To call Santa Sangre Alejandro Jodorowskys most commercial and conventionally plotted film may well be to understate its extraordinary power. It contains a near-indescribable mixture of elements that vie between graphic horror and bodily mutilation, hallucination, surrealism, tormented sexuality and quiet tenderness. Purportedly inspired by a meeting between Jodorowsky and a redeemed Mexican serial killer who wanted Jodorowsky to make a film of his life story, it arrives seeming like a collision between a remake of Psycho (1960) as conducted by Luis Buñuel and a Mardi Gras version of Freaks (1932) being fought over by Federico Fellini and Dario Argento (the film is produced and co-written by Argentos younger brother Claudio).
Jodorowsky has never been a director known for his subtlety. There are times here when he goes over-the-top with bludgeoning Ken Russell-like phallic symbolism of giant anacondas bursting forth from Axels coat, but most of the films conceptualisations are striking and outlandish. The mime pairing of Axel and Blanca Guerra is remarkable to watch how his arms slung through her sleeves take on a sinuous femininity even when they are feeding her breakfast. There are moments of genuine tenderness in the film like the scene where Guy Stockwell tattoos young Fenix with a knife, and the lovely mime work of the deaf-mute character Alma (Sabrina Dennison) who spends the entire film in painted white face. One of the most beautiful scenes is the burial of an elephant in the town rubbish tip where it is then torn apart by the starving poor. There are others moments where the film is downright weird like where Fenix decides to take The Invisible Man (1933) as a personal metaphor and dresses his face in bandages, or how we first see him as the film opens perched naked on the branch of a tree in the midst of an empty room at the asylum. Nobody takes their clothes off but when characters unleash their passions on screen, the film smoulders with sensual energy, particularly when it comes to the carnal paradings of Tattooed Lady Thelma Tixou over a knife-taunting Guy Stockwell, and the fervid pent-up passion that comes in Blanca Guerras performance, or Axels rendezvous with a hard-liquor drinking female bodybuilder and his hypnotising of a stripper with a glittering knife blade. Startling, weird, funny one is never sure whether Jodorowsky is pulling ones leg or getting seriously wrapped up his own pretensions, but the ride is a wildly colourful one while it lasts.
In his previous films, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky himself played the central characters of the mystic questors. Here he casts his son Axel as the character of Fenix, with his younger son Adan playing Fenix as a child. (Jodorowskys other son Ten also turns up as an asylum warder who takes the patients on a visit to a brothel). Axel gives a good performance, despite the stiltedness of the language barrier, he being especially standout in cape and top hat in the memorable scene where he hypnotises the stripper.
After a twenty-four year silence, Alejandro Jodorowsky returned to cinema screens with the surreal autobiographical works The Dance of Reality (2013) and Endless Poetry (2016). Also of interest is Jodorowskys Dune (2013), a fascinating documentary about Jodorowskys planned production of Frank Herberts Dune (1965) that was announced but never got off the ground.