Coming from Alejandro Jodorowsky, Santa Sangre stands as an inspiring, disturbing and frustratingly somewhat inaccessible mark on his resume. Santa Sangre tells the story of Fenix (Adan Jodorowsky as a child, Axel Jodorowsky as an adult), a man traumatized by events from his childhood. His entire family is part of a circus, with young Fenix being a magician. Fenix’s mother, Concha, worships a girl whose arms were cut off and was raped as a saint. Fenix’s father, Orgo (Guy Stockwell), cheats on Concha with The Tattooed Woman (Thelma Tixou). Horrible events occur due to these two things, leading to Concha and Orgo’s deaths. Young Fenix, who sees just about everything, is rightfully shaken. As an adult he lives in a mental institution. He acts like a bird like the one tattooed on his chest, eating raw fish and squawking at the doctors. One night Fenix goes out with some of the other patients and he sees The Tattooed Woman, seemingly awakening something in him. The following day, Fenix responds to the doctors and orderlies as a human, much to their delight. Fenix then hears his mother calling to him, he climbs to the window and sees Concha waiting for him on the outside, armless. What follows is a string of murders internal battles within Fenix on moral and mental levels.
That long synopsis aside, Santa Sangre is an odd film. The trip into Fenix’s psyche is explored just enough to keep the audience wondering what’s really going on until the very end — and even then, it may not be entirely clear. Fenix’s dynamic with his mother presents Oedipus signals at times — a sick spin on the common saying that nobody will ever love you like your mother. The things that Concha has Fenix do — from being her arms to perform songs on piano to murdering women — act as suppressants to any interests that Fenix may have, romantic or otherwise. By the time Fenix finds a woman he feels he can break Concha’s control from, he’s already slain several women; enough to fill a small graveyard. This could be an extension of the trauma that Fenix has from childhood, where he listens to his mother’s commands in order to escape the sexual disarrays that led to his parents’ deaths. Santa Sangre gives the audience plenty of time to figure out Fenix’s trauma and whether he gains any liberation by the end.
Something that may throw people off when it comes to Santa Sangre is its genre. It is categorized as a horror or avant-garde horror film. While the film has its fair share of gore and killing, including a scene where Fenix hacks and slashes a buff woman (a man in drag), it isn’t enough to make many people scream or need a diaper (or maybe I’ve become desensitized after having sat through several horror films). But why Santa Sangre deserves to be placed in the horror genre, is the terror on morality that it wages. Throughout the film, it is easy to sympathize with Fenix, but the question present is whether his actions are justifiable. It’s true that his mother has control over him — his hands being hers — but how does Fenix escape any of that? When he is presented with an out, one of the best moments in the film happens and it seems like he has found liberation. But what it takes for Fenix to get to that liberation is what makes Santa Sangre so terrifying. Also, his mother? Super creepy.
Simon Boswell worked on the soundtrack for Santa Sangre and listening to it is one of the most chilling 19-minute experiences I’ve ever had. The soundtrack pairs well with the off-putting, sometimes depressing and sometimes silly visuals. The limited budget is apparent in many scenes, but it works in Santa Sangre’s favor. There is no need to have a grandiose look into Fenix, Concha, the slain women or his obsession with magic and film heroes he wants to emulate. Perhaps that’s what makes it avant-garde. Or maybe Santa Sangre is given that categorization because even though it has a lot to say, not everyone is going to have the patience to wade through 123 minutes (my best friend told me after our viewing that he was frustrated with how long the scene of Fenix getting his tattoo was). Or maybe people just plain won’t care because it’s beyond artsy - which is fair, but hot damn if it isn’t good for trying.