Synapse // 2008 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // April 1st, 2011
The Master of Horror is Back!
Imagine if Jason Voorhees wasn't a mindless killer with nothing but revenge-oriented slicing and dicing on this malformed brain. Instead, envision a highly articulate and philosophical murderer who challenged the theological and political foundation of the very nation that spawned him, a masked villain spitting on the face of God, convention, and the current ruling regime while arguing for the superiority of Man, the values in humanism, and the freedom from persecution and fundamentalist constraint. That's Coffin Joe, the unruly undertaker developed by Brazilian filmmaker Jose Mojica Marins and immortalized in such seminal shockers as At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul and This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse. While playing within the conventions of the genre, there is more to his unique movies than blood and dead bodies. Indeed, Marins has used his legendary film status to rally against the crime he witnesses around the world -- nowhere more prominently than in his own home country. Now, 40 years later, the Coffin Joe "trilogy" comes to an end (?) with the brilliant Embodiment of Evil, and it's great to see that, even in the twilight of his years, Marins has lost none of his psycho-sexual-social-politico nerve.
While many believed he was dead, the Brazilian legal system knows different -- Coffin Joe (Marins) is alive. He has been kept in an asylum/jail for the last four decades, serving his sentence for multiple murders. Upon his release -- much to the chagrin of the corrupt Captain Oswaldo Pontes (Adriano Stuart), his devoutly religious brother Coronel Claudiomiro Pontes (Jece Valadão) with a personal vendetta against the villain, and crazed priest Father Eugênio (Milhem Cortaz), with his own family history -- he is met by his faithful companion Bruno (Rui Rezende) and led to his new hideout. There, he meets a quartet of devout followers and puts his final plan into action. Hoping to find a "superior woman" to continue on his bloodline (and thus achieve immortality), Joe kidnaps various women from around São Paulo, including a noted scientist (Cléo De Páris), the lawyer who freed him (Cristina Aché), and a local gypsy girl (Nara Sakarê), whose blind aunts know exactly what he is up to. In the meantime, Joe is also fighting off demons from his past, each one reminding him of the vile crimes he may or may not have committed in the name of his need to live forever.
There are lots of misconceptions about Jose Mojica Marins, his alter ego Coffin Joe (the title a loose translation from the Brazilian name "Zé do Caixão") and his five decades as part of South American cinema. A prolific writer/director/producer, he has dabbled in many genres, including horror, sexploitation, and even Westerns. While the character of the crazed mortician has been in many of his films, there are only three "legitimate" Coffin Joe efforts -- Soul, Corpse, and now Evil. All three follow the same pattern -- the character looking for the perfect woman to bear his child while challenging the norms of the community and church -- and all three use the narrative as a platform for Marins' often blasphemous and radicalized opinions. Personally sickened by a State that panders to the Cross and corruption, ready to ridicule the practices that paint his country as backwards and a bastion of criminal conduct, Coffin Joe is a rebel. He is a pro-human individualist who just so happens to use gore and torture as a way of "waking up" the masses. There is madness in his methods, but there's a clear message as well.
Embodiment of Evil continues his calling, paying homage to past masters (Jodorowsky, Antonioni) while using the explicit splatter of terror circa 2008 to underline his ideals. It's a very meta experience. The pack of followers is also a nice touch, since it references the legions of film fans worldwide who would, themselves, do anything (almost) to see Coffin Joe succeed. It's also wonderful to see Marins referencing the other films in the series, serving up past characters (Coronel Pontes, Fr. Eugênio) as well as new fixtures to formulate his mythos. While the story is indeed simple -- find some viable pregnancy fodder while ridiculing society -- Embodiment of Evil tingles the brain as much as the spine. In many ways, the film is like listening to a university lecture accentuated by members of a local traveling carnival sideshow -- and then having them both scare you silly.
The violence is aggressive, but narratively warranted. Coffin Joe is all about "the test" -- the test of one's will, the test of one against the State, the test of man against God, the test of superstition against science -- and he is using the same principle on the viewer. There are moments of grotesque sexual allure, as well as bondage and sadism. But unlike Hostel, which savors its vivisection for the sake of its own being, Embodiment of Evil uses the updated F/X to cement the main character's desperation and desires. He's tried seduction. He's tried logic and love. If he must inflict heinous bodily harm on those who he needs to fulfill his aims, he will -- and this is key. Coffin Joe is only trying to stay alive forever for noble reasons. He doesn't want to take over the world (yet). He doesn't want to forward some pro-Satanic slant. No, he wants to be around to condemn the truly wicked and "out" the wrongfully empowered. There are scenes in this film that remind us of Brazil's hidden shame -- the killing of street children by the police, the destruction of civil liberties under the guise of religious doctrine. While he may be a monster, he's a monster for mankind, not forces foul or beyond the grave.
As part of the trilogy, Embodiment of Evil is an excellent send-off. Equally good is the home video release of the title. Synapse Films does a sensational job here. First off, they follow the product party line of such companies as Disney and Universal in providing both a DVD and a Blu-ray copy of the film for those who need both formats. While the original digital transfer looks terrific, the Blu-ray is amazing. You can literally see the tiny veins creeping across Marins/Joe's tired eyes. The 1080p suffers from no significant issues and the picture quality is clear, colorful, and crisp. On the sound side, the HD update is also very good. The use of ambient sounds (especially in a Zabriskie Point inspired dream sequence to Purgatory) comes across with crystal clarity and the dialogue is always upfront and understandable. While the bonus features (available on both formats) might disappoint, they are still worth checking out. The behind the scenes featurette offers insight into Marins' directing and onset style, while the film festival premiere footage requires suffering through some well-intentioned acts before getting to the main attraction: Marins himself. Finally, the trailer trades on the past films in order to set you up for the horrors here. While not extensive, the added contents does fully support and supplement the main feature.
If this is indeed the end of the line for the character -- Marins is 75 years old, after all -- then Coffin Joe couldn't ask for a better send-off than Embodiment of Evil. Four decades later, the character still has the snap and sinister irreverence of the past while easily fitting into the more explicit expectations of a postmodern (and millennial) fright fan. Sure, the horror is not as pronounced as the philosophizing, and Marins does occasionally hammer his points home with the force of his 16 ton gargantuan will. But in a genre which often strives for nothing more than mindless mayhem, the brain and blood set up of Embodiment of Evil is as refreshing as it is repugnant. Jose Mojica Marins may still be a cult figure outside of South America, but with films as fascinating as this, he won't stay that way. After all, there is more to his message than mere bloodshed.
Not Guilty. A great finish for a seminal scary movie rebel.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Portuguese)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* DVD Copy
* Official Site