Unholy undertaker, evil philosopher, denizen of dreams and hallucinations
There is probably no more fundamental human fear than the fear of death. Everyone has been affected by it at one time or another, be it consciously or subconsciously. We are usually so worried about the Grim Reaper knocking at the door that our time stands still and nostalgic thoughts of the past flood our brains. Suddenly, the old homestead was the best place to live ever and the way of life a quarter century ago seems so idyllic as to be blasphemous. And yet we continue to battle the march of years. We strive to extend our lives with diets and doctors, depriving ourselves of major food groups and rational thought for the sake of a few extra days in an assisted living facility. Sweat and hope pours from our orifices as we move to the oldies, master the stairs, or Bo our Tae, all in hopes of keeping the internal organ combustion engine from seizing up, or failing all together. The serenity of life is shattered by anxiety attacks and waves of world-spinning worry. In the end, we really have accomplished nothing. The angel of death still appears at the entryway, waves his scythe, and off we go…to who knows where.
In nations where death's image brings about more than fright, either in religious or cultural significance, the terror is even truer and more important. Jose Mojica Marins, AKA Coffin Joe, understands this better than most other Latin American filmmakers. He plays with mortality in a way that makes his native Brazilian audiences gasp with outrage and shock. Three of his unique films, boxed and offered in The Coffin Joe Trilogy, represent some of the most unique and visceral visions of fatalism and transience ever put on film. They are fascinating works that face death head on.
Facts of the Case
Not actually a trilogy (only the first two films tell a cohesive story from beginning to end with shared elements), the Coffin Joe box set offers three of director Jose Mojica Marins' initial (and best) work. Beginning with:
At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul: Coffin Joe, or as he is known to the local townspeople Zé Do Caixão (pronounced Zé du Caa-shio), runs the local funeral parlor, and for that matter, the tiny village he lives in as well. He terrorizes the citizens with his anti-religious, iconoclastic rhetoric and abuses (or kills) anyone who challenges or displeases him. Many believe him to be in league with Satan himself, spreading evil and hate wherever he goes. But Zé is really a humanist: a man who rejects the supreme nature of the gods for what he believes is man's natural superiority. Zé rejects the spirit world. He does not believe in demons or ghosts. His goal is to find the perfect woman to bear him a son, a son that will rule the world as an immortal. He finds someone and rapes her, but once she discovers Zé's plans, she kills herself. Zé's goes insane and in a long rant denounces God. The town decides to rid themselves of his blasphemy and tracks Zé to the cemetery, where he further attacks goodness and purity. The spirits of the dead rise up to thwart him, tormenting his soul. Eventually Zé is found terrified, incoherent, and near dead, lying by the coffins of those he's wronged.
This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse: Zé Do Caixão, who did not die in the first film, is nursed back to health and he returns to continue his quest for the perfect childbearing bride. With the help of his hunchbacked, badly mutilated henchman Bruno, Zé kidnaps many of the available women in the village and sets them up in a fancy room of his castle home. There, he tortures them with spiders and snakes. After this trial by reptile, Zé is left with his future bride, a wealthy widow who is willing to do his bidding. But when Zé sees Laura, the daughter of a prominent town dignitary, everything changes again. Laura is immediately taken with Zé and the undertaker discards the previous paramour for this new, younger lady. The scandal that erupts causes the official and his family to take action. At every turn, Zé spoils their plans at retribution. During a conversation with the townspeople, Zé discovers that one of the women he killed was pregnant. This drives him into fits of delirium. Eventually Laura gets pregnant and she is ready to bear Zé's son. During a dream, Zé witnesses a strong, startling vision of hell and he recalls a curse the dead expectant mother put on him. The town once again chases Zé into the cemetery and swamp area, where he drowns in a bog.
Awakening Of The Beast: Brazilian society is abuzz with drug-related crime and perversion. We witness acts of human sexual and physical debauchery, orgies and debasements all in the name of free love, free minds, and chemical abuse. Several of the city's leading psychologists gather together to share case studies and postulate on the meaning behind these reports of degradation. Many believe the availability of the drugs is responsible. Others feel that it's the lack of moral fiber within the society that is to blame. But one doctor has a far more outlandish theory. He believes that the evil in Brazil is a direct result of Coffin Joe, Zé Do Caixão, and his extreme popularity in movies, television, and the print media. Zé's creator, actor/director/writer Jose Mojica Marins, is asked to sit in on the panel to offer his thoughts. He finds the whole notion of his influence on people ridiculous. But the doctor explains the findings he derived from an experiment with four drug addicts. Each was given a shot of LSD and asked to focus on a picture of Zé Do Caixão. They all have vivid violent and disturbing hallucinations. Turns out that the shot was a placebo, and that the visions were the creation of Coffin Joe's influence. He is a true malevolent force.
There probably isn't a more unique filmmaker to the genre of horror than Jose Mojica Marins. This Brazilian eccentric, a true multimedia giant in his homeland, crosses all boundaries with his films, his television work, his books, and his comics. He's even dabbled in art, costume and set design, special effects, and has composed the music for his films. Having created a national sensation with his first horror movie (the first true horror film in Brazil's cinematic legacy) and its seminal character Zé Do Caixão (or as he is called in America, Coffin Joe), Marins has turned Zé and his ideology into a cottage industry…and immeasurable fame. He is either loved or hated in his mother country, viewed as a truly gifted artist or merely the man-incarnation of the onscreen demon he portrays. Theologians attack his anti-religion stance and the heretical simply don't buy his pagan leanings. In retrospect, Marins has devised a kind of career self-fulfilling prophecy, a character so associated with him that, through osmosis or karma, he has literally become Coffin Joe. He even has taken to wearing the outrageously long and sharpened fingernails of the fictional entity and styling his beard, hair, and eyebrows after same. True, living in a country divided by conservative censorship (the likes of which kept Awakening of the Beast from ever being shown in theaters) and intense sexuality (nude beaches, Carnivale, the obsession with plastic surgery and beauty) makes for a truly schizophrenic sensibility. And Coffin Joe is so successful because he rides the balance between both brilliantly.
While he may be many things—philosopher, writer, scholar—Marins is first and foremost a filmmaker, one who draws inspiration from the macabre. Marins does not work in the usual terror trademarks of monsters and the supernatural, however. His thematic palette revolves around ethical and religious principles, in the universal rhetoric of absolute good versus true evil. In the world of Marin's Coffin Joe, there is only God and Satan. Ghosts and demons are a manifestation of the will of either or both. Man is the only corruptible being; there are no zombie blood drinkers or human wolves. Taken at its fundamentalist foundation, Marins then develops an entire element, in this case the alter ego of Coffin Joe, who flaunts wickedness in the name of good and the desire to perfect man's place in the hierarchy between heaven and hell. Coffin Joe terrorizes people because he confronts their belief system, challenges the powerful entity of the church, and dares to undermine conformity with his self-absorbed, autonomous mindset. Yes, he does relish the devil and his works of earthy pleasure, but the ultimate goal for Joe is man's superiority over both God and Satan: the creation of a superbeing whose immortality will challenge the authority of the spirits. We don't just get blood and guts killings or deformed beasts. We get theological discussion and battles between the primal forces of morality and sin. It is a testament to Marins' ability behind the camera, as well as the bravura performance he gives before it, that these treatises somehow turn into terrifying works of horror.
Marins is also a maverick cinematic visionary, one of the few pure film artists working in the realm of the supernatural. Unencumbered by the world of films in Brazil and admittedly a complete student of the Hollywood/American motion picture ideal, Marins implicitly understands the camera's ability to tell a story. He is obsessed with the visuals' important place in the creation of dread and suspense. From the handwritten animated credit sequences that seem to suggest the calligraphy of a long banned book of evil to the old-fashioned gothic garb Coffin Joe wears as an undertaker, we have striking images that immediately suggest the sinister and unnatural. Then add the fever dream depictions of hell and hallucinations (brought to broad life in vivid, virulent color), the sinister set pieces, the wild juxtaposition of metaphors, and you have a singular, specific voice, an over-the-top talent like Fellini or Joderowsky. Marins' visual surrealism creates breathtaking images, and then he allows his camera to hold on them until they resonate fully with the audience. Sound too is important. His movies usually contain a cacophonous chorus of music, voices, effects, screams, and dialogue to recreate the chaos when one confronts the very forces of nature and the underworld firsthand. Marins isn't afraid to experiment, to glue glitter around ghostly images to give them an otherworldly effect or treat his negative chemically to affect its appearance. While monochrome makes up the vast majority of the visual palette offered in The Coffin Joe Trilogy, there is also plenty of eye candy craziness here. Marins knows that it's all well and good to discuss the terrors of the human heart. It is much better to see them, directly, to understand their visceral power.
Marins also creates a truly lasting horror icon with Joe. Like Freddy Krueger, he is a three-dimensional character with a detailed backstory and plenty of individualized distinctions to make him work even outside the realm of a motion picture. Coffin Joe, Zé Do Caixão, is a complete package, a man who wears his beliefs firmly on his vest and lives them in every action/reaction to things around him. Unlike Wes Craven's creation of the dream world boogeyman, Joe has never degenerated into a slapstick spoof spook, a stand-up comedian of cruelty. Joe is deadly serious in his beliefs and in his ways, and his abuses are all the more startling because of it. As Freddy's deaths became more and more based around the one-liner, Zé is merely ruthless and heartless, killing for the great cause of his intellectual and moral superiority. Murder is all in the advancement of his humanistic theories. Torture is a test, not only of physical stamina, but also of character and emotional/spiritual strength. There is no trepidation in Coffin Joe's actions. He is the one who inspires menace. However, deep within his mind is a subconscious cowardice, a fear of being undone by forces beyond his control. And while the movies that surround his persona can either be straightforward narratives about procreation or psychedelic dissertations on the status of society in a more permissive time, Jose Mojica Marins and his grave digging demon stand at the center, cursing God and spitting at the Devil. For Coffin Joe there is only one true ruler of the world: man. In his mind, there is only one truly superior man: himself, Zé Do Caixão.
As each of these films is available individually as well as part of the coffin-shaped box set, they will be reviewed separately with a section for each of their technical specs and bonuses. First, let's look at:
At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul
An exercise in expert experimentation and button pushing sensationalism, At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul tells a simple tale of Coffin Joe and his heretical beliefs in direct conflict with his conservative, cautious town. Joe is a true outsider here, a man of proverbial appetites and desires who treats the villagers like pawns in his game of spiritual chess between himself, God, and Satan, and those initial scenes of our rather diminutive despot beating up men much larger than he seem comical. But then, we realize that Joe (or Zé as he is referred to here) holds a power over them much deeper than their muscle strength. He subverts their beliefs and as a result, destroys them at their very core. Marins uses sacrilegious imagery to confront the viewer, and Joe is a character possessed of his own self-importance. Moving the story along at a brisk pace and building a perfect sense of atmosphere and tone, by the time of the supernatural ending complete with homemade special effects (they are truly successful visuals), we are caught up in the terrifying world of Joe and his jaundiced view of the world. We may not agree with him and perhaps balk at some of the irreligious blasphemies he speaks, but his charisma and charm (not to mention Marins' completely committed portrayal of same) turns Midnight into a grand introduction to a new name in horror: Zé Do Caixão. While not a typical horror film, it is very powerful.
Widely acknowledged as one of the first true horror films in Brazil, Midnight looks its age, but that's not necessarily a hindrance to enjoying the movie. As said before, Marins experiments with his film stocks in order to get a certain look. Sometimes he has to resort to using scraps, as he did here. Presented in a strange pseudo letterbox 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the black and white image is crisp throughout, with only a few moments of grain or scratches. On the whole, Midnight looks very good. Sonically, however, the movie is a travesty. Midnight has one of those over-modulated tinny soundtracks that presents high-pitched distortion as a substitute for cinematic ambience that renders most of the dialogue nearly incomprehensible. Good thing the movie is in Portuguese so we can read what is being said in very clear, very concise subtitles. But be warned. When music and mayhem occurs aurally, you'll be reaching for the cotton earplugs. As part of the DVD package, we are presented with a reproduction of an original Zé Do Caixão comic (The Strange World of Coffin Joe—each DVD has one), which plays out like Tales from the Crypt. But the best bonus here, aside from the original trailers for all three Coffin Joe films, is an interview with Marins. At near 20 minutes, he highlights the creation of Coffin Joe (from a dream), the reason for the lasting impact of the character on his native Brazil, and the traumas of trying to make movies in less than professional environments. Marins, who was in his 70s when the Q&A was conducted, still looks like Zé, and when he starts talking about the making of this film, he gets the same possessed look in his eyes.
This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse
Just like Evil Dead II was more or less a complete rewrite and rethinking of the original Evil Dead, fleshed out with a bigger budget, more outlandish effects, and souped-up imagination, so is Corpse to Marins' initial Midnight. Both films still deal with Zé's desire to father a son, an immortal super being. Both films revolve around a small town and the total domination and control Zé has over it. But Marins adds more to the mix this time, giving us our first truly monstrous creature (the misshapen manservant Bruno) and an idea that there are some mystical elements to Coffin Joe's work (not many, mind you, but some). Marins also does not shy away from sex and blood, using a little of both in the film. The trapped women are all draped in see-through nighties and the son of a town official has his head crushed in a fairly graphic fashion. But just like Midnight, Corpse turns into another lesson in the battle between heaven and hell. This time, we even visit Satan's underworld in a very avant garde color dream sequence. Some of the imagery is truly disturbing and vile. Corpse may even have more proselytizing that Midnight, since Zé sees his trip to Hell and his inability to have a son as a direct challenge from God to usurp his power. With the superstition angle increased here, we see how many times even the town's most virile or intelligent participants become patsies in Zé Do Caixão's plans. Their only explanation for their failure is the paranormal, represented by Joe himself. In the end, when they decide to take up arms against Zé, they learn that even en masse, they have no power over the sinister undertaker. It will be his own actions that undo him.
Again, this is an old film that looks its age, even if presented in a fairly decent 1.66:1 widescreen monochrome transfer. Where the film really comes to life is in the 20-minute color Hell dream sequence toward the end. While the correction is a little off at times (due to the technological limitations in Brazilian cinema), the image is bright, crisp, and very detailed. Even the sound here is good, not over done or fed through an eardrum grinder like Midnight. We get the standard three trailers as extras and another segment in the ongoing Mojica Marins career narrative. The interview is shorter this time, avoiding personal history and focusing, instead, on the movie at hand. Marins is very proud of the fact that most of the film was shot on a small soundstage that had been built in what had once been a synagogue. He especially gloats when recounting how other filmmakers marveled as his ability to create a swamp and a river inside a tiny former house of worship. He also gives us the scoop on what happened to the real third film in a true Zé Do Caixão Trilogy. He hopes, eventually, to complete his trio of terror tales, but until that time, he has gone on to create dozens more films featuring his undertaker character.
Awakening Of The Beast
Along with massive public acceptance usually comes a self-reflective work on the part of most filmmakers. Though it can be sometimes couched in obtuse symbolism or even worked into standard narrative storytelling, artists usually feel that, once they've been loved, they need to share their innermost thoughts and belief systems with their audience. Thus we get works as diverse as Alex in Wonderland, Intervista, or All That Jazz. Awakening is Marins' response to his growing fame and controversy in Brazil. Starting with a series of fairly deviated sexual scenarios, we are then introduced to the primary storyline—the one that accuses Zé Do Caixão of being the cause for all the drug-induced degeneration in the country. It's not the drugs that cause the problems with crime and debauchery under this film's hypothetical theory, but the influence of Zé, able to move freely within people uninhibited by the indulgence in pharmaceuticals. It's Coffin Joe's evil that is responsible, not the person, so Marins (here playing himself and Joe) is forced to defend himself. Like any humanist, he makes the very pointed argument that man is solely responsible for his good and his bad, not God or Satan and definitely not some actor/writer/director. And as if to prove this point even more effectively, we again get an elongated color hallucination sequence where Zé Do Caixão walks four addicts through their innermost fantasies and torments. In each case, while Joe seems to be the catalyst, we soon see that it is the internal flaws that each individual carries that result in their reprobate behavior. Like any good artist would be, Marins is flattered that his influence is so powerful, but he wants to make sure that the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of those on which it belongs. Perversion is the responsibility of the pervert alone.
Beast is a fantastic film, a true meditation on the media. Marins maintains the 1.66:1 aspect ratio while moving from film to television footage to another hyper color sequence. Beast probably looks best of all the Coffin Joe films and since it's the most recent (and the one previously unseen by audiences), the original elements were better. There is a lot of great contrast here, and the color scenes are day-glow delirious. Unfortunately, the sound again turns into an unnerving racket as voices distort, music blasts, and ambient noises drown out even the basic sonic elements of the film. Again, this could be part of Marins' ideal of cinematic immersion, but it grows very irritating on the nerves. After tripping through the same three trailers, we get the final snippet (and snippet is an appropriate word, since the clip is only six minutes long) of the Marins interview. Jose is very bitter that this film ended up censored and banned, never seeing the light of a movie theater. He argues it is his greatest work of social and political commentary (and he's right), but he also understands the sick, sadist exploitative aspects of the opening vignettes are probably what doomed the project. He admits they're very weird and accepts that it is things like that which have labeled him his whole career. Still, it's good to hear how active he is (and wants to be) in making Coffin Joe a worldwide name again. This is a man determined to resurrect his legacy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you don't know much about the pro-Catholic, incredibly twisted conservative world of Brazil, the religious themes and God confrontations proclaimed by Coffin Joe will seem a little lame. After all, what is scary about religious horror? Unless the notion of hell gives you the heebie jeebies, what with its lakes of fire and rivers of molten salt, you probably believe that Satan is just a poor dope in a devil costume who can't get a better piece of religious real estate. Frankly, most of us do not focus on our relationship with good or evil when we live our daily lives, or go to a horror film for that matter, so why would a film character that looks like a deranged doorman spouting sacrilege and having a heretical hissy fit be horrifying? No matter how deeply ensconced in the climate and culture he is from, Coffin Joe comes across like a simpering little sinner waiting for Ernest Angley to come along and Christ-slap some sense into his top-hatted head. His desire to have a male child seems trivial since there is no proof it will grow up to be anything other than another sniveling whiner like his dad. And nothing is scary here—not the glitter ghosts, not the fake cemetery spooks that make Ed Wood's graveyard look downright realistic, and definitely not the dopey looking undead who stumble drunkenly around. Indeed, Coffin Joe is a phenomenon of place, an entity that only frightens those people who can directly relate to his message and mannerisms. The Brazilians may lock their doors at night and hide their heads under the pillow, fearing a midnight meeting with ole' Zé Do Caixão. Westerners will simply wait for him to show up so they can kick his long nailed non-scary butt.
The great theological battles are all built on the philosophical foundations of ethics. Wars between man, nature, God, and Satan make up the system under which so much of our religious morality is defined. For eons, those who challenged these belief codas were considered criminal, profane beings that didn't understand the need for an afterlife-based dogma. After all, to admit that this world is all there is would be to doom everyone to a finalized death that would really be worth fearing. But if there was a greater reward on the other side, some manner of continued creation where we all go to spend our infinite soul days, then let's protect that notion at all costs and condemn those who dare challenge it.
Jose Mojica Marins is one such deviate. He dares to look death in the face and spit on its limits. Through his character of Zé Do Caixão, or Coffin Joe, he has taken on the old-fashioned pious value ideals and argued around and against them. In man, Zé argues, is the ultimate power over nature. There is no God. Satan is a buffoon. The only true force of will in the world in the individual. Neatly wrapped up into three outstanding fright films of visual magnificence and intellectual stimulation, the work of Marins represented in the Coffin Joe Box Set and with the films At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, and Awakening of the Beast proves that one of the best ways to defeat the fear of death is to challenge it head on, to tackle its twisted mysticism and to try and determine one's own spiritual fate. The truth is, in the end, we all will pass from this realm and into something else, be it emptiness or the glowing love/hate of God's/Satan's grace/damnation. These films may not save your mortal soul, but they will heal and lighten your entertainment essence. Jose Mojica Marins is an unheralded genius. The Coffin Joe Trilogy is a must-own DVD collection.
Jose Mojica Marins is found not guilty of being a heretic or a hack. His films offered here as part of The Coffin Joe Trilogy—At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, and Awakening of the Beast—are also found not guilty and are declared unsung masterworks of unconventional horror. Image and Fantoma are praised for the efforts made in restoring and reissuing these gems with some manner of bonus material, but more effort should have been made in cleaning up the sound. Case dismissed.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul
Perp Profile, At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul
Studio: Image Entertainment
Distinguishing Marks, At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul
• New Interview with Director Jose Mojica Marins
Scales of Justice, This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse
Perp Profile, This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse
Studio: Image Entertainment
Distinguishing Marks, This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse
• New Interview with Director Jose Mojica Marins
Scales of Justice, Awakening Of The Beast
Perp Profile, Awakening Of The Beast
Studio: Image Entertainment
Distinguishing Marks, Awakening Of The Beast
• New Interview with Director Jose Mojica Marins
Review content copyright © 2003 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.