I’m a sucker for a well-executed avant-garde film. I find the freedom of removing traditional boundaries of logic to be quite thrilling.
Although horror rarely removes all traditional narrative concepts, the genre is a perfect match for the avant-garde style. You’re attempting to create something terrifying for a wide audience. What is scarier than the fuel of our nightmares?
In nightmares, there doesn’t have to be a strong linear sense of logic to frighten us. We don’t need consistent characters or traditional pacing to be put off. The fact that everything morphs together into some coherent in the moment story is what makes them so terrifying. Deep down, we know the nightmare doesn’t make sense; that doesn’t make the experience of the nightmare any less disturbing.
Santa Sangre is unquestionably an avant-garde horror movie. Told in flashbacks and flashforwards, we learn the story of a boy who grew up in the circus and can never escape its influence. The ringmaster, his father, branded him with a blood-colored tattoo and the star attraction, his mother, took revenge on the ringmaster for his many crimes.
In the flashforwards, we see the young man all grown up. He escapes a mental institution to join his mother, now a double amputee, for a new show as a front for revenge against the world. The act renders him a slave to his mother’s will, the same way his father once ruled over his every action in the circus.
Director Alejandro Jodorowsky fills the screen with wondrous visions of nonsense to present the young man’s psyche. From the funeral of a circus elephant-turned pinata party to the seduction of the world’s strongest woman after a wrestling practice, Jodorowsky continually finds shocking and exciting ways to connect the disparate threads of the story.
The real connection is the idea of performance. The concept of everyone wearing masks can be a trite one, but it’s used to grand exaggerated effect here. These characters aren’t wearing masks; they’re all in the beautifully bejeweled costumes of the old side show acts. Each costume change means the reveal of a new version of the character that somehow doesn’t fight against the old vision. Even complete 180s are sensible in the context of this nightmare of a circus.
Santa Sangre is a film that will not allow you to rest easily. It will chill you to the bone and leave you with more questions than you can imagine. Once the central conceit of the story is unveiled in the third act, any explanation you come up with for the why and how of this story is destroyed. It is perhaps the only moment of unquestionable logic in the film.
This also makes it the scariest, most profound statement of all. Sante Sangre is everything and nothing. It is innocence and corruption, fear and joy in equal measure.
Santa Sangre is streaming on Netflix. Do not be confused by the audio. It is a film made in Mexico that was intended to be dubbed in English from the start. The poor sync is part of the vision of the story. Seen it? Share your thoughts.