Just what one is supposed to make of Santa Sangre is anybody’s guess. Yes, I know, you can say that about most of Jodorowsky’s films. The difference here is that Santa Sangre verges on — dare I suggest it? — the comprehensible. Oh, it has no shortage of Jodorowskyisms, but it ultimately has a story that actually more or less hangs together. Note the use of the word “ultimately.” The first part of the film — following a prologue that sets up the latter part of the story — is mostly typical (if that word can be used) of the filmmaker. Such things as the jerry-built “church” run by Concha (Blanca Guerra), the dying elephant, the elephant funeral, and the business of the poor eating the elephant’s corpse have little place anywhere but in a Jodorowsky film — though the church business with its veneration of an armless “saint” does prove central to the story.
At the same time, the set-up of the triangle involving Concha, her philandering circus owner husband Orgo (Guy Stockwell), and the circus’ Tattooed Woman (Thelma Tixou) — not to mention the key element of young Fenix (Adan Jodorowsky) witnessing all this — is pretty straightforward. In fact, it’s the sort of thing that would do for the basic plot of a Tod Browning silent film of the sideshow melodrama stripe. That Browning probably — even were such things possible at the time — would not have included Orgo’s hydrochloric-acid-to-the-genitals comeuppance or the graphic removal of Concha’s arms are really surface details.
By the time the film returns to the adult Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky) and his escape from a lunatic asylum (where he’s apparently been ever since the events described above), Santa Sangre is transforming itself into something not all that far removed from the Italian giallo — specifically the kind made by Dario Argento. (Bear in mind that the film was co-written and produced by Argento’s brother.) It delivers many of the same shocks and gory killings, but with considerably more depth, more point, and doses of intentional humor — as well as a greater sense of German Expressionist film and classic Hollywood horror. (Consider Fenix’s obsession with James Whale’s 1933 The Invisible Man.)
But perhaps the most interesting thing is that — for all its surrealism — Santa Sangre tells a much clearer story with better dramatic construction than just about anything Argento ever made. It also has greater emotional resonance. There’s something ironic and fascinating that a bona fide surrealist should trump a commericial filmmaker in these areas. More to the point, it raises questions about just how “incomprensible” surrealism really is.