Color, 1989, 124m.
Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Starring Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Guy Stockwell, Thelma Tixou, Sabrina Dennison, Adan Jodorowsky
Severin Films (UHD, Blu-Ray, DVD) (US R0 4K/HD/NTSC), Mr. Bongo (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD), Anchor Bay (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
A strong contender for the finest cult film of the '80s, Alejandro Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre marked a much-delayed return to directing for the El Topo and The Holy Mountain filmmaker after the disastrous fate of his prior film, 1980's rarely seen Tusk. Fortunately the 19-year interim allowed him to craft his most deeply affected and accessible film to date, a stunning statement about the nature of human will and the role of violence and bloodshed in everyday life. It also happens to be one of the great hallucinatory experiences in cinema, a visually intoxicating horror trip that makes a perfect introduction for viewers eager to travel down the more rarely explored routes of international film.
Confined to a low-security mental institution, troubled Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky) is haunted by his childhood in a circus where his domineering ringleader father, Orgo (Stockwell), marked him for life with a painful eagle tattoo and fooled around with the libidinous tattooed female half of his knife-throwing act (Tixou). Meanwhile his mother, Concha (Guerra), is a religious fanatic devoted to a fictitious saint, the titular Santa Sangre, a young girl whose rape and dismemberment resulted in a sacred, never-drying pool of holy blood. When Concha catches her spouse in the act one night, she douses his crotch with acid and loses both her arms to his knife blades as a result before he slashes his own throat. However, years later in the institution, she returns to lure Fenix back out in the world where he can serve as her new arms on a strange journey involving performance art and murder.
That synopsis doesn't even remotely begin to cover the wild delights packed into every scene of Santa Sangre, which is loaded with vivid characters and incidents including the circus denizens, the real-life downtrodden residents of Mexico City, a gender-bending Mexican female wrestler, four of Jodorowsky's sons in different roles (with the youngest, Adan, playing Fenix in the childhood scenes), and the indelible mute, deaf character of his potential savior, Alma, a white-faced girl played as a youth and adult by the lovely Faviola Elenka Tapia and Sabrina Dennison, respectively. One fascinating influence on the film is producer Claudio Argento, who worked on many of his brother Dario's films and whose Italian financing gives the film a unique multinational flavor. The most noticeable of these is composer Simon Boswell, a veteran of Phenomena, Demons 2, and Stage Fright (not to mention later films like Hardware and Dust Devil), whose haunting electronic soundscapes here still rank among his best work. (More surprisingly, one of the executive producers was the infamous and very prolific Rene Cardona Jr.; to say the least, this is the greatest film to ever bear his name.)
During the waning days of Republic Pictures before the company was outsourcing its home video duties to Artisan (and then eventually folded into Paramount), Santa Sangre was hot off a scarce theatrical release (from Expanded Entertainment) and barely appeared on a few screens for a week. Most viewers only had the chance to view it via Republic's VHS and laserdisc releases, with the former available in a useless R-rated version and an uncut, unrated one (which most obviously contained the film's most Argentoesque sequence, a spectacular red-lit knife murder that would have done Tenebrae proud). Unfortunately the unrated laserdisc was time compressed to fit onto a single platter, and both versions suffered from that company's tendency to artificially oversaturate colors to the point of excessive bleeding and fake flesh tones. The film fared somewhat better in Europe and Asia where its excesses were more appreciated, though home video versions there was also usually cropped and not very impressive. An official DVD eventually appeared in the UK from Anchor Bay, though it suffered from severe edge enhancement and one of their trademark, unlistenable fake 5.1 remixes; on the other hand, it also contained a handy (albeit very heavily accented) audio commentary with Jodorowsky and film writer Alan Jones, as well as a minor deleted scene, the ubiquitous La Constellation Jodorowsky doc (86m43s) (which has appeared on most of his DVD titles dating back to the original Fando & Lis), a live interview with the director (25m40s), and Adan's three-minute B&W short film, "Echek."
After many, many years of American unavailability, Santa Sangre finally rose again courtesy of Severin on both DVD and Blu-ray in 2011. The transfer definitely improved over the artificially tweaked version most people had come to accept; several outdoor scenes looked more muted and naturalistic in comparison, though the black levels were visibly off with a pale, milky look that robbed some of the colors of their intended intensity. The main audio option is the original English track in 2.0 DTS-HD MA stereo (despite the looping of some actors, English is the original language of the film), along with Italian and Spanish mono tracks and optional English captions. The Jodorowsky/Jones commentary is carried over here as well along with the American and Japanese trailers, an expanded selection of deleted scenes (from a workprint) with Jodorowsky commentary, and bonus Severin promos for Gwendoline, The Hairdresser's Husband, In the Folds of the Flesh, Psychomania, and What?, whose shared audience probably numbers in the double digits.
For supplements, the real riches lie on disc two. Chief among these is the incredible "Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen: The World of Santa Sangre" (96m38s) which features new interviews with virtually all of the surviving principals. Three of the Jodorowskys (Alejandro, Axel, and Adan), Guerra, Boswell, Dennison, and Tixou are just a few of the interview subjects here, and the entire saga of its making is covered in fascinating detail. The director and his sons don't pull any punches talking about the film, including the director's slapping incident with Adan and its unexpected payoff and a lengthy period of estrangement with Axel during the latter part of shooting. Dennison (who is really deaf and speaks with a voice interpreter) is vivacious and has some great moments as well, especially when she talks about the first time she summoned up the nerve to confront the director over a problematic scene. Boswell's participation is a bit limited but covers the ground of his score well enough, while the still stunning Guerra talks about the development of her wild pantomime routine (adapted from a Jorodowsky piece written for Marcel Marceau) and the hilarious, bawdy technique she used to walk as one with Axel during the intense climax.
Also included is Jonathan Ross' great For One Week Only episode devoted to Jodorowsky (with some unrelated film clips dropped due to copyright considerations); along with the director it includes some other surprising interview subjects including Marceau, Dennis Hopper, and Omar Sharif. Also included is an interesting 17m40s video overview of Goyo Cardenas (the real-life serial killer of prostitutes who inspired the film), the stage Q&A with Jodorowsky from the previous UK disc, a colorful 2003 interview with the director (32m39s) focusing more about his overall influences and thematic concerns, a seven-minute Jodorowsky chat with (an unseen) Simon Boswell (7m57s), a perplexing (and very brief) short film called "Blink" by Boswell which involves shooting the filmmaker's face, the "Echeck" short film (with optional filmmaker commentary this time), and a nifty music video for "Close Your Eyes," the title song from Boswell's highly recommended album, which features Jodorowsky speaking in a hypnotic voice intercut with wildly edited Santa Sangre clips.
Soon after, the film appeared on U.K. Blu-ray and DVD from Mr. Bongo, taken from the same scan but with the black level issue adjusted (perhaps a little too far in the other direction as it now looks a bit muddy with a lot of detail clogged in the process). That release features the audio commentary, "Echek," and the deleted scenes with commentary, while also adding La Constellation Jodorowsky and "Alejandro Jodorowsky's Cult Cinema" (27m3s), a Wild Side documentary with journalist Jean-Paul Coillard (and his cute cat), illustrator Francois Boucq, writer Coralie Trinh Thi, director Jan Kounen, and Brontis Jodorowsky chatting about his entire body of work and the esoteric interests it encompasses.
In 2021, Severin Films premiered Jodorowsky's masterpiece on UHD as part of a four-disc set with two Blu-rays, or as a standalone remastered Blu-ray two-disc set or DVD. (Or if you're a superfan, there's a 300-unit bundle complete with an amulet, enamel pin, temporary chest tattoo, and black light poster.) The new scan finally gets it right with perfect blacks and much more vibrant, accurate colors that really let the film sing. The UHD in particular is a beauty with those reds in particular making for some nice eye candy. The usual English 2.0 DTS-HD track is included here with optional English SDH subtitles, plus Spanish and Italian DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono options. There's also a new DTS-HD 5.1 English track that makes for an interesting point of comparison; the dialogue recording in this has always been a bit funky, and while the 5.1 mix does a nice job of adding more separation to the music and sound effects for a nicely immersive experience, it also accentuates the dialogue deficiencies even more with the flat dubbing and especial harsh sibilance in some live sound outdoor scenes (the "field trip" in particular) coming across far more aggressively. It's probably as good as a 5.1 mix for this could possibly be, but don't expect aural demo material here. Both the UHD and first Blu-ray feature the usual audio commentary, deleted scenes with commentary, and the trailer, plus "New Blood" (31m50s), with Jodorowsky speaking in subtitled French about the film's restoration, how it impacted his perception of the finished work, his "family business" approach to filmmaking, the creation of the soundtrack, and the highly unorthodox casting process he went through for a film that he feels has no single nationality.
The second Blu-ray ports over all of the bonus features from the earlier Severin release apart from the For One Week Only episode, presumably over licensing issues. That means you get the "Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen" doc, the Cardenas short, the 2003 interview and stage Q&A, "Echek" with optional commentary, the Boswell/Jodorowsky interview (along with an accompanying 2m2s "Blink Jodorowsky" short from the same session), and the "Close Your Eyes" music video. However, there's also a generous heap of new extras as well starting off with "Like a Phoenix" (38m22s) with producer Claudio Argento recalling how the film's Italian production status came about (even though he feels it has nothing to do with Italian cinema), what drew him to the project, and his thoughts on the state of his career at the time both with and without his famous director brother. In "Holy Blood" (42m8s), cinematographer Danielle Nannuzzi explains how he felt intimidated going into the film and used his fears at the start to spend some preparation time in Mexico City and get deeper into his director's frame of mind. Then executive producer Angelo Iacono appears in "Mexican Magic" (36m7s) to discuss the issues with getting Jodorowsky back to Mexico (since he was barred after shooting his first two films there) and the challenges of shooting there once the problem was cleared up, as well as his simpatico artistic sensibilities with Jodorowsky and an attempt to cast Rosanna Arquette and Tony Curtis in this film. He also goes into some crazy stuff about Mexican filmmaker Emilio Fernandez, but you can find that out for yourself. In "The Language of Editing" (21m13s), editor Mauro Bonanni talks about getting hired for the film after a long delay from his first interview with Argento, the differences between American and Italian production methods, and the tactics used to capture daunting scenes like the big parade and the falcon shots. Finally, "Innocence and Horror" (28m48s) has screenwriter Roberto Leoni explaining his attraction to the film's premise, the method of burrowing into a story about a serial killer, and his experiences working on the script in Paris and learning about the tarot from Jodorowsky. Also included is a look at the film's 30th anniversary celebration in Mexico City (10m) with Geurra, Adan Jodorowsky, and company at the Morbido Festival fondly talking about the location scouting, the tattoo creations, and the local wrangling necessary to pull off filming in some very public spaces. Also included is the original soundtrack CD, which is great to have back in circulation.
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (2021)
Mr. Bongo (Blu-ray)
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (2011)
Updated review on May 27, 2021