“Sante Sangre” is a surreal take on Hitchcock’s “Psycho” set in Mexico. It tells the story of a young boy who grows up in a Mexican “gringo circus.”
He ambles through a number of surreal and nightmarish scenes. These include watching his father, the resident knife thrower, begin an affair with the circus’ illustrated woman; viewing the death of the circus’ elephant and then the local townspeople ripping it apart for food, and culminates with watching his mother mutilate his father and his father mutilate his mother before killing himself.
These events culminate in him being sent to an insane asylum populated entirely by people with Down Syndrome. He eventually breaks out and rejoins his now armless mother, who is able to take control of his hands both for mundane tasks like piano playing and more exotic ones like murdering dozens of women.
When I said surreal, I meant it.
“Sangre” truly shines in its first act. The bright imagery associated with the circus contrasts hauntingly with its grimy surroundings, which helps establish the film’s unsettling and nightmarish tone.
Expository dialogue is kept to a minimum, and the film relies almost exclusively on its visuals to tell its story. It takes the old adage of “show, don’t tell” quite seriously, and the end result is quite beautiful filmmaking.
The setting of the circus also allows for greater eccentricity from the various characters without completely breaking the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. The entire first act balances dexterously on the precipice of absurdity but never falls; an impressive feat for any film.
The second act, however, falls apart. It is filled with characters far more outlandish than even the circus performers before, and we learn the world outside the circus is even stranger. All of the characters remain caricatures, and the entire world seems to be going mad. This may be seen as either a positive or a negative depending on how much you like surrealist cinema.
“Sangre’s” greatest flaw is its devotion to Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Unlike, for example, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” which pays homage to “Psycho” while still telling its own unique story, “Sangre” can’t find its own voice. The ending attempts a twist stolen straight from “Psycho” and much of the buildup is trapped within the same confines. It’s near impossible to outdo the master of suspense, and the film remains in the shadow of its predecessor, inviting unfortunate comparisons.
If you want to know what “Psycho” might have looked like were it co-directed by John Waters and David Lynch, “Sangre” will satiate your hunger. If you’re looking for an interesting midnight movie, you could do much worse. But if you’re a diehard fan of Hitchcock and will accept no substitutes, steer clear.