Collins’ Crypt: Have You Met Coffin Joe?

BC revisits the Coffin Joe trilogy and longs for more movies as crazy as they are.

I didn't know it at the time, but my introduction to the world of José Mojica Marins could not have been more perfect: I was drunk, it was 3 o'clock in the morning, and my friend produced a screener of Embodiment of Evil, the 3rd film in his Coffin Joe Trilogy, a series I had no knowledge of whatsoever. This isn't the state I usually try to watch any movie, let alone a sequel to a pair of films I hadn't seen, but Marins isn't the "usual" kind of anything, really, so why should I break my cherry sitting on my couch at 7pm while stone cold sober, as I would for any generic zombie or slasher flick? Alas, the film's narrative was nigh on impenetrable to me, having not seen the others (and again, being drunk and it being 3am, I also fell asleep for a while), so I vowed to track down the first two films and then come back to Embodiment once I was more prepared.

The first is 1964's At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (original title: À Meia Noite Levarei Sua Alma), which is listed as the very first horror film made in Brazil. It wasn't Marins' debut, however - he had been working in the industry for nearly fifteen years before creating Joe (who is actually named Zé do Caixão - Coffin Joe is the easier nickname and he's never referred to as such in the first two films*), and in fact wasn't even originally going to play the character. The original actor quit, but I'm not sure if he ever actually filmed any scenes or if he left before filming had even started, though the former is more likely since Marins has... unusual ways of getting the shots he wants. James Cameron and Michael Bay might even blush at some of Marins' own recollections of his directing style, which is not limited to but includes setting off small bombs nearby to get the right scared reaction or pointing a gun at the crew to force them to shoot when they weren't willing to on their own. It is for this reason that Marins says he likes to use amateur actors rather than professionals, because the latter would take issue with his "quirks" whereas the amateurs wouldn't know any better.

So it's hard to imagine anyone besides Marins himself playing Zé, because the character is just as colorful and almost charming in his utter lack of concern for anyone else. Across the three films, Zé has one primary goal: to find a woman suitable enough to carry his child, who he believes will be immortal - and if a woman doesn't meet his standards he tends to kill her (along with their family members or fiancés that inevitably zero in on him when investigating the disappearance). Zé somewhat comes off as a typical Devil type character, but as far as I can tell he has no powers or anything like that - in fact he doesn't even believe in the supernatural, laughing off such ideas when presented to him. No, he's just a local undertaker with a sizable ego that is matched only by his utter disdain for religion (and, again, other people in general), and for some reason people just put up with him even though he's kind of an asshole. It can be a bit much, in fact, and since each sequel improves on the previous film, revisiting the same basic story while making refinements and upping the stakes (and body count), you might even want to just skip the first one and read a Wiki to bring yourself up to speed, which will spare you some of his ranting. However, you will miss out on some of Marins' creative workarounds for his low budget, such as gluing glitter onto the film itself in order to create a ghostly halo around a character that he killed and has momentarily returned.

Skipping Midnight might also help you swallow Joe's resurrection in the next film, because he certainly seems dead at its conclusion, only to return with minor injuries (that quickly heal) in 1967's This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (aka Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver), in which he's also quickly forgiven for all of his misdeeds and sent on his way, as if Marins himself wanted you to ignore the whole thing. It's kind of like the Evil Dead series in that regard - they directly follow each other, but tend to brush past the specifics if they prove to be too difficult to work around traditionally. He's even more determined to find the perfect woman this time around, and before long he's rounded up a half dozen for what promises to be the most fucked up season of The Bachelor ever. If I had any complaint about the sequel it's that he chooses one (named Maria) over the others a bit too quickly - I would have liked to see him put more of them through his "tests" (usually involving things like letting spiders crawl over them to see if they get scared); hell it could have been the entire movie. But once he's picked Maria he tosses the others off to die together in a pit, before the movie's even half over. The rest ventures closer to remake territory, as relatives of the women show up asking questions and people who know damn well that he's done something horrible find themselves with a frustrating lack of evidence to secure a conviction. 

But even though he's an unforgivable murderer, it's in this film that we see some real humanity from Zé for the first time; he's said several times that he loves children, but here we see it in action - he risks his life to save one from a speeding truck. Even though children grow up to be idiots (he says as much), he thinks they're perfect right now, so it's interesting to see him in more anti-hero mode than full-on villain (make no mistake - he's a villain through and through, and it should be noted that he doesn't always take no for an answer when it comes to women who might be worthy of his seed). Later, he discovers that one of the women he killed in the pit was pregnant (not by him, obviously), and he's devastated by it, prompting the film's most surreal sequence - a nightmare trip to hell (where he IS the Devil, as well) that is shot in color, unlike the rest of the film (and Midnight). It's an insane scene on its own, made almost comical by the fact that when he wakes up, he's even more convinced that what he's doing is right, instead of taking the slightest bit of hint from his dream. But as before, his accusers close in around him, and he "finds God" just before drowning, seemingly ending the series.

Alas, death is merely an inconvenience for Coffin Joe. While they weren't technically sequels, the character would continue to pop up in Marins' other films and television shows over the next few decades, such as 1978's Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind, which combined footage from several films (including Midnight and Corpse) and new footage of Marins both as Joe and himself. It wouldn't be until 2008 that Marins truly resurrected the the character for his own film: Embodiment of Evil (aka Encarnação do Demônio), which closed off the trilogy while, ironically, setting up another movie for the first time in the series instead of seemingly closing the door on further adventures. Once again Zé is resurrected with minimal explanation for how he escaped a certain death, and is said to have been in a prison ward for the past forty years. He quickly reunites with Bruno, his Igor-esque assistant that was introduced in the previous film, and... you guessed it, starts looking for the perfect woman that can give him a son. 

Even if that basic idea was getting a touch stale, this is my favorite film in the series. Marins' skill as a filmmaker only improved over the years, it seems, and now that the film was in full color we could fully appreciate some of the nuttier visuals, such as the blood from two victims raining down on Joe and a woman (who is related to the deceased!) as they make love on the floor below. It's also the most unsettling in terms of its violence; while censorship was never much of an issue for the previous films (the first was made right after Brazil disbanded the national censorship board, leaving it up to individual states), he perhaps never had the resources to let his imagination run as wild as he did here. And lest you think I refer only to typical bloody torture, I will mention that at one point he pours melted cheese on a woman's vagina and then presents a rat - and we are not asked to use our imagination as to what happens next. It's horrifying and disturbing, but for every moment like that, there's one like an earlier moment where he cuts off a piece of a woman's butt and she gladly eats it. Basically, in this film, Zé actually has some true contenders for the perfect woman he's been seeking for over forty years, because naturally she'd have to be as messed up as he is. It gives the film an almost charming quality, like the most gonzo rom-com ever conceived, all masterminded by a seventy-year-old man who hasn't lost his touch (yes, that's an intentional half-pun about his extended fingernails).

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the release of my book, and for those who need a recap (bastards!) - it's based on the 2,500 movies I watched and reviewed over a six year period. So you can be assured that when I say I didn't see anything else quite like these movies, you can't say I didn't try to find one. Most villainous stars are softened over time, or the characters around them become so wretched you want them to die (see: Halloween: Resurrection), but if anything - as evidenced by the aforementioned misuse of nacho cheese - Zé becomes more horrible over the course of the three films, with his quick detours into humanity never extending beyond his love of children, a character beat that ties into his whole thing about wanting a perfect son for himself. Apart from the "How did he survive?" stuff when each sequel begins, there's a pretty good consistency to these movies that is rare in horror, and yes, when I revisited Embodiment of Evil again after seeing the first two, I found more to appreciate, such as the fact that the ghosts - black & white cutouts in the otherwise color world - were actually created from using footage of those characters (victims) from the other films, now haunting Zé in the present. Certainly gets the point across better than glitter, at any rate.

Speaking of the book, one of my "rules" when writing it was that I wouldn't double dip from the same series, because part of the point of the book was to get fans to spread their wings a bit and seek out a healthy variety of horror movies instead of a bunch of knockoffs of things they've already seen. But I made an exception for these movies, offering This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse in the chapter devoted to crazy horror movies, and then Embodiment of Evil in December's lineup, which highlighted global horror (Embodiment represented Brazil, obviously). To be fair I didn't really have much else to choose from for Brazil, but I was also torn between which of the two to include; Embodiment is the better film, but it also doesn't work as well without seeing Corpse first (again, I think you can pretty much skip Midnight in terms of following the story, though it's still worth seeing for sure). Luckily, Synapse has got you covered whether you want to see it or not, re-releasing the films on DVD (HD scans might be impossible due to the frail original elements, so don't hold breath for a proper Blu-ray) both in stand-alone discs or a trilogy set, with a few new features and cleaned up (standard def) transfers. I don't have the discs I originally saw the films on, as they were rentals, but my old review for Midnight complains about the presentation and I had none with this disc, so I assume it's an improvement, or I've just gotten less picky in my old age.

But I know for sure that as I get older, I find myself more drawn to these kind of things when it comes to horror. I barely get to watch any anymore, so when I DO see one, I have no patience for blandness. A few years ago I may have given the likes of Rings or The Bye Bye Man a pass, but nowadays I find myself almost getting angry at them for being so by the numbers. I'm giving you some of my very limited time, and you're giving me tedium in return? Bullshit! Give me more films like this, which don't conform to any particular sub-genre, offer almost zero comeuppance for their horrible main character, and give me something to chew on days, months, or even years later. Indeed, I didn't even rewatch Embodiment in prep for this piece, but I still recall full scenes vividly, eight years later, whereas I couldn't pick the male lead from Rings out of a lineup a week after seeing it. I'm sure someone's out there thinking these films are perfectly enjoyable horror, but my time for such things has passed. I can go the rest of my life without seeing anything like that again, but give me some crazy Babadook looking guy ranting about religion any day of the week.

*And for Embodiment, it might just be a subtitling decision for English speaking audiences - anyone know for sure?