Thursday, August 25, 2016


There was an omission, unless I missed it, in the local-color coverage of things Brazilian in connection with the Rio Olympics. I was disappointed, if not surprised, not to see a profile of Brazil's greatest horror star: Jose Mojica Marins, best known as his maniacal alter-ego, the mad and murderous undertaker Ze do Caixao, or, to his small but loyal corps of English-language fans as…

Monster-of-the-Week: …Coffin Joe.

Though a human being in his first appearances, Joe qualifies as a monster in at least some of his later movies, in which he’s a malevolent specter conjured up by the imagination of his creator Marins.

True, Joe’s a Sao Paolo guy, not a Rio guy, but Sao Paolo had a soccer match in week two of the Games, and besides, the whole country should have been showcased, right?

If you're a classic-horror connoisseur and you've never sampled Coffin Joe, I highly recommend that you do. Introduced in the low-budget 1963 opus At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (A Meia Noite Levarei Sua Alma), which Marins wrote, produced, directed and starred in (and which is regarded as Brazil's first true horror movie), Joe looks, at a glance, like just another cliché creepshow guy—top hat, long fingernails, black suit, blazing eyes, evil, leering face. But make no mistake. He's a true original.

Joe, you see, is Nietzschean sort of boogeyman, contemptuous of and haughtily superior to the common rabble that he terrorizes, an atheist—who nonetheless regularly spews venomous defiance at God—and mocker of all religious devotion, spiritual observation or social nicety. He lustily snarfs a leg of lamb on Good Friday, and at one point he even uses the Crown of Thorns from an icon of Christ as a weapon.

His only obsession is to perpetuate his bloodline—the only form of immortality he recognizes—and the plot of the first film chronicles the campaign of murder and assault by which he hopes to find a mate suitably strong and superior for this reproductive purpose, until the ghosts of his victims rise up, en masse, and bring matters to a Richard III-style climax.

Despite this poetic justice, Joe was back at his old tricks in the sequel, This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadaver, 1967). This time, still being years in the future, Joe decides to find a mate by imprisoning several prospective Baby-Mommas, and to determine their suitability by tormenting them with tarantulas, snakes and other creepy-crawlies. Even getting himself dragged off to an unforgettable (full-color) vision of Hell (in which the role of The Devil is also played by the ever-modest Marins) doesn't much deter Joe, who keeps up the nastiness until the movie's ambiguous final seconds.

The sadism in both films, though graphically tame by contemporary horror-movie standards, still packs an unsavory punch, and would be simply revolting if not for an odd (and not especially defensible) factor: Joe is perversely lovable. When you look at the unprepossessing Marins, with his slight frame and his delicate, almost boyish features behind a fuzzy, Muppet-like beard it's impossible to take his atrocities too literally, and especially when he's menacing beautiful, soulful Brazilian actresses who look like they could knock him on his little ass, it gives a comic tinge to his assertions of superiority. You just accept that you're seeing his Sadean fantasy life (Marins claims that the first film came to him in a dream).

This sense is increased in the Ze do Caixao flicks from the '70s. These aren't true sequels to the first two films; rather, Marins went through a curiously self-conscious meta-movie stage with Awakening of the Beast (O Despertar da Besta, 1970), The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe (Exorcismo Negro, 1974) and Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind (Delirios de Um Anormal, 1978). In each of these films, Marins appears as himself—the harried filmmaker Marins—but in the course of the stories he also eventually appears as Coffin Joe, conjured up by the morbid power of the imagination or of hallucinogens.

Playing himself in these films, Marins comes across as a nebbishy, sweetly pretentious wannabe-intellectual, which magnifies both his charm and his commanding creepiness. In 2008, well into his seventies (he’s now 80), Marins completed the official “Coffin Joe Trilogy” with Embodiment of Evil (Encarnacao do Demonio).

What I like best about the Coffin Joe flicks, especially the first two, is that their visual (and aural) vocabulary is archetypically old-school spookhouse. Marins uses shadows and mist and gypsy fortune-tellers and owls and skulls and caskets and graveyards and rats and spiders and snakes and screams and cackling and howling wind and thunder and lightning, but he deploys these Jungian, quaintly familiar motifs with an imagination and an intensity that gives them new life.

But back to the Olympics. Despite a disgraceful lack of attention to Coffin Joe, there have been plenty of horror stories about the Rio Games. Aside from the overtly fictional one told by members of the U.S. swim team, many of them involved the supposedly miserable food and accommodations. Well, I say the visiting athletes, media folks and fans should at least be grateful they didn’t have to stay at the title lodging of the 1976 Coffin Joe picture The Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures (A Estranha Hospedaria dos Prazeres).

In this one, Joe—complete with fuzzy beard and long fingernails and knowing grin, but this time sporting a dapper little bowler instead of the usual top hat—runs a remote hostel with a creepy staff of stony-faced maids and valets. On a stormy night, various guests gather at this charming spot to fornicate, or desperately gamble away their last money in crooked card games, or engage in shady business deals, or any of various other worldly activities.

A group of jewel thieves gets a room to divide up their loot. An enormous group of bikers and their girlfriends show up, cram themselves into a room, and hold a wild orgy in which everybody strips while chanting a phrase rendered in the subtitles as "Everybody naked, great! Everybody naked, great!" over and over and OVER. The action is tamely soft-core, however—all the biker-orgiasts ever seem to do is neck, with their pants still on, or dance around topless chanting "Everybody naked, great! Everybody naked, great!"

If you can't guess the truth about these people and the hostel, you haven't seen enough movies—or, for that matter, listened closely enough to “Hotel California.” Toward the end, one of the guests wanders out the door, following "the light," and Joe, at the front desk, grudgingly allows her to leave. The other guests gather in the lobby and confront Joe, asking him "Why? Why?" to which Joe calmly replies "It is wrong to look for happiness when you don't know what happiness is."

Not exactly the most helpful concierge service. I wonder what kind of TripAdvisor rating the hostel gets?

No comments:

Post a Comment