Largely vanished from the cinema scene after his late-night classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Alejandro Jodorowsky made a surprise return in 1989 that attempted to marry the director’s visionary, Felliniesque excess to the dying giallo genre (Claudio Argento, brother of Dario, was producer and co-writer).
The director’s son, Axel (it’s a family affair), plays Fenix, son of circus artistes who, in childhood (where he’s played by Adan, another Jodorowsky offspring) witnesses a horrific incident in which his knife-thrower father, cheating on mum with the tattooed lady, is castrated with a bottle of acid and takes bloody revenge, hacking off her arms before cutting his own throat.
Confined to an insane asylum until he reaches adulthood (he thinks he’s a bird so they kindly provide him with a perch), Fenix is released to the care of his armless mother, and forms a symbiotic relationship with her, becoming her arms not only in the mime act they perform (based on an old routine originally developed for Marcel Marceau), but also in private life. When this extends to murdering any woman who threatens the maternal bond, the stage is set for either tragedy or redemption, since Fenix is motivated not just by twisted mother-love and misogyny but by finer feelings too, notably his childhood love for a mute girl, Alma.
Promoted with the apt slogan ‘Forget everything you have ever seen’, Jodorowsky’s film takes no prisoners, except maybe for purposes of torture. The circus scenes eat up much of the narrative, so that when the psycho-thriller action begins it feels like a new movie erupting from the ashes of the old, but this allows the Chilean maniac to serve up set-pieces like the elephant’s funeral (with black-clad clowns squirting tears) and wallow in his own perversity to considerable impact.
Overheated performances, with almost everyone speaking heavily-accented English, combine with some ridiculous moments to make this a film that doesn’t walk any consistent line tonally. Entranced by a sexy strongwoman (in reality a he-man with plastic bosoms), Fenix finds himself wrestling a python. The python is his penis, get it? Operatic emotion bashes against Cocteau-esque fantasy and blood-drenched violence, with bursts of tinted lighting evoking Bava or Argento. If you simply surrender to the ride, this needn’t be a problem.
What might trouble you more is the director’s love for decorating the action with physical oddities: the fat lady and the one-eared man are particularly gratuitous, but merely the tip of a malformed iceberg. Fellini is certainly an influence, but no doubt Jodorowsky comes by his obsessions honestly. The only question is, is he exploiting his subjects like a carnival showman, or collaborating with them as artists? Probably both.
The film is about misogyny, on one level. Jodorowsky cheerfully confesses to this disease, and says the film cured him of it. Again, one can doubt whether the movie is at all times an examination of the vice or an indulgence of it. One spectacular showpiece murder, scored with upbeat Latin rhythms, certainly veers into very murky, blood-slicked terrain, and the victim is portrayed variously as a malevolent harridan, temptress and collection of obscene poses and body parts, so the film has some furious back-pedalling to do to avoid simply coming across as hate-porn.
But for all that, it does something practically no giallo delivers: an interrogation of the psychology behind the films of woman murder. Often giallos reveal a female killer at the end, as if to derail examination of the filmmaker’s motives: ‘This isn’t about my misogyny, it’s about women’s.’ Despite knifing fictional women for decades in his films, Dario Argento still seems disinclined to consider why he is so drawn to such imagery. Not that I necessarily want to condemn it, but I’d like to understand it.
Well, Santa Sangre at first blames a castrating, woman-hating woman for the murders it so gleefully depicts. But the ending, which I won’t spoil, deepens and complicates the discourse. Jodorowsky, though he’s a sucker for a big splashy image or cheap shock effect, has nevertheless genuinely considered who is really moving those murderous arms, and why. The hand that rocked the cradle does not wield the blade.