“At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul” (1964)
“This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse” (1967)
“Embodiment of Evil” (2008).
Joe likes to go into town to provoke and terrorise the locals by mocking their beliefs in the supernatural and religion (same thing). He goes about like some untouchable feudal lord. Ze spits viciousness at the locals and then monologues about his superiority, about life and death and other such cosmic considerations that may or may not defy that innate superiority. When challenged he lets loose with Mr Hyde-like bloodshot eyes and tantrums with a near superhuman fury and violence, always besting his challengers through sheer brutality. He murders those that upset him. But in these confrontations, he is always just the right side of superhuman; he is more extraordinarily savage and sadistic than demonically possessed. In fact he mocks the concepts of possession, ghosts, witches, God, and even the Devil, with whom you would expect him to be on pretty fraternal terms. Ze’s nihilism and belief in nothing but himself is all-consuming. This is the tale of Coffin Joe’s megalomania, his love-hate war against anything unearthly, his love-affair with cruelty and misogyny, plus his quest to become immortalised by having a son and passing on his superior genes. One of the perversions of Ze is that he genuinely values children, although this too fits with his egomaniacal vision of the universe around him. He chooses and pursues a woman who may or may not be worthy to bear his child, but in murdering someone unworthy, he is cursed by his victims - in the very words of the title!! - and ultimately has a supernatural experience that puts him in his place and is vanquished. It is all very Gothic and melodramatic and delicious in its search for perversion, which it frequently pulls off not by explicitness - although it has its moments - but by tone and intimation. And it is all highly engrossing with Jose Mojica Marins’ thickly layered acting, some successful minor surrealism and inevitable unintentional humour. This is very much Marins’ show as he directs, produces and writes himself into a frenzy, oblivious to budgetary or acting restrictions. Committing himself with a gusto that motors the whole enterprise, Marins chews scenery, sneers and quivers his lips in demonic disgust, raises an arched eyebrow for sadism, unafraid to give himself a long unbroken take in which he throws himself around the somewhat shaky set design and battles the forces of the universe against him. In fact, his face is probably a little too soft to truly carry off the EVIL, but this too makes him more fascinating and works to good use particularly in “Corpse” when Ze comes to accidentally murder an unborn child and is overcome with guilt … it is almost like acting. Coffin Joe demands to be a compelling antihero and theatrical villain in the manner of old barnstormers. You get the idea that he would happily take on all of Brazil, should it doubt his pre-eminence, and that like Ze himself, Marins is oblivious to nay-sayers.
Coffin Joe himself is quite an disturbing personification of misogyny and male arrogance, and although Marins is happy to film breasts whenever he can, the films feel more like criticism of masculinity’s malice and egotism. Similarly, Marins has suggested the films are condemnations of fascism and if one sees the Coffin Joe tales and the “Theory” episode of the anthology “The Strange World of Coffin Joe” as forerunners of Pasoloni’s “Salo”, we can see similar tricks being employed: self-indulgent and detached declarations of various theories about ‘perfection’, ‘superiority’, the death of “God” and so on, and how this leads to inhumanity, sadism, torture and slaughter. As polemics, Marin’s films may be clothed in exploitation and horror’s cheap thrills, but then so was the ostensibly more pedigreed “Salo”, and one could never doubt that Marin’s conviction or determination was any lesser than Pasolini’s.
Coffin Joe mocks the preternatural and he scorns both the Godly and the Satanic in equal measure; he is something far more primal and telling about man (and men). But inevitably, Coffin Joe must get his comeuppance and in both these early films, he has a born-again revelation and near redemption. It is the supernatural forces of divinity and vengeance rather than the natural world and his enemies that thwarts Ze. Is this, then, what Marins ultimately wants to say, that faith and God will prevail against corruption and cruelty? Or is this just another perversion… Coffin Joe finds God? Really? Doesn’t it feel like another black joke to close upon?
But you can’t keep a good villain down, and it seems that Coffin Joe neither truly died nor found enlightenment. No, rather he comes back as the “Embodiment of Evil” (2008), forty (!) years later, his fingernails longer than ever. A flashback to this third entry reveals that the ending of “Corpse” was only half the story, and therefore somewhat a cheat. After forty years in jail, Coffin Joe is released into civility again to shake his head at Twenty-First century children puffing glue in the streets. As soon as Ze hurls his first accusation of the inferiority of others, we know he has not been rehabilitated at all. Indeed, he pontificates about chaos, death and the universe as he ever did and it’s all wonderfully amusing. He is also an unrehabilitated misogynist and egotist, still demanding women be worthy of his seed and child. He sees a coffin and coos. When he first meets his little gang of followers - put together by his loyal hunchback in his absence - he simply asks them “What is real? (Answer: Life, and nothing else) And after life? (answer: The continuity of blood, or oblivion). What is the fate of the inferior beings? (Answer: Destruction!) It is all wonderfully ludicrous and we see that we shall be in for the same mix of ambition, invention, unintentional humour and bouts of true surrealism and horror imagery..In “Embodiment”, Marins himself now has a more weathered face and arguably age suits his old barnstorming villainy well. No, he has not changed a bit: the long nails, the cape and top hat, it’s all there. Has Ze’s/Marin’s strain of high-Gothic horror now outdated by the movement of real, streetwise horrors that have since become the currency of contemporary horror? A horror out of time in the Twentieth Century? Perhaps not: he is an early and quite unique example of the franchising of villains, certainly unforgettable, and all his eye-gouging, torture and bizarre side-characters seem totally at home in contemporary horror. Marins was quite ahead of his time and a genuine b-horror auteur. “At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul” and “This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse” was only the start of the Coffin Joe-Marins phenomenon: in Brazil, Marins has had Ze front a TV horror series and a whole host of other horror films (to be covered in following articles), and it is with these that Marins’ fascination with social decay and psychedelia really come to the fore. They also often included a post-modern depiction of horror, and one that combined both horror’s melodramatic artifice and the streetwise. Coffin Joe’s wardrobe was always out-of-place and anachronistic. In “Embodiment”, Coffin Joe may seem a relic but he takes to the new explicitness and penchant for graphic torture with revived gusto: it is as if an old Boris Karloff scoundrel learnt all he needed to about horror from the golden age of Seventies banned titles. The torture sequences and gore reach new heights and few gorehounds will be disappointed: graphic scalpings, people hung by hooks, etc., etc. And we may enjoy his excesses, but there is never the sense that Ze do Caix is to be celebrated: he is vile and poisonous and crazed. He is an argument for order and restraint in a manic universe. For all his monologues and consideration of the universe, he is wrong because his behaviour is abhorrent and deluded.
Marins pulls it all off because he believes in the medium of horror and not just one facet or the other. His reliance upon the Coffin Joe persona throughout his career has been inspired rather than tired out, always searching around what the character and his own celebrity means and represents. “Soul,” “Corpse” and “Embodiment” may be the main story arc for Coffin Joe, but between and around them Marins has been remarkably prolific and fascinating.
But there is a need to backtrack. These three films may be the main story arc for Coffin Joe, but he was busy elsewhere too. Marins has in the meantime made over 30 films and developed a television series, and so this is far from the end of the story.