Santa Sangre 4K UHD Review/Comparison
Updated: May 21
4K Ultra HD Release: May 18, 2021
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo; Spanish and Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English CC
Run Time: 123:11
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
A young man named Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky) recalls his childhood growing up in his violent father Orgo’s (Guy Stockwell) circus, his mother Concha’s (Blanca Guerra) religious cult, and the traumatic events that led him to imprisonment in a mental asylum.
This retrospective assumes the reader is familiar with the film and includes extensive plot spoilers. While Santa Sangre is arguably more of a thematic and tonal experience than a narrative one, readers that want to go into the film blind should skip to the Video section.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre’s inception was not with Jodorowsky himself, but Italian writer Roberto Leoni and producer Claudio Argento. Leoni was a relatively minor figure in ‘70s and ‘80s Italian cinema, who co-wrote Tonino Valerii’s fantastic giallo, My Dear Killer (Italian: Mio caro assassino, 1972), Maurizio Lucidi’s popular poliziotteschi, Street People (Italian: Gli esecutori, 1976), and Michele Lupo’s late-stage spaghetti western, California (1977). Argento was a successful producer who had finally stepped out from beneath the shadow of his older brother, director Dario Argento, when he produced Peter Del Monte’s Little Flames (Italian: Piccoli fuochi, 1985). Leoni approached Argento with an idea for a screenplay about dissociative identity disorder, which he began developing while working at the library of a psychiatric hospital, where he had discussed mental illness with patients and staff.
Meanwhile, Jodorowsky had retired from filmmaking. The outrageous sex, surrealism, and violence of his second and third features, El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (Spanish: La montaña sagrada, 1973), had garnered the attention of arthouse enthusiasts, midnight movie audiences, and massive pop stars, including John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and George Harrison. Armed with newfound cult popularity, he planned and rather famously failed to make an impossibly ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s influential science fiction opus, Dune (1965, Chilton Books). Having wasted many years on Dune and witnessing some of his hard work (or at least the work of the collaborators he had collected) folded into Ridley Scott’s seminal Alien (1979), Jodorowsky tried his hand at a comparatively conventional motion picture – a children’s fable entitled Tusk (French: Poo Lorn L'Elephant, 1980), based on the 1935 novel by Reginald Campbell. The compromises, creative and monetary, required to make Tusk proved so taxing that he disowned the final film, which, by no coincidence, was released to disappointing reviews and box office returns. Exhausted with the industry, Jodorowsky settled in France to write comic books and developed a New Age therapy he called “Psycho-Magic.” However, with Leoni’s concept in hand, Argento managed to convince Jodorowsky to return to filmmaking and the three men collaborated on a final screenplay, though the final film is unmistakably Jodorowskian.
Santa Sangre isn’t a mainstream movie – Jodorowsky had learned that lesson while making Tusk (and he’d learn it again with his next film, 1990’s The Rainbow Thief, which he also disowned) – but it is closer to what most would consider conventional storytelling than El Topo or Holy Mountain. The plot occurs out of order, is bestrewn with political metaphors, religious parables, and occasionally interrupted by the kind of surrealist performance art typically seen in Jodorowsky’s other films, but it is unmistakably a story, created using a structured narrative, flanked by a flashback motif, and ending on a shocking twist that recontextualizes characters and themes. It also references other cult cinema, but in a more specific sense than El Topo, which engages in generalized western pastiches. These definitive cinematic allusions make it easier to define Santa Sangre as a horror movie; again, making it something of a bridge between Jodorowsky’s most avant-garde work and his two failed attempts at conventional filmmaking.
The obvious point of reference is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which itself is also loosely based on the true crimes of a murderer who (allegedly) tried to become his dead mother (Ed Gein). In both films, a meek, artistic young man who (perhaps unbeknownst to them, due to dissociative identity disorder) take on the personalities of their dead mothers (in the case of Psycho, Norman snaps after killing his mother; in the case of Santa Sangre, Fenix snaps after witnessing his father kill his mother) and murder women who romantically/sexually excite them. According to Jodorowsky, Santa Sangre’s fourth father, so to speak, was a Mexican serial killer named Gregorio "Goyo" Cárdenas Hernández, who claimed to have been manipulated by his mother to kill four young women in 1942. In prison, Hernández studied law, criminology, psychiatry, and art, and was released from prison in 1976, having been dubbed rehabilitated. Jodorowsky claims to have actually met Hernández by chance, inspiring him to make a film on the subject of criminal rehabilitation. This Oedipal true crime element solidifies Santa Sangre’s connection to Psycho, as does the choice to build to a last act twist (though that part would also not be out of place in an E.C. Comic). The theme of maternal oppression was likely also a means for Jodorowsky to deal with his own misogyny, his semi-recent divorce from Valerie Jodorowsky, and guilt over domineering treatment of his own sons, who were treated as props in his art*.
Jodorowsky also seems to have been paying homage to two silent era horror films – Robert Wiene’s The Hands of Orlac (German: Orlacs Hände, 1924) and Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927). The Hands of Orlac similarities are more tentative and textural. Wiene’s film is based on the serialized novel Les Mains d'Orlac by Maurice Renard (L'Intransigeant, 1920) and concerns a concert pianist whose life is ruined when his hands are severed and surgically replaced with the hands of an executed killer. While Fenix’ arms are not severed, they are spiritually co-opted by his mother’s homicidal rage. Of course, before it is revealed that Concha is long dead, the concept is sort of reversed, with Fenix acting as her arms during performances that include playing piano. Les Mains d'Orlac was adapted a number of times, including Karl Freund’s Mad Love (1935), Edmond T. Gréville’s The Hands of Orlac (1960), Newton Arnold’s Hands of a Stranger (1962), and any other movie/TV episode about swapping body parts with a violent criminal, so it’s not clear what version inspired Jodorowsky, Leoni, and/or Argento.
References to The Unknown are more definitive. Before he was a filmmaker (or even an actor), Browning worked as a sideshow barker, a carnival contortionist, a circus clown, and incorporated circus life into some of his early work, including The Unholy Three (1925), The Mystic (1925), Freaks (1932), and The Unknown, which concerns an armless sideshow freak named Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney) who flings throwing knives at his beautiful assistant, Nanon (and 18-year-old Joan Crawford) using his feet. The circus setting might be a catchall nod to Browning**, but the similarities to The Unknown are particularly salient, beyond even armlessness being pertinent to the two plots. In Santa Sangre, knife throwing is part of Fenix’s father’s act and the pretext for one of his murders as Concha’s proxy. At the end of his first act, Browning reveals that Alonzo is faking his disability and, in fact, does have arms. After killing his ringmaster to cover his secret, he blackmails a doctor into surgically removing them. Following Santa Sangre’s big reveal, Jodorowsky once again subverts the (supposed) source material, because, rather than removing his own phantom limbs, Fenix regains symbolic ownership of the arms he had given to his mother. Additionally and like Psycho, The Unknown is brimming with psychosexual themes. Nanon is psychologically terrified by men’s arms, so, to follow the obvious metaphor, he chooses to castrate himself, not only in hopes of covering crimes, but in hopes of endearing himself to the woman he secretly loves. Fenix’s own symbolic castration, on the other hand (yuk, yuk), is undone when he’s able to acknowledge the truth about his mother.
Other genre references tend to be purely visual or playful nods to the pop culture Jodorowsky grew up with. For instance, Concha points to a poster of James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933), refers to the character as Fenix’s idol, and states that he’d “disappear” without her (he dresses as the character and mimes part of Claude Rains’ performance in the next scene). Later, one of Fenix’s victims is a burly masked wrestler named “Santa,” in reference to the famed Santo, who battled vampires and mummies in a series of Mexican horror movies. Later still, he has a nightmare where the women he’s buried slowly rise from their shallow graves, like pasty zombies, and he begs their forgiveness. The horror aspect, coupled with Jodorowsky’s disturbing brand of weirdness, led the MPAA to saddle Santa Sangre with the brand new NC-17 rating when it was released in the US. As a result, most video stores wound up only carrying the edited R-rated cut, which ran about three minutes shorter than Jodorowsky’s director’s cut. In retrospect, it’s not merely a case of different standards, because, even though the ‘90s MPAA was less tolerant of violence, the violence in Santa Sangre is relatively modest, save one stylish murder set-piece that seems to have been inspired by Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (1982). Again, I assume the rating relates more to the film’s tone than the actual on-screen sex or bloodshed.
* Misogyny is central to Jodorowsky’s first feature, Fando y Lis (1968), and El Topo. Additionally, El Topo begins with the forced symbolic death of a mother by a father (played by Jodorowsky himself) who later abandons his son (played by Jodorowsky’s son Brontis).
** It’s not out of the question to assume that the circus setting, more specifically the fact that the circus scenes revolve around a young man who is (essentially) orphaned when his trapeze artist parent tragically dies, was an allusion to Batman’s original sidekick, the Dick Grayson Robin. Jodorowsky wrote and read comic books, after all.
As mentioned above, it took considerable effort to see Santa Sangre uncut on US VHS. Come the DVD era, Anchor Bay’s R2/PAL UK set was the import of choice, but there still wasn’t a viable, uncut North American disc, until Severin simultaneously released their first Blu-ray and DVD collections in 2011. Both begin with a Wild Side Video logo, so I assume they used the French company’s transfer for their disc. It’s 10 years later and Severin is back with a director-supervised 4K restoration taken from the original film negative and are simultaneously releasing it on 1080p BD and 2160p 4K UHD. This review pertains to the UHD transfer, but the comparison caps on this page are taken from the included BD copy (left) and the old BD (right).
I think that the joy of availability was enough to ignore some of that first Blu-ray’s more obvious shortcomings. I always knew it was a little dull, a little flat, and that there was room for improvement, but, now that I have the 4K remaster in hand, I release exactly how much room there was. The new transfer is such an improvement that there’s no reason not to recommend the Blu-ray-only release to folks that don’t have a UHD machine – you don’t even need the extra pixels to reap the rewards (they’re quite nice, though, naturally). The upgrade in detail is to be expected, so I won’t spend too much time on it. Rather, I’d like to focus on the vast difference in contrast and dynamic range. The old transfer isn’t only darker overall, but its blacks now seem downright milky compared to the remaster’s rich blacks. White levels are lighter to match and colors are much punchier (especially those all-important reds), all of which brings out more texture and detail throughout dark and neutral backgrounds. Grain texture is largely natural with only a touch of machine noise, print damage artifacts are minimal, and the only digital artifacts I really noticed were the aforementioned machine noise (most obvious in vivid blues, for some reason) and a hint of haloing along wide-angle edges (almost exclusively during lighter sequences). The two transfers have slightly different framing with the remastering featuring more information overall, but it’s not enough to really be concerned about.
Santa Sangre was shot in English with limited on-set sound – not in Spanish or Italian. All tracks are dubbed to some degree, but the English dub is preferred for the sake of lip sync and performance, since most of the key cast seems to have dubbed themselves (for the Italian horror fans in the house, there are a number of recognizable voices used for the supporting cast). The original release was mixed for Dolby Surround and remixed for DVD in 5.1. Both the 2.0 and 5.1 English tracks are included here, alongside mono Italian and Spanish dubs, all in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. All things considered, I prefer the 2.0 mix for its lack of reverb (though both English tracks are mixed to have reverb) and more natural-sounding element separation. The 5.1 track does have the advantage as far as bass is concerned, though, which doesn’t do much for dialogue or effects, but punches up Simon Boswell’s score and the traditional Mexican music. The dialogue is a bit quiet and hissy during some scenes, presumably the ones shot with live sound based on the quality of incidental effects during these moments.
All new supplements are in bold text
Disc 1 (4K UHD) and Disc 2 (Blu-ray copy):
Commentary with Alejandro Jodorowsky and journalist/author Alan Jones – This track, featuring the director and journalist/author of Dario Argento: The Man, The Myths & The Magic (FAB Press, 2012), was recorded for the Anchor Bay UK DVD in 2004 and has accompanied countless home video versions over the years, including Severin’s initial release. There are some quiet spots, but Jones does a good job interviewing Jodorowsky to keep him on task.
New Blood (31:50, HD) – Jodorowsky discusses the film’s legacy, its production/filming, his career, his family, and the artistic process. There is some overlap with the commentary and older documentary (see below), but Jodorowsky’s rambling thoughts are not interrupted by editing this time.
Deleted scenes with director and Jones commentary (7:35, upscaled HD)
Disc 3 (Blu-ray):
Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen: The World of Santa Sangre (96:36, HD) – An extensive, feature-length 2011 retrospective documentary directed by David Gregory. It features interviews with Jodorowsky, key cast members, co-writer Roberto Leoni, composer Simon Boswell, tattoo designer Sergio Arau, and unit publicist Greg Day.
Like A Phoenix (38:22, HD) – Claudio Argento gets a chance to give his version of the film’s production, which included dialing back some of Jodorowsky’s most outrageous impulses. He is still very proud of the film and considers it the high point of his post-Dario career.
Holy Blood (42:08, HD) – Cinematographer Danielle Nannuzzi recalls meeting and collaborating with Jodorowsky (he claims it was sort of like being brainwashed) and the considerable technical challenges in shooting the film.
Mexican Magic (36:07, HD) – Executive producer Angelo Iacono discusses his larger career, working with Jodorowsky and the film’s other producers, the logistics of shooting in Mexico City, and shares behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
The Language of Editing (21:13, HD) – Much like Nannuzzi, editor Mauro Bonanni remembers an intense creative process and relationship with Jodorowsky, which was made more difficult, thanks to a language barrier.
Innocence in Horror (28:47, HD) – In this extended version of his Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen interview, screenwriter Roberto Leoni rounds out the new interviews with memories of meetings with Jodorowsky, learning about the director’s esoteric practices/beliefs, integrating elements of Goyo Cárdenas’ crimes, and other aspects of their mostly amicable partnership.
Santa Sangre 30th anniversary celebration at Morbido Festival, Mexico City (10:00, HD) – Footage from the 30th anniversary screening Q&A with cast members.
Goyo Cárdenas Spree Killer (17:40, SD) – A featurette on the crimes of Gregorio "Goyo" Cárdenas Hernández.
2003 Jodorowsky interview (32:139, SD)
December 2002 ICA Q&A with Jodorowsky (25:40, SD)
Echeck (3:56, SD) – A 2000 silent era tribute short film by Adan Jodorowsky with optional commentary from Alejandro.
Composer Simon Boswell interviews Jodorowsky (7:56, SD) –
“Close Your Eyes” Music Video by Simon Boswell (5:47, SD)
Blink Jodorowsky short film by composer Simon Boswell (2:01)
Disc 4 (CD):
Santa Sangre OST by Simon Boswell (10 tracks)
The images on this page are taken from the 4K Restoration (in 1080p) and the original Severin BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.