Friday, 24 June 2011

Midsummer with Coffin Joe

Image from Soiled Sinema

We Finns celebrate the brightest time of the year by having the Midsummer's eve (this Friday) off from work to go to our summer cottages to get drunk. All sorts of mysticism is connected to this magical evening, yet to my knowledge no horror movies are based on this date. But there's one character that lurks around midnight to possess your soul and would enjoy the free love and bright nights of Summery Finland: Coffin Joe!

Coffin Joe is the trademark horror character of brazilian director/actor José Mojica Marins, originally known in the Portuguese-speaking world as Zé do Caixão. The long-nailed bearded undertaker usually wants to secure his bloodline and thus seeks to impregnate girls and sadistically kill their husbands. And is dressed stylishly in a black cloak and a top hat doing so. The "official" Coffin Joe canon consists of a trilogy of movies written, directed and starring Marins. Like many popular characters tend to, Coffin Joe too lent himself to do a little unofficial moonlighting. The surprising thing is that Marins himself appeared in several of these and even directed some off-canon work. The final part of the Coffin Joe saga, Embodiment of Evil only recognizes the first two films as canon. As I happened to have access to one of the rip-offs, I'll include it here, too.

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (Á Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma)
Director: José Mojica Marins, 1964

Coffin Joe is the sort of character that can only come from a devotedly Catholic country, such as Brazil in the psychedelic '60s. His first appearance is a sort of cautionary tale of renouncing the fundementals of Christianity. Joe (or Zé) is still a mortal man, albeit being nasty, violent, and a total misogynist pig. And a sort of anti-hero too, of course, as Marins seems to have a blast playing him.

Zé is the undertaker of a brazilian village. One Sabbath he demands to eat meat, altough his wife insists it's a sin. Zé gets his will, but his murderous disdain for his wife grows. It is revealed that Zé is obsessed of having a son, yet his wife can't bear one. Zé starts to court Terezinha, the wife of his friend Antinio, but is refused. Thus, he comes up with several fiendish plans to concieve a son, and is not afraid to kill people to achieve this.

I dig that at the beginning of the film, Zé is a respected entrepeneur in his village. As he acts like a total evil bastard right from the start, it's a wonder that Antonio is his friend in the first place or that the villagers haven't chased Zé down with pitchforks and torches years ago. Yet in Marins's world the supernatural is commonplace and prophecies and such tend to come true. This creates a nice aura of mystery over the whole film. Coffin Joe gets what he desrves by the end, but that won't keep him from coming back.

★★★ 1/2

Tonight I Will Possess Your Body (Esta Noite Encarnanei no Teu Cadáver)
Director: José Mojica Marins, 1967

Like a good horror sequel should, the second installment in the saga of Coffin Joe forgets Joe's fate in the previous movie quick (but not entirely) and soon returns to the status quo. The citizens of Zé's village are quite forgiving for his murder spree, I must say. Zé exploits some basic horror clichés and acquires a hunchbacked henchman, Bruno, to do his bidding. Zé is still looking for a bride to concieve a son with. That's why he kidnaps six women and runs various tests on them to see which one of them is worthy. Kind of like the horror film version of The Bachelor reality series, but less scary, more funny. (What timely jokester I am!)

Zé gets pretty close to achieving his goal, with having a suitable woman fall for him, but the men in the village of course interfere. Murder and mayhem soon follows. I think the sequel is more sure-handedly made for Marins to fully experiment on his crazy ideas. And they are entertainingly cool all the same. The eye-popping colored section in an otherwise black-and-white film, where Hell comes to Earth, is unforgettable in all its psychedelia. Zé, or Joe, himself acts more like a classic horror monster than a total asshole that's enounced Christianity now. The punishment of his crimes is much harsher this time around, so much so that Marins actually has him become a born-again Christian in his final moments. Many see this as a needless turnaround for such an evil character, but I see that Joe actually is such a slimy rogue, that he's willing to jump the ship when all chips are down. This spinelessness just makes Joe all the more endearing to me.


The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe (O Exorcismo Negro)
Director: José Mojica Marins, 1974

The Exorcist was a huge hit in 1973, and one of the most blatantly imitated films ever made. The following year José Mojica Marins himself came to feed on the carcass and reserructed Coffin Joe in the process. Quite interestingly Marins actually has a double role in the film: he plays himself as well as Coffin Joe. If this meta-level story twist sounds familiar, one must be thinking about 1994's New Nightmare, where Robert Englund played himself as well as his signature horror character, Freddy Krueger. Truly, Marins was a pioneer in the postmodern horror filmmaking field.

It's a pity the rest of the movie isn't up to the idea. In the story, Marins, the famous movie star, arrives to his friend Alvaro's house to spend Christmas with his family. Marins doesn't initially believe in Coffin Joe's existence, but his arrival triggers a series of weird phenomena in the house. First, Alvaro's father becomes possessed for a while and proclaims he's out to collect the whole family. Lamps explode, books fly at Marins and, hilariously, the Christmas Tree decorations turn to a python and some spiders. This prompts a truly terrible child actor to stand in her place, point at the tree and cry: "An Animal!" It turns out the family's eldest daughter Vilma, is adopted and actually the daughter of an evil witch. The with is triggering the events and tries to get the family's mother to give her older daughter back to be wed to Coffin Joe himself.

Image courtesy of Cinema of the Worlds
Joe isn't his old self in the film. He barely speaks, let alone has a single maniacal monologue he's so famous for in the previous films. Here he simply represents the ultimate evil, and is merely Marin's way of exploiting his previous reputation. The film has a few good moments, but mostly it just drags, is shoddily acted and poorly staged. It is clear vintage b-movie stuff, so if one likes that, there are far worse films to spend some time with. but of course, with the original Coffin Joe trilogy, there are better ones as well.


The Embodiment of Evil (Encarnação do Demônio)
Director: José Mojica Marins, 2008

After years of imprisonment (!) Coffin Joe is released to the world. The years haven't changed Joe one bit, so he still seeks a woman to be a mother to his unborn son. At long last everyone knows what Joe is up to and he is a feared character. He gains a following of cultists in the film, and at the same time two vengeful policemen on the edge are out to stop him. The police are also being assisted in their pursuit of Joe by a fanatic Christian priest.

This is what Evil looks these days. Image courtesy of Coffin Joe Wiki.
It's to see that the nearly-octogenerian Marins hasn't watered the character of Joe down one bit, even if his beard is grey and has some extra baggage. Au contraire, Joe answers the trends of modern horror films by doing a lot more torturing this time around. In one memorable scene he cuts of a woman's buttock and feeds it to her. Marins must have been reading Voltaire.

But for all his sadism, the sins of the past come back to haunt Joe (and nicely recall the events from earlier movies to newcomers). Marin's knack for visual style is well served by having black-and-white clips serve as ghosts in a colored background. The further exploits of Joe aren't exactly as black and white as before in theory, too, as Joe opposes corrupt police forces and religious fanatics. However, the modern age of cinematic wonders have made the whole deal seem far less impressive, and the film does repeat itself at times. For a sequel 40 years after the previous movies, it is still a fine piece of work.


So a good Midsummer's night to all my readres. Remember, Coffin Joe is just a legend, but what ever you do, don't say the name of Candle Jac-

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