Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky) is incarcerated in a mental institution where he refuses to act like a proper human being. As he resists his doctors, he remembers where this all started, back when he was being brought up in the circus by his overbearing father Orgo (Guy Stockwell) and a religious fanatic mother Concha (Blanca Guerra), both of whom performed in the show, his father as a knife thrower and his mother as a trapeze artist specialising in being suspended from the big top by her hair. Fenix was in love with the deaf mute girl Alma, who had problems of her own - but would they each be able to overcome them?
Alejandro Jodorowsky's first film in almost a decade was the cause of much interest across the world, for his cult had been gathering apace now his previous way out there movies such as El Topo were being seen more widely, and not simply relegated to performances at midnight shows. Thus when it arrived, his growing number of fans were falling over themselves to praise it and the audacity it contained, but the fact remained this was a much more derivative Jodorowsky than we had seen before. Sure, he was using parts of his own biography to establish his story, but this time he was wearing his influences on his sleeve, and the fact that there were plenty of them didn't quite cancel out the familiarity.
You couldn't have said the same of something like The Holy Mountain, but with Santa Sangre he was on a mission to deliver a horror movie as instructed by producer Claudio Argento, which in this instance meant taking bits and pieces of a wealth of other classics and less than classics (but still notable), then mixing them up together in a mish-mash of plots points and references which began to look like the director's very own guide to what he saw as the best horror movies around, or at least the ones he enjoyed the most. Therefore you had a relationship from Psycho here, a possessed hand or two from Mad Love there, a female version of famed Mexican wrestler Santo too (though she looks suspiciously male with the mask off), and so forth.
In other hands, this might have been too identikit to consider, but such were the variety of its touchstones that even if you hadn't seen the work of Tod Browning, say, you would recognise some kind of tribute was being paid here which brought to life a rather basic "mother drove me mad" storyline. That plot saw flashbacks to Fenix as a child (both adult and boy were played by Jodorowsky's own sons) where we understand - or are forced to understand - why he has ended up rejecting modern life and sinking into his madness. This being a horror film, there had to be a trauma that set this off, and the more lurid the better, thus Orgo is getting it on with Alma's tattooed mother (Thelma Tixou) when Concha finds them and takes terrible vengeance on her philandering husband.
Which results in him cutting off her arms, just as the saint she worships had her limbs severed in an example of grim poetic justice. All witnessed by young Fenix, though his most upsetting experience appears to be that in the pandemonium Alma is taken away by her mother, and he may not see her ever again. It's tempting when discussing Jodorowsky movies to simply start listing the twisted highlights: the chickens pecking at the severed arms (more than two of them), the Down Syndrome patients high on cocaine, the elephant's funeral which ends with it torn apart by an unexplained rubbish tip tribe for food, and so on, but you really had to watch them as threads in a tapestry of whatever the director had on his mind for his vision of the bigger picture. It was just that his bigger picture this time around was more to do with the history of cinema, of extreme cinema in a way, rather than the spiritual gobbledegook he had been obsessing over formerly. Some found Santa Sangre moving; you may find it a bit daft, and for a change you couldn't say there was nothing like it. Music by Simon Boswell.
[This is now back in print in the UK courtesy of Mr Bongo Films on Blu-ray and DVD, with a cinema rerelease as well.]