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Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre – a “horror” movie steeped in ritual, wacked-out symbolism, and the surreal – achieved what no other movie could: it made me enjoy an Alejandro Jodorowsky film.

I have tried and tried to like his earlier films. I am told, on good authority, I really should. They are midnight-movie staples which helped define the notion of the midnight movie and clearly important, singular, weird, maybe visionary … but they leave me cold.

I recognize their crazed passion, but what can I say? El Topo, with its ponderous long shots and elaborate set pieces and kind of half-baked shamanism and ludicrousness, and The Holy Mountain’s ostentatious framing and inscrutable cosmology … they come across to me as Hippie Cinema By Way Of Bunuel, at its most desperate. Watching them, I just feel each time like I showed up at a party where everyone dropped acid two hours ago, and they ran out. It’s amusing enough to look at, but I probably should just go to a bar.

Santa Sangre is different, and not just because decades have passed.

Where El Topo and The Holy Mountain operate in a genre netherworld – mostly constructed around naked people offering words of wisdom and dread, in between shots of the sun – Santa Sangre felt actually rooted somewhere (ironically, in a traveling circus, a fantastic image of rootlessness).

It has characters we care about – the woman defending her people’s church, the boy born into this life who longs for something and someone else, the girl who longs for him, the elephant who can’t stop bleeding and whose closed-casket funeral procession is the most striking image in the whole movie.

Yes, the elephant funeral, with its Fellini-esque march of musicians, clowns, knife-wielding womanizers, heretical priestesses, and child-magicians. Don’t worry: This is still an Alejandro Jodorowsky film.

But it’s a Jodorowsky horror, and maybe the genre aspect is what I found appealing. It’s a ghost story, really.

The young boy, Fenix, is a sham magician in his parent’s operation, learning artifice as the family trade. A series of unfortunate events leave both his parents dead – his mom, with her arms cut off like the saint she worships; his dad, who slits his own throat after getting his genitals burned off with acid in retribution for infidelity. Life is hard in this circus.

Fenix grows up, and not very gracefully. When we meet him again, he’s escaping from some sort of mental health facility where he was being held (a progressive one: the proprietors were kind enough to install a tree inside so he can pretend to be a bird, as is his wont). Beckoned by his mother, now apparently corporeal, he ascends the tree and makes a break for it.

Fenix then finds himself back on the sideshow beat, with his main act being a pantomime with his ghost-mom, where he uses his arms in place of hers on stage. They have a good thing going, but the girl he loved so long ago (presumably not a ghost) has also been looking for him. It’s clear nothing good is going to come from any of this.

The things that have and continue to bug me about Jodorowsky are still here in Santa Sangre: the on-the-nose symbolism, the extravagant set pieces, the uncanny shenanigans that almost seem like they should come with a footnote in a corner of the screen, referencing other symbolic art you might enjoy.

But in a horror context, it works: I had no trouble believing that things would spiral this out of control, or that the surrealist touches would be there. It rarely felt forced – the basic notion, that the madness of the unconscious can be let loose at any minute and we’d be fools to even wonder at it, makes much more sense here. And in its closing moments at least, it’s legitimately scary.

He constructs striking images; that much is not in dispute. Even in the early films I’m sort of deriding, I recognize this is true. In some ways, I think he prefers images alone, rather than stringing them together to make a film. Jodorowsky’s Dune, the documentary about his failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel, might hint at his true position: he sure does love talking through the movie from illustrated stills. It almost seems like it doesn’t matter to him that it didn’t pan out.

But in Santa Sangre, it all works – image, mood, ritual. It’s a great film, worthy of his visual genius.

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