The Best Horror Movie of 1989: Santa Sangre

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The Best Horror Movie of 1989: Santa Sangre

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

Finally, the gravy train that has seen horror barreling through the entire decade with an incredible amount of momentum begins to lose a bit of steam. This is still a fine year for the genre overall, but some of the cracks in the foundation are beginning to show. There are more misfires here, and a perception that the public is tiring of endless horror sequels—an impression made all the stronger by the fact that several of the most prominent franchises go down a noticeable level of quality in this frame. In particular, the slasher genre is weakening considerably, with Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan ending the “golden eras” of each series. The slasher genre is increasingly moving into the cheapo world of direct-to-video, with franchises like this year’s Puppet Master leading the way. It’s clear that the peaks of the genre are well in the rear-view mirror.

The runners up this year aren’t quite as strong a crop as the ones in the rest of the decade, but there are still some fun films. Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs, for instance, is as charming to watch now as it was in 1989, recalling an earlier era of carefree Tom Hanks comedy performances, when the actor was willing to look considerably more silly. It’s a delightfully macabre (and quite funny) suburban story of a shut-in man who slowly comes to suspect that his next-door neighbors are cannibalistic murderers. Dante seems entirely unconcerned about how cartoonish the story and performances come off, which serves to enhance its enduring charm, as highlighted when he quickly and repeatedly zooms in and out on the face of a screaming Hanks, as a child operating a camera might. It’s a carefree approach toward a story that could have been told with deadly seriousness, but is instead expertly mined for laughs.

Also notable is Brian Yuzna’s Society, a deeply gross and ultimately quite influential little body horror film, which depicts with hallucinatory vagueness a cabal of Hollywood socialites who morph grotesquely in order to literally feed on and absorb the less fortunate. With a visual identity that is part H.R. Giger, part Salvador Dali and part Videodrome, clips from Society presented out of context represent some of the era’s greatest “WTF” material. In general, this is a notable year for Cronenberg-esque body horror, considering the presence of Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man, in which a hapless businessman is slowly transformed into a twisted hybrid of man and machine, against his will.

1989 Honorable Mentions: The ‘Burbs, Society, The Abyss, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, The Woman in Black, Pet Sematary, Intruder, Parents, Bride of Re-Animator, Puppet Master, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, The Dead Next Door

The Film: Santa Sangre
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Has the filmography of any one director ever been more likely to be presented at midnight than that of Alejandro Jodorowsky? Jim Sharman, perhaps, by virtue of having created The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but it might be better to say that no director’s oeuvre has ever been more of a natural fit for midnight screenings than the boundless weirdness of Jodorowsky, the quintessential cinematic French surrealist. The fruits of his career feel like the result of a drive to take audiences where no one else would dare lead them, and the journey is rarely one that you could ever forget.

Most of Jodorowsky’s films, such as El Topo or The Holy Mountain, have some element of horror to them simply in how disorienting they are to watch, but Santa Sangre is on another level when it comes to imagery that is meant to shock and repulse the viewer. This is a true “horror” film, less in the sense that its goal is to actively frighten its audience, and more that it aims to get under their skin in the most unnerving way possible. It casts a mesmerizing, psycho-sexual spell; a phantasmagorical nightmare from which there is no waking.

Santa Sangre, loosely, is the story of Fenix (played by Jodorowsky’s own son, Axel), a circus performer with a childhood steeped in surrealism and nightmare fuel. His father is a drunken, philandering knife-thrower and the owner of their traveling show, while his mother is an aerialist whose true passion is as the religious figurehead of a Catholic cult that worships a patron saint who died after her arms were cut off. As fate would have it, Fenix’s mother also ends up having her arms cut off, but that’s only our jumping off point. The true horrors of Santa Sangre are when she reappears, and demands her son fill in for her missing faculties, becoming her dedicated arms and hands. Actress Blanca Guerra has a piercing intensity as the mother that is difficult to shake—her force of will seems impossible to resist, even as she steals her son’s agency and forces him to commit terrible crimes in her stead.

And be assured, this film is not wanting for disturbing imagery. There are sights in Santa Sangre that will make even seasoned horror geeks pause, like that of a dying baby elephant with blood pouring from its trunk. Or a woman raped by her husband while under a hypnotic spell. Or an acid attack on a man’s exposed genitalia. Or chickens pecking at a severed human arm. Or a flock of scavenging street urchins descending upon the corpse of the aforementioned elephant to tear it apart for sustenance. Even though it’s not traditional horror—and there are some quite graphic knifings as well, that would make Mario Bava proud—it can often be hard to watch.

At the same time, however, Santa Sangre is a shockingly beautiful film, full of painterly shots and sublime composition, and some unique angles, as in the opening when we get the literal birds-eye view of a hawk flying over the city. It’s a film that proudly wears its inspirations on its sleeve, from Freaks and The Hands of Orlac to The Invisible Man, which is referenced in depth. Every frame is indeed a painting, making it a film to be seen on as big a screen as possible—probably at midnight. This is Alejandro Jodorowsky, after all.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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