SANTA SANGRE (aka: HOLY BLOOD) (director/writer: Alejandro Jodorowsky; screenwriter: Roberto Leoni; cinematographer: Daniele Nannuzzi; editor: Mauro Bonanni; music: Simon Boswell; cast: Axel Jodorowsky (Fenix), Blanca Guerra (Concha), Guy Stockwell (Orgo), Thelma Tixou (Tattooed Woman), Sabrina Dennison (Alma), Adan Jodorowski (Young Fenix), Jesus Juarez (Aladin), Faviola Elenka Topia (Young Alma), Ma. De Jesus Aranzabal (Fat Prostitute), Pimp (Teo Jodorowsky), Sergio Bustamante (Monsignor); Runtime: 123; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Claudio Argento; Anchor Bay; 1989-Italy-in English)

"It's a weird film."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Maverick Chilean-born director Alejandro Jodorowsky ("El Topo"/"The Holy Mountain"/"Fando y Lis"), who worked his trade mostly in France and Mexico, helms this counter-culture, highly personal, tasteless, grisly and lurid avant-garde slasher thriller for the arty cult crowd (a film meant for the midnight screenings of the 1960s, like El Topo, but instead opened at regular hours since that craze had long passed from the big city American scene). 

It's a weird film that's also Jodorowsky's most mainstream film (though still an acquired taste that's best suited for those with a strong stomach for bloodbaths and freaks-such as a sexually active tattooed lady, a colorful midget, and a frantic morose clown). Jodorowsky has been all of the following things in his artistic career: a puppeteer, a circus performer, a mime, a playwright, a film director, a novelist and a comic book author. I have been turned on by his stunning and somewhat complicated visuals and turned off by his penchant for exploitative and gratuitous violence and his heavy-handed storytelling. Jodorowsky's surrealist filmmaking techniques call for an unhealthy mixture of gore and an unbearable holier-than-thou critique of society that looms as part of his cocky macho masquerade as he seeks in his films liberation through violence. This mishmash of a Fellini-esque nightmare, religious (the director's Jesus complex), Oedipal and Freudian symbolic visual feast of the macabre is a cross between Hitchcock's "Psycho" and Tod Browning's "The Unknown." It's Jodorowsky's first film after a 10-year hiatus, and is made on a higher budget than his usual films. 

It opens with the nude twenty-year-old Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky, the director's son) locked in a sanitarium cell and sitting atop a tree, where in a flashback we see how he was traumatized as a child magician by his dysfunctional circus parents: Concha (Blanca Guerra), a fiery trapeze artist who swings from her own long black hair and is also a crazed religious fanatic belonging to a strange cult that worships a woman who was attacked by two men who chopped off her arms, raped her and left her for dead in a pool of her own blood that is now considered 'holy blood' and is where the temple was erected, and Fenix's overbearing, bloated, womanizing, drunken, sequined garbed as a cowboy and knife-throwing performer father Orgo (Guy Stockwell). As a passing to manhood ritual, Fenix's father ties him to a chair and carves a big tattoo of a phoenix into his chest with a knife. 

One day, while performing her high-wire act, Concha spies Orgo screwing the Tattooed Woman (Thelma Tixou). In a jealous rage, she exits the circus floor and douses Orgo’s genitals with sulfuric acid. In a rage and in pain, Orgo slices off Concha’s arms with his knives and then slits his own throat — with young Fenix witnessing it all (no wonder the kid grew up with severe psychological problems!). 

We return to the present, many years after the tragedy, where through a twist of fate involving a group of Downs Syndrome kids, a drug dealing and boom box playing pimp (Teo Jodorowsky, another relation of the director), a dead elephant and an obese prostitute, Fenix is reunited with the Tattoo Woman and her abused deaf-mute daughter (Sabrini Dennson), someone he once had a crush on, and his armless mother. Concha manipulates the wasted away Fenix to escape from the sanitarium, and then uses his hands in a pantomime act to seek vengeance against the Tattoo Woman — subsequently, sliced and diced to death in a knife attack by mother and son. 

The startling imagery makes it a memorable though not necessarily a likable film. If it's something weird that rocks your boat, this might be just your trip. It's a film that demands to be seen on acid, only it offers a gross-out spectacle, ala a slasher flick, that might cause more bad trips than good ones. Jodorowsky, for all his machinations, is not as deep a filmmaker as fellow surrealist, anti-Catholic Church and anti-establishment director Bunuel, but if you can dig someone like the ostentatious Italian horror-splatter director Dario Argento, a specialist in the art of sleaze, then I think this film might suit your taste more than it did mine.

REVIEWED ON 2/4/2008        GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"