31 Days of Horror: Day 3- Santa Sangre (1989)

Despite the gruesome creatures, flying limbs and buckets of blood, horror as a genre can feel pretty stale. For every excellent film there is a dozen forgettable or terrible ones. And there are so many that it takes a lot of wading through the rubbish to get to the interesting stuff. For each day in October I’m going to recommend a different horror film or film about horror.  For the most part they won’t be the accepted classics. My selections range from the genuinely excellent to the delightfully strange with a few that are more fascinating than they are great. Hopefully there will be something for everyone and you’ll find something new to give you a scare or maybe a laugh. This is my 31 days of Horror and today I’m talking about: Santa Sangre.

Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky is mainly known for his surrealist classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Jodorowsky brings the same visual inventiveness and occasional craziness to his 1989 horror film Santa Sangre. There are moments in El Topo and The Holy Mountain that are just so wild that we cannot help but laugh in disbelief (for example; costumed frogs and lizards re-enacting the taking of Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors in The Holy Mountain). Santa Sangre is full of similarly insane scenes in the midst of its Psycho-esque plot. It isn’t completely successful as a consistently scary horror film but it is one of the most wildly original and entertainingly mad.

After seeing the death of his circus ringmaster father and dismemberment of his radically religious mother, a young boy ends up in an insane asylum. In a clever way of establishing visual continuity Joroowsky casts his sons in the young version and the older version of the main character (and then a third son gets to be a pimp). He finds himself liberated from the asylum and back in the arms of his mother who coerces him into enacting bloody revenge.

When reduced to a basic plot synopsis it sounds like the set up for any other slasher flick dealing with mother issues. This is not the case at all, in the hands of Jodorowosky this story becomes unlike anything you have ever seen. I don’t know if it’s the language barrier or his sheer skill but Jodorowsky manages to include horrific violence, psychological torment, staggering beauty as well as genuine hilarity without there being any kind of tonal dissonance. I mean, the film includes a lavish circus funeral procession for an elephant (with a giant coffin) as well as the detailing of how this mans view of women has been warped. There are some horror films that are so ludicrous that they become comedies but Santa Sangre retains its intended power while still offering laughs.

One of the central themes of the film is how our parents shape our perception of the world and it takes this idea to some macabre places. The boy’s two parents are the extremes of two wildly different directions; the father is an open womaniser and the mother a radically religious woman. She praises the titular Santa Sangre, a young woman who was raped and had her arms chopped off that is declared a saint. This act of evil reverberates through time as the mother is smothering and violently insane because of her feverish devotion to the church of Santa Sangre. The church is not adorned with religious iconography but with images depicting this girl’s death to the point that what is actually being worshiped becomes obscured. In her attempts to turn a wicked act into a positive one she’s just twisted her sons mind. His father’s crudely overly sexual performances and the mother’s deification of mutilation are what gives birth to the mad killer the son becomes. Before the boy is taken from his parents he is forced to see them violently collide and is powerless to stop it or even look away. His life has been that moment of forceful torment and his later violent acts are the result of that.

For a film that could come across as another pulpy horror film it explores some really interesting ideas through the wild and carnivalesque. At the same time it’s a film that got me to exclaim in bemusement at what I was seeing. It doesn’t aim to show the unnecessarily grotesque or sickeningly violent, rather it shows things that defy belief. The shocks in Santa Sangre are not of the “that’s gross” variety but of the “I didn’t think such a thing was possible” variety. The lead character breaks free from the asylum when he and a group of mentally disabled patients are taken to the cinema. Before they enter to see Robinson Crusoe they are given cocaine by a pimp and taken to check out some prostitutes. In the hands of another director this could be an uncomfortably distasteful scene but Jodorowsky finds the humour in the ridiculousness of it. Like some sort of twisted fairy tale he gets at truths through fantastical imagery and it’s quite a thing to behold.

If Psycho took a bunch of LSD and went on a spiritual journey with Federico Fellini the film it would emerge as is Santa Sangre. Jodorowsky injects a potentially clichéd story with intense originality, surrealism, arresting visuals and in doing so has created something wholly unique. Some could say that every story has been told but Jodorowsky proves that they can be told in an infinite number of ways. His telling of this story mixes horror, splendour and humour in a gloriously crazy way that needs to be seen.

James M Macleod

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