived pre-code horror for MGM, “Freaks”; and “Santa Sangre” certainly harbours a definite taste for the display of the physically unusual or the bizarre, with such characters as the vampish and cruel tattooed woman (Thelma Tixou); the decidedly butch looking ‘female’ wrestler (played by a man) seen in one of the later episodes being romantically courted by the grown-up Fenix; or the gangling giant who becomes a potential client when the tattooed woman starts pimping out her daughter, Alma: all are characters who can testify to Jodorowsky’s fascination with representations of non-standard physicality; and the director also follows in Browning’s controversial footsteps with the inclusion of some sequences in which he uses real Down’s Syndrome sufferers as well, although, despite their controversial nature (an aspect I will address in more detail later) these scenes always strike me as perhaps the most impishly joyful ones in the movie, and certainly the ‘drag queen mamba’ section has become one of my favourite parts of the film over the years.
The personal aspect of the story, meanwhile, is made especially potent by the prominent casting of three of Jodorowsky’s own sons in major roles. Axel Jodorowsky plays the grown-up Fenix, seen at the start of the film remembering his former life as a child in his parents’ touring circus, from his empty room in the care home; empty, that is, apart from an artificial tree, the top of which serves as his only vantage point for observing a small segment of the outside world (from a window set high in the wall), that’s later to be re-introduced to him by a street pimp played by another of Jodorowsky’s sons, Teo. The younger Fenix is played by the director’s ten year-old son Adan: an eagle’s eye view from the skies – actually an aerial helicopter shot taken above Mexico City -- announces the ensuing extended flashback to the youthful Fenix’s traumatic childhood experiences, and seems both a reference to the opening shot of Orson Welles’ border thriller “A Touch of Evil” and a figurative representation of Fenix’s spirit (a Phoenix tattoo will be seen painfully etched with a knife into the young boy’s chest by his father as a rite of passage, later in the film) taking flight into a past which once offered the fleeting hope of purity in the form of his budding relationship with the abused young deaf-mute tightrope walker Alma (played as a youngster by Faviola Elenka Tapia) but which has since been tainted by the florid passions and angry clashes of his Mexican religious fanatic mother Concha (Blanca Guerra) and his obese, sex-crazed American-born father Orgo (Guy Stockwell), whose knife-throwing performances often seem like barely sublimated acts of sexual penetration.
In the midst of the sights of the ‘Circus Gringo’s’ big top spectacle -- the music, the clowns, the performing animals – the young Fenix is cast as the youngest magician in the world (his costume an allusion by the comic book-loving director to the crime fighting comic-strip superhero, Mandrake the Magician) and the garish church of Santa Sangre stands as Jodorowsky’s cheekily absurdist nod to the pious mixture of imported Catholicism and traditional Mexican folklore which characterises much of popular Mexican religious practice, such as, for instance, that which surrounds the legend concerning the venerated ‘miraculous’ 16th century image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who’s likeness has become ubiquitous through its influence on the course of the history of the country.
Fenix’s obsessive mother leads this bogus ‘cult’ from a chapel which harbours a tacky-looking plaster icon of its armless schoolgirl martyr, while the dead would-be saint’s blood apparently continues to fill a shallow pool on the site of her murder. This first half of the film is the key to unlocking the perverse, fantastical horror-inflected spectacle which later unfolds, as it relates how the young Fenix is involuntarily shaped by his interactions with these outlandish parental figures, pulling him in opposing directions under the influence of both his mother’s intense religious devotion and his father’s showmanship and machismo. The spilling of blood is an important recurrent image: that of the dying elephant, bleeding through its trunk, and that of Concha’s schoolgirl martyr, her death depicted in a series of primitively drawn frescos in the church of Santa Sangre’s chapel -- both denoting tainted innocence; and then there is the violent mutilation and death respectively of each parent, attended by flamboyant images of projectile exsanguination (the mother’s bleeding arm stumps and the father’s slashed throat) witnessed by the innocent Fenix, who then retreats into his own world as an escape from the trauma of these experiences.
The second half of the film becomes a hallucinogenic cocktail of set-pieces constructed around the grown-up Fenix’s misbegotten attempts to deal with the influences which have distorted his psyche during childhood. The scenes in which the Down’s Syndrome adolescents appear alongside the now grown-up Fenix are crucial in establishing a transition point for the latter, which sees the character re-emerge from tainted memories of his circus upbringing onto exactly the same streets in the present day. His first trip outside his asylum room takes him back through these locations and turns from an amiable bus trip with the Down’s Syndrome kids to see “Robertson Crusoe” at a local cinema, into another initiation into the corruption of innocence that is now routinely taking place in the adult world, culminating in another encounter with the tattooed woman from Fenix’s childhood (who has now become a ‘shopworn’ prostitute).
It’s interesting, though, that Jodorowsky doesn’t portray the Down’s Syndrome day care patients’ experiences with the street pimp (Teo Jodorowsky) -- who diverts them from the cinema queue and leads them off on a mamba line jaunt along colourful, transvestite hooker-adorned streets, to feed them cocaine and to introduce the group into the company of a huge, Felliniesque ‘mama’ prostitute – as entirely negative: there’s a pronounced contrast in the guileless, unpremeditated openness with which the children who appear in this part of the film are shown to engage with the very act of performing their roles, that punctures the narrative illusion and the theatrical artifice they are surrounded by, while also seeming to work as an demonstration by Jodorowsky that even such decadence as that which is being portrayed here as existing all around these innocent beings, has its own place in the development of the human soul. But once again dream and reality are intermingled in an unusually precise and evocative manner during this section of the movie, which produces an uncomfortable feeling in some viewers, who interpret the use of real-life disability in this context as exploitative. This section of the film precedes Fenix’s escape from the mental ward and his re-introduction to his now arm-less mother, which takes place in a shabby backstreet shrouded in a billowing mist that seems to demarcate the line between reality and the phantasmagorical qualities of the narrative, which will now mark out the second half of the story from the first.
“Freaks” is the classic horror film influence initially used to establish the uncomfortable mixture of reality and fantasy thus far encountered -- but the rest of the film delivers a potpourri of allusions to the genre while always continuing to maintain the director’s own unique sensibility. “Psycho” and “The Hands of Orlac” are of course the principle components in the bizarre scenario that now begins to unfold: Axel Jodorowsky was clearly a talented mime artist and his scenes with Bianca Guerra, in which Fenix acts as his amputee mother Concha’s hands, while using his father’s knives from the performer’s circus knife-throwing act, become a poetic means of establishing just how thoroughly the embittered matriarch’s passions now dominate and submerge the consciousness of the son. Fenix has to anticipate each movement that will be required by Concha when performing her arm movements on the stage, but even when they are alone at home together he finds himself performing the necessary everyday functions for her in the same way; while the mother can simultaneously now see right into her son’s mind, and often comments on and ridicules Fenix’s more outlandish hallucinations.
Jodorowsky now provides the film with its requisite but much delayed ‘horror’ scenes, principally in the form of a central murder sequence which comes almost exactly at the mid-way point. The murder of the tattooed lady is staged and delivered almost as though it were a parody of producer Claudio’s brother’s work, taking the opening tour-de-force murder in Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” as its model, complete with delirium-inducing red and blue lighting effects. Except that Jodorowsky executes the lengthy stabbing that follows with even more ferocity and twice as much blood, as though wishing to get such requirements over with in one outrageous orgy of movie violence that will sate the appetite of the audience for such material and then allow him to get on with exploring his own particular preoccupations. The film’s climactic confrontation also provides a clear instance of the director adapting traditional elements of horror drama for his own ends, when he combines the aesthetics of German Expressionism and the use of then-state-of-the-art steady-cam, for a scene in which the now grown-up Alma (this time played by real-life deaf-mute actress Sabrina Dennison) explores the shadowy childhood home to which Fenix has returned with his mother. Alma is a symbol of purity and innocence -- returning from the damaged man’s past to offer him redemption -- but first she must penetrate the shroud of self-protecting illusion woven by Fenix’s subconscious as she confronts the possessive mother still lurking in the shadows amid her decaying religious icons and paraphernalia.
Other horror references thread the narrative throughout also -- often with more subtle or symbolic intent: Concha’s domestic routines employ Fenix’s arms and hands in a theatrical recreation of the flamboyant persona acted by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Hollywood Gothic horror show “Sunset Boulevard” to illustrate the son’s entrapment in his mother’s delusional myopia; and Fenix’s attempts to escape the all-penetrating gaze and influence of the corrupted mother parent is later symbolised in Axel’s mimicry of scenes from James Whale’s “The Invisible Man”, itself a masterful evocation of incipient madness. One of the film’s most surrealistic sequences has Fenix seemingly directed to kill the ‘female’ wrestler (a parody of machismo in Mexican wrestling films played by a man with plastic breasts!) from the stage of a small home-built theatre in his basement, with Concha’s psychic influence being wielded from an on-stage sarcophagus in which she lies dressed as a Cleopatra-like mummy. A sequence in which naked white-faced zombie brides rise from their graves to accuse their murderer evokes “Night of the Living Dead” and the lysergic nightmare visions of Brazilian director Jose Mojica Marins (aka, Coffin Joe) with their pantomimic show of slow-motion somnambulism.
The fantasy and horror imagery is also enhanced by an effective synthesiser score from Simon Boswell to help in contrasting it with the film’s realistic elements, which are usually accompanied by more traditional Mexican sounds. The dualistic function performed by the placement of fantasy and reality alongside each other works in combination with other oppositions maintained during the film: the mixed display of Mexican and American cultural influences and the female and male parental antagonism, for instance, with each symbolising or reflecting the other at various points. The air of unreality is aided by the post-dubbed English that is used throughout on the soundtrack, which also ties it to its European horror heritage, where such practices, especially in Italian cinema, were and are virtually de rigueur. Daniele Nannuzzi’s cinematography manages the seemingly almost impossible feat of providing this patchwork with a cohesive visual aesthetic style throughout, and the spectacle, by and large, gets a very satisfactory rendering in HD on the new UK Blu-ray release from Mr Bongo Films: extra detail and clarity are much in evidence and colour in the more fantastical sequences agreeably intense. Meanwhile, the Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack lends a clear and well-defined audio landscape to Jodorowsky’s imagery.
The disc features an extensive collection of extras (which are also available on a 2-disc DVD version) headed by a director commentary moderated by Alan Jones. It emerges during the course of their chat that Jodorowsky had only recently (at the time of recording) allowed him-self to view the film again after years of attempting to dismiss it from his mind because the prominent presence in the cast of his deceased son Teo (who died in a car crash) had previously upset him. Although unwilling to explain the meaning or symbolism in much of his often strange, dreamlike imagery, Jodorowsky is able to talk extensively about the background and thinking behind the film, largely thanks to Alan Jones having such an easy rapport with the director as well as an extensive knowledge and interest in both Jodorowsky and the film’s producer Claudio Argento, enabling him to probe perhaps more deeply than others may have been able to.
A half-hour documentary, “Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Cult Cinema”, looks at the director/actor/comic-book writer and mystic’s wide-ranging career from the various perspectives of a number of contributors who have each had dealings with him in the different roles he’s adopted during his life. These include journalist and author Jean-Paul Coillard, comic book illustrator Francois Boucq, author and friend Coralie Trinh Thi, director Jean Kounen and Jodorowsky’s son Brontis. Jodorowsky’s difficult relationship with his parents is examined as a source of inspiration for the director’s films and he explains how he tried to make movies such as “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” have the same impact on the viewer as LSD. In an on-stage interview filmed in December 2002 at the ICA in London, the director talks about the difficulty of making movies in Mexico in the 1960s, about how John Lennon’s championing of “El Topo” helped find the film its audience and about his own favourite recent film-makers. Some deleted scenes are included with a brief commentary, there’s a short film -- “Echek” -- by the grown-up star of “Santa Sangre”, Adan Jodorowsky, and also a trailer. The main extra here though is the ninety minute documentary by Louis Mouchet, “La Constellation Jodorowsky”, which looks back at the director’s career up to 1994 with the help of contributions from the likes of Fernando Arrabal, Peter Gabriel, Marcel Marceau and Jean 'Moebius' Giraud. Jodorowsky’s early involvement with avant-garde theatre, performance art and cult cinema (which includes an account of how the aborted “Dune” project led to the development of his interest in comic books) is all examined, as well as his side-line as a sort of guru and tarot card reader.
“Santa Sangre” remains probably Alejandro Jodorowsky’s most accessible work and is his most satisfying in terms of providing a complete viewing experience, incorporating the director’s imaginative flights of offbeat fantasy into a surreal but digestible narrative which maintains dramatic flow, even when its content becomes utterly bizarre. It’s a late eighties cult classic which finds itself admirably dealt with on this Blu-ray release, with a nice HD transfer and a fine set of extras. Recommended.