Santa Sangre (1989)

I first encountered Sante Sangre at Prime Time Video in Ellwood City, the video store of my childhood. For some reason, it was stocked in the horror section. I have no idea where I’d put the film myself, but it felt like horror was often the catchall for the films that were not understood. And, of course, as I grew up in a very small town between Pittsburgh and Youngstown, no one was going to rent anything out of a foreign section. As such, amongst the gorehounds of home, Sante Sangre was a film that was too odd, too strange and ultimately not violent enough to appease our needs. I’d never rented it and now, an old man who worships at the foot of The Holy Mountain, I find myself wishing that I could send a message back to my younger self and tell him to seek this film out.

Interestingly enough, this film was written by Roberto Leoni, who had worked in the library of a psychiatric hospital which inspired this film. Leoni also wrote My Dear KillerCasablance Express and one of the oddest movies I’ve ever seen, Sergio Martino’s American Rickshaw.

He brought the script to Claudio Argento, who felt that Alejandro Jodorowsky was the only director who could make this movie. However, after Dune ended due to money issues and Tusk was considered a failure, Jodorowsky had disappeared. The director would only meet Leoni, telling him that the angel of stories had passed over Paris and taken this story to Italy, but it was meant for him to tell.

After all, Jodorowsky had had a chance meeting in the alley outside a bar with Gregorio Cardenas Hernandez, the famed Estrangulador de Tacuba who had emerged after nearly thirty years in prison able to play the piano, write poetry, practice law and with a wife and four children. He was pardoned of his crimes and led a normal, if famous, life until his death in 1999.

Fenix, played at different times by Jodorowsky’s sons Axel and Adan, has grown up in the circus, the child of Orgo the knife-thrower and Concha the trapeze artist. His mother is also the leader of a cult that worships a dead child who was raped and had her arms cut off by two brothers. As the Catholic church and the government destroy their place of worship, Orgo is making love to the tattooed woman who he performs alongside. Concha catches him, but is hynotized and raped as well.

As if that isn’t bad enough, the beloved elephant dies despite Fenix’s prayers. He watches as scavengers tear it apart in the city dump and all his father can do is carve up his chest with a tattoo to try to stop his tears and make him a man.

That night, Concha finally rises up against Orgo, burning his privates with acid. He retaliates by cutting off her arms before slicing his own throat, unable to live without his sexual member. The tattooed woman takes the mute Alma — who Fenix already loves — and runs off into the bloody night.

We move back to the present, where the film began with Fenix in a mental institution. A chance outing reveals to him that the tattooed woman is still alive and trying to introduce Alma to a life of selling her body. That night, a strange woman kills the older inked female, but we can’t see who it is.

We soon learn that Concha is forcing Fenix to be her arms — not just in their knife throwing act, which forces him to become a strange substitute for his father — but in a series of murders. Alma tries to get Fenix to leave this all behind, but his mother demands that he kills the only woman he has ever loved. He responds by stabbing her, yet she does not die.

That’s when we learn the truth. Concha has been dead since the night Orgo took her arms all those years ago and an armless mannequin has been the one that our hero — such as it is — has been listening to. Along with the help of more imaginary friends, Fenix destroys the past and surrenders to the police, amazed that he has regained control of his arms once again.

As the elephant dies in this film, inspiration was born. In Eddie Murphy’s song “Whazupwitu,” everything begins with the words of the clown: “The elephant is dying.” This is not the last time Murphy would mention the director’s work, as he often brought him up while he did press for Dolemite Is My Name.

I am also amused that beyond Argento’s brother producing this — and by osmosis some of the murder scenes feeling as if they are inspired by Dario — Rene Cardona Jr. (yes, the director of Tintorera) was also a producer.

Even after several watches of this film, I am still astounded by its rich palette of colors, the way it synthesizes references from Universal’s Invisible Man to the lucha movies of Mexico’s past and how the hero is the villain while also being pure of heart, despite the many murders he has committed.

Perhaps in my teenage years, I was not yet ready for the psychomagic cocktail that a teacher like Jodorowsky was shaking up with this film. Yet today, I can definitely tell you that it has my highest recommendation. Please watch it. I’d love to discuss it with you.

You can watch this on Tubi.

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