Back in the late 1980’s, standing proudly on the corner of a hotbed of junkies and unsightly hookers, was the legendary Scala Cinema in Kings Cross. I was lucky enough to climb its marble stairway, stroke its charismatic black cat and of course indulge in a feast of subversive celluloid a fair few times. Flooding my bloodstream with caffeine at rowdy ‘all nighters’ along with themed months which regularly drained the tank of my friends XR3 as it faithfully journeyed us from South to North London is all a bit of a blur now. But as is the case in so many of life’s pleasures, you never forget your first!

A new movie by cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky had been given a limited theatrical run in the UK in 1989. As a 17 year old (possibly swayed by the fact it had previously hosted the UK Premier for the Evil Dead), I climbed the steps of the Scala for the first time anticipating gore… After being treated to SANTA SANGRE, I was bequeathed with so much more…

Seeds of madness are often planted with the mental scars of childhood traumas. So when the opening frames depict an institutionalized grown man, Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky) degradingly naked with the mannerisms of a feral beast, it is only natural to wonder what led him to this trough. In typical Jodorowsky fashion, Fenix transgresses into the eagle similar to the one painfully etched on his skin and takes flight back to his infancy.

Fenix’s upbringing at the circus was chaotic. Parented by a father Orgo (Guy Stockwell) who only put his liquor bottle down to perform his knife throwing act and a mother Concha (Blanca Guerra) whose elevated hair dangling routine by night contrasted with her overzealous religious endeavours by day, meant young Fenix was deprived the tender nurturing every child needs.

But Concha’s world is about to cave in. Her church, which indeed gives the movie its title, is about to be torn down by the authorities. Religious hierarchy fail to support her dubious Holy Blood foundation based on the mythical tale of a young girl who was raped and then violently relieved of her arms. The crimson dyed pool of water in the soon to be condemned place of worship represents Holy Blood, or when in Mexico the movies setting, Santa Sangre.

Young Fenix (Adan Jodorowsky) performs his magic act but is mesmerized by a mute girl called Alma. He watches as her cruel tattooed mother whips the girl forcing her to walk a flaming tightrope. Indeed its Alma’s mum, simply known as The Tattooed Woman (Thelma Tixou), who is caught cavorting with Orgo by Concha while fully suspended by her locks.

Her quickly sought vengeance (dousing his aroused crotch with acid) is short lived. Orgo applies his tools of the trade to lop off her arms, ironically reducing his jealous wife to a vision of the dubious icon she worshipped. Broken and defeated, Orgo takes his own life and with Fenix paying witness to all of these shocking events, it paves the way into the sanitarium.

The intense opening act doesn’t let up as we observe Fenix get reunited with his mother. He becomes her arms complete with blood red talon like nails and together, in a meld of ultra-violent revenge with a whiff of incest, the pair becomes inseparable.

The whole feel of the picture is surreal from the outset and does not relent in being two hours of aesthetic extravagance. Colours are used brilliantly. The sterility of the hospital gives way to an explosion of vivid colours when we fly to the circus. Before long, this multihued vibrancy is then itself subdued when my favourite sequence of the entire movie, the bizarre ‘elephant funeral procession’ is burdened with sobering blacks and charcoal complete with a grey American Flag.

Laid on top of the visuals is an incredibly convincing musical score. Simon Boswell’s soundtrack fluently bonds with the varying moods of the movie meaning the viewer is soon immersed in Jodorowsky’s Mexican fantasy. But all of the above could quite easily have fallen flat on its face had some strong performances not augmented proceedings. Jodorowsky, quite openly, has vilified actor Guy Stockwell who plays Orgo, accusing him of unprofessionally necking a couple of bottles of whisky on the set daily. The counter argument is that the director actually plied Stockwell with booze on purpose! Either way, Orgo is a compellingly repugnant character, whose impact on the story cannot be ignored.

Guerra is equally persuasive as the fanatical and scorned Concha but special mention has to go to Jodorowsky’s sons. No less than four of them star in the picture with Adan and Axel giving particularly impressive performances as Felix young and old respectively.

Quite simply, SANTA SANGRE is a seductive assault on the senses and psyche and a wonderful introduction to a hugely talented and unique director. I mean where else do you get depictions of Down syndrome kids given cocaine, phallic knifes and beautifully crafted zombie bride sequences all in the same movie?!

The movies availability courtesy of a double disc DVD package is nothing new. Indeed our very own Stu Willis comprehensively covered Anchor Bays UK release a while back. So how does Mr. Bongo’s new release compare?

Well for a start it is retains the double disc status. DISC ONE naturally contains the main feature presented in its original anamorphic 16:9 print. Given the aforementioned look of the movie, I found Mr Bongos print was reproduced with crisp precision and was very impressive.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack for the most part was acceptable. The score came across as hearty and helped dramatise the picture. But I did notice a flaw or two especially regarding the dialogue. The scene within chapter 12, when Felix is in a shop, the assistant’s voice had a slight over amplification to it resulting in minor distortion on her "s" pronunciation. Although negligible, it was never the less an aural blemish. I have to stress this did NOT occur all the way through the movie and I cannot confirm as to whether previous releases have suffered the same imperfection.

Staying with first disc and an audio option allows you to listen to a commentary track with Jodorowsky, moderated by Argento fanatic Alan Jones. I believe this is the same track that was included in the previous Anchor Bay release but is still a quality listen. While Jones’ vast knowledge is at times extraordinary, his constant "Why?" probing becomes a little futile before too long. ‘Why does an apple tree produce apples?’ is a beautiful retort from the shrewdly evasive director.

At times, the track is arguably as bizarre as the movie itself. A plethora of background facts are discussed in a very frank yet entertaining manner. Pinching his son to achieve real tears and admitting the reason some of the females members starred in the movie was because he "Cast with his balls" typify the anecdotes. All of this is supplemented with some truly absurd claims by Jodorowsky that he in fact has 12 toes! Luckily for him, its 6 on each foot not 4 on his right and 8 of his left – I mean that would look REALLY silly, wouldn’t it?

DISC TWO is where the bulk of the bonus material resides and we start with a segment entitled "ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY’S CULT CINEMA" produced by Wild Side Films. Featuring Jean Paul Coillard ( journalist), Francois Boucq (Illustrator), Coralie Trinh (author), Jan Kounen (director) and Brontis Jodorowsky (actor and son), the 27 minute programme is a personal and almost esoteric insight into the director. It appears to be a very recent production and talks of employing his four sons in SANTA SANGRE as being "family therapy".

The seemingly doomed sequel to EL TOPO with Marilyn Manson (who publicly hailed Jodorowsky as the "greatest filmmaker ever") is touched on. While the project has not (yet) come to fruition, its dormancy did pave the way for BOUNCER, one of his many comic book incantations.

The guests emphasize the director’s spiritual awareness, almost painting him as a magician at times and are very forthcoming with Jodorowsky’s connection with the Tarot. (He has cultured his own deck based on the Marseille Tarot and published a controversial book on the subject) It all culminates with a criminally short two and a half minute speech from the director himself. His passionate interpretation of the world along with how he observes ‘fear’ being used by authorities to control society was truly absorbing. I would stretch to suggest that this segment would be enough to fuel interest in seeking out not just some of his more nonconventional films, but also some of the books he has authored. His Shamanic based self-healing tome, PSYCHOMAGIC is widely available and on my ‘gift list’!

Depending on whether or not you own the Anchor Bay double disc edition of the movie the remainder of the Disc 2 offers no fresh material.

Louis Mouchet's LA CONSTELLATION JODOROWSKY clocks in 3 minutes short of a meaty hour and a half and is an exploratory look at the many creative facets of this unique man. Bear in mind this was constructed pre- SANTA SANGRE and as such does have a VHS look to it. Regardless of appearances, it is intriguing viewing and an essential peek into a truly fascinating individual.

The four and a half minute ‘deleted scene’ is again included with the overlay of Jones and Jodorowsky’s commentary. I wholeheartedly agree with Stu’s summation of this sequence in as much as its inclusion would have galvanised the pictures narrative.

Some audience generated questions at London’s ICA back in 2002 brings some of that unique festival style to your living room with the "JODOROWSKY INTERVIEW" chapter. Completing the extras is Adan Jodorowsky’s 4 minute black and white mini movie (Regrettably Adan’s ‘90 second’ commentary track of sorts appears to have been omitted!) and a bespoke Mr Bongo Trailer for the main feature.

By my calculations you get over 6 hours viewing material with this release, which is an absolute steal at just under a tenner. It is definitely the sort of movie that can be revisited over the years which rightfully makes a mockery of Barry Norman’s loathsome put downs on his mainstream FILM ’89 BBC series a couple of decades back. Those without the Anchor Bay version, this is an essential purchase. Those who do already own it will have to decide for themselves whether a 26 minute documentary and different cover art is worth £10…

Review by Marc Lissenburg

Released by Mr Bongo
Region 2 - PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review