Within the cinematic macabre, filmmaker Jose Mojica Marins remains a titan. Fans generally refer to him per his creation, Coffin Joe (aka, Josefel Zanatas/Ze do Caixao), a brazen character who entered Brazil's surreal, pop-cultural scene two decades before Wes Craven's similarly steered Freddy Krueger became the wicked rage.
To commemorate Marins' legacy, Synapse Films has released a new 3-disc (DVD) subtitled collection: "The Coffin Joe Trilogy", which contains the initial, two installments, as well a 2008 "final" chapter.
For those out of the loop, Coffin Joe is perhaps best known for his love of children, though not in the heartwarming way one may imagine. Joe relishes children's inherent innocence, only because he perceives it as a blank slate upon which to expand primal cruelty. In other words, Joe believes children exist to harbor and spread evil; and he wouldn't mind having one of his own.
In the original black-and-white classic, "At Midnight I'll TakeYour Soul" (1964), Joe initially appears as a violent, top-hatted mortician with a sinister beard, cape and long fingernails (the latter of which Marins sports in real life, for so much does he relish his creation). We learn that he despises religion (taking pleasure in eating meat on Good Friday), womanizes relentlessly and torments patrons at his local pub (cutting off one poor chap's fingers with the remnants of a bottle). He loathes, mistreats and later murders his wife (thanks to a handy arachnid), simply because she's unable to conceive him an heir. He's Edward Hyde without a Henry Jekyll to fall back upon and damn lucky to get away with his despicable deeds, since the villagers fear him far too much to seek retribution.
Joe is also a practicing Satanist, who dares the Prince of Darkness to seize his soul, and once he hits this maniacal summit, he's pursued by the very evil he's adored, seemingly shackled to eternity for his monstrous behavior, yet able to spring back for a moralistic Grand Guignol shock or two.
So popular was Marins' visceral persona that it spawned a successful sequel, "This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse" (1967), shot predominately in black-and-white. Marins wastes no time to recommence Joe's cruel crusade, as he gathers a beautiful bevy for procreation, hoping at least one of the ladies might birth him a son; and to ensure they're all in the right mood, Joe torments the gals with spiders and snakes. (Oh, how pleased Jim Stafford would be!) After a string of such nasty indulgences, the dreadful mortician again faces the consequences of his heinous deeds.
The sequel rolls much like the original, but within a lengthier, more detailed structure. In one scene, Joe actually saves a child from a reckless biker, but of course, it's only in respect to his mad philosophy. The film's best highlight, however, is its sublime, color sequence, which occurs when Joe is pulled into the condemnatory depths of Hell by a leathery demon. The trek is wondrously choreographed, swaying between Hieronymus Bosch and a psychedelic, fun-house ride. (For the record, the film's dragging-to-hell sequence predates a similar one in "A Nightmare on Elm Street IV". Additionally, Joe's urge for an offspring reached roundabout fruition for Krueger in "Elm Street V".)
With one as notorious as Joe, it's not surprising that he'd preside over other pop-cultural products, such as the chilling, name-only, horror anthology "The Strange World of Coffin Joe" (1968) and the hauntingly hip "Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe" (1974).
Though the in-betweens certainly pleased fans, most yearned for an official, direct sequel. And Marins ultimately delivered it as director and writer (with Dennison Ramalho) for the 20th Century Fox release, "Embodiment of Evil".
Through re-orchestrated, black-and-white/prelude footage, we learn that Joe didn't die at the end of the initial sequel, but ended up sent to prison. Upon his release, Joe enters a dank, though fully colorized world, with the criminal's old disciple, Bruno (Rui Rezende) leading him to a decrepit haven of deranged groupies. In addition, we discover that Joe's old village is now an impoverished, authoritarian realm, where its unsavory inhabitants speak of God in profane terms: a perfect stomping ground for the ol' undertaker.
Though this time Joe's misguided self-assurance (along with his persistent urge to impregnate) seems unstoppable, he's haunted by the ghosts of his past, each rendered in luminous black-and-white. Joe wards them off as best he can, until the startling climax.
Like the lurid comic-book tales of EC, Marins' movies perform as fables, with scenes designed to make one cringe in the "Blood Feast"/"Undertaker and His Pals" vein or in the modern style of "Hostel"/"Saw". A particular surreal segment in "Embodiment" (a quasi follow-up to Joe's prior Hell excursion), actually unfolds like "A Christmas Carol", albeit retold by Don Coscarelli. Clever...
On the flip side, Marins' films (with the exception of the intensely sadistic "Embodiment") exude a carefree breeziness, as would a William Castle or Ed Wood opus. In their various passages, the earlier films feel like staged Halloween productions, hitting traditional (and therefore, sometimes cliched) chords to make one jump. In this way, the movies make one appreciate the days when throwing a sheet over one's head and crying "Boo!" proved an adequate fright trigger...
The coffin set also includes interviews with Marins and a 36-page, Coffin Joe comic reproduction: a delight for fans who fancy Warren's "Eerie"/"Creepy".
Marins remains the stuff of pop-cultural legend for good reason: He's an exceptional storyteller, unafraid to celebrate his mad creation. He's also a respected trailblazer, in this respect: admirable in a modern age where artistic integrity too often gets stifled by political correctness.
Give Marins' collections a spin, and their contents' disturbing morality will make you thankful, if not intellectually improved, for the strange sojourns they churn.