As a young boy, the outlandish Brazilian filmmaker José Mojica Marins lived in a small flat above the São Paulo movie theatre which was owned by his manager father. Here he spent most of his childhood developing a rich fantasy life, fostered and facilitated by long days immersing himself in cinema. Marins literally spent much of his time camped out behind the actual projection screen; he claims as his earliest memory, being shocked and terrified by a film, when, at the age of four, he witnessed an educational short about venereal disease. By the age of eight, he had already shot his first movie.
Perhaps this upbringing helps explain the strange hybrid genre of pseudo-documentary and fantasy horror film Marins would later single-handedly forge with the aid of the bizarre, self-realised alter-ego known as Coffin Joe; a creation born from an equal parts amalgamation of local Macumba/Voodoo folklore and certain references from the contemporary foreign Horror films he loved to watch as a youth. The character was born already fully formed in a dream -- an unconscious product of Marins’ slumbering mind. A mind that was already much used to a blurring of the distinction between fantasy and reality. But Marins also had an iconoclastic side to his personality, and was clear-sighted enough to realise that both the local Brazilian witchcraft practices imported from Africa in the 19th century, and the official, state-approved Roman Catholicism of his home country, gained their power from a similar blurring of boundaries; and that, accordingly, there was nothing to stop Coffin Joe himself from also venturing out from the confines of Marins’ internal creative dream life, onto the movie screen, and then finally out into public life itself!
Zé do Caixão, otherwise known as ‘Coffin Joe’, first appeared on Brazilian cinema screens in the low budget, cult black and white horror film “At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul” (À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma ), and was the first truly home-grown Brazilian Horror character. In fact, the film was probably the first Brazilian horror film. But there is nothing tentative or half-hearted in its realisation; the film comes roaring out of the traps like a demented fever dream, with Marins delivering the first of many of Zé do Caixão’s characteristically booming soliloquies with all the overblown bluster of a villain from a Shakespearean tragedy. The film then cuts to a shot of a cackling gypsy-witch foretelling doom to anyone who dares to scoff at the supernatural horrors that await the viewer. With all its bewildering mix of crazed close-ups, random camera moves, surreal imagery and a cacophonous audio track made up of constant wails, moans and thunder claps -- the nightmarish, hallucinogenic tone that would define much of Marins’ cinematic output is established from the very first scenes of his debut Horror film. In this ultra low budget guerrilla effort Marins not only writes and directs the whole thing, but takes the title role as well, although this decision was apparently forced on him only after the actor who was to have played the role failed to turn up on the first day of shooting. It is hard to imagine that the Coffin Joe legend could ever have taken off with anyone else in the part; it is Marins’ eccentric, wild-eyed energy, the manic glee with which he has the character carry out his many heinous on-screen crimes, that defines this most unique of horror characters.
Unusually, Zé do Caixão, despite his forbidding appearance, is not a character himself possessed of any supernatural qualities. In fact, while the impoverished, downtrodden inhabitants of the small, unnamed village for which he acts as undertaker live very humbly, subsumed by their superstitious practices and beliefs, Coffin Joe completely repudiates the yoke of religion and scorns any sort of subservience to ritual or superstition-derived custom. With his wholly black garb, his top hat and theatrical opera cape, and his unnaturally long talon-like fingernails, he has all the suave, swashbuckling appeal of Christopher Lee’s Dracula from the period’s Hammer horror movies, while his histrionic demeanour puts him squarely in the Todd Slaughter school of lip-smacking melodramatic performance. Modern audiences, especially in the UK, may also feel an extra frisson of the macabre from the fact of the bearded young Marins’ uncanny resemblance to the Yorkshire Ripper!
So impoverished was the production that Marins shot his film with a troupe of ‘actors’ largely made up of his own non-professional friends and family; this, combined with his defiantly primitive shooting style (partly born of necessity, but one gets an impression of a director reveling in the brutal limitations of such low budget filmmaking) explains the strange, uneven tone which sees Marins, both as filmmaker and actor, totally dominate the entire film. It’s a tone that veers sharply between the disconnected, blank, almost documentary realist atmosphere invoked by the portrayal of the villagers’ simple lifestyle in the dusty dirt-track town, and the melodramatic Gothic zealotry highlighted in the character of Coffin Joe, with his defiant anti-God tirades, his sheer determination to live outside the moral norms imposed by man-made religion.
Coffin Joe simply terrorises his fellow villagers, flying into uncontrollable rages at the arch of a mono-brow. “I charge double to bury anyone I kill!” he screams, and kill he does, with a cackling relish! “At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul” is quite unbelievably graphically violent for a film made in the early sixties: Joe slices off fingers with a broken bottle, gouges out eyes with his sharpened fingernails, and -- shockingly combining blasphemy with violence -- mutilates a village tough with a crown of thorns procured from the head of an icon of Jesus Christ! The rest of his time is spent in defying every religiously derived prohibition or tradition he can scoff at -- eating Lamb on Good Friday, or going for a stroll in the woods on All Souls’ Day, the one night when villagers traditionally stay indoors because processions of ‘wandering ghosts’ are believed to roam freely about the town. Joe’s other hobbies include mocking silly superstitious local peasants, cursing God and taunting his murdered victims over their graves -- laughing at their inability to make him pay for his crimes due to the lack of existence of their Souls!
The simplistic storyline of the film centres on Zé do Caixão’s obsessive desire to continue his bloodline and sire the perfect son. He has the rather Nietzschian ambition of producing a sort of undertaking Übermensch, unaffected by morality and the fairy tales used by society to enforce it. The undertaker kills his partner Lenita (Valéria Vasquez) after he learns of her sterility, and develops a hankering for his best friend’s girlfriend Terezinha (Magda Mei) instead. Antônio (Nivaldo Lima) the unfortunate ’best friend’ who now stands in the way of Coffin Joe’s libido, duly gets clumped over the head and drowned in a bath; and when Joe’s attempt to woo his former friend’s (now ex-) girlfriend by buying her a pet canary predictably comes to nought, he takes the next best tack and punches her into a stupor then brutally rapes her! This scene, like all the other violent scenes in the film, is hugely overwrought and still immensely disturbing in its leeringly dramatic execution, even when viewed today.
The whole plan goes slightly wrong though: Terezinha hangs herself before she can give birth to any offspring -- let alone the perfect son -- and leaves a curse on Zé do Caixão, claiming she will return to drag his Soul to Hell for his crimes. Undeterred by such promises, Joe sets his sights on another pretty visitor to the town: accompanying a young woman called Marta on a trip through the woods at night to visit her relatives, Joe is reminded of the prophesies of the old gypsy woman and becomes uncharacteristically jumpy at the thought of her final prediction for his own fate, since all her other predictions seem to be coming true.
The final ten minutes of the film is given over to the first of José Mojica Marins’ surrealistic nightmare sequences in which Coffin Joe is tormented by Hellish visions of the ghosts of all the people he has previously killed. This kind of sequence would become a mainstay of the Coffin Joe films, which would get increasingly more deranged as the series progressed.
With this first film in what was to become an occasional series, Marins establishes what is in many ways a very traditional character; a character who is much in the general Hollywood Gothic-chic style of the Universal cycle of Horror villains, with all the traditional tropes one associates with them, such as his all black mid-Victorian garb. By force of will alone it seems, Marins makes Coffin Joe part of a lineage of movie Horror icons that includes Frankenstein, Dracula and Mr Hyde. The essentially derivative nature of the character is triumphantly overcome by his incongruous placement in a willfully realistic, poor, working class environment where he becomes a perverse sort of anti-hero: terrorising and evil but also strangely heroic for his attempts to transcend the social constraints that prevent the masses from overcoming their economic masters who continued to profit from the 'common man's' subservience.
In Marins’ sequel, the second film to feature Coffin Joe puts even more emphasis on the character’s duel nature. The apparent comeuppance inflicted on him at the end of the first film is almost immediately revoked, thereby inadvertently renouncing the supernatural prophecy that was meant, within the framework of that first film, to show us that Coffin Joe’s unacceptable behaviour would always be avenged and punished in the end.
In “This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse” (Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver ), Marins, now with a much bigger budget in hand than in the first instalment (although it’s still pretty small!), takes up the story from the very moment when the first film ended -- but re-writes its very stark denouement! The final scenes of the first film are played out once more like an old, scratchy black and white film from the thirties. But an extra scene has now been inserted in the original final sequence, which once appeared to show the badly mutilated body of Coffin Joe slumping, bug-eyed and stone dead, from the window of the crypt of two of his victims as the village church bell tolled midnight. But now, a newly shot scene where the village folk who discover the body are heard to exclaim that he’s still alive has sneakily been inserted!
Then a fast-paced montage of flash-forwards from the coming movie (and a few images cut from the final film) flicker on screen while weird, shimmering, animated titles and a disorientating title music of ghost train howls and ominous rumbles bombards the viewer’s senses. Eventually, all this madness comes to settle on an image of a blindfolded patient in a hospital bed. The title credits then continue to appear as new footage of Zé do Caixão recuperating in hospital un-spools. This rather ramshackle opening then turns into a much more plot driven experience: Initially blinded and in shock from his ordeal, Coffin Joe recovers implausibly quickly and completely, and with the crash of a gong on the soundtrack, appears back in the old town he once terrorised, the lackadaisical police being completely unable to find any evidence whatsoever linking him to the mad killing spree he went on over the course of the previous film! He’s also now acquired a previously unmentioned, disfigured assistant with a hunchback, called Bruno (Nivaldo Lima, the actor who played the murdered Antônio in the first film), as well as a cavernous underground dwelling that looks like a typical laboratory set in a clichéd ‘mad scientist’ b-movie.
His materialistic beliefs apparently unaffected by his supernatural encounters in the last film, and still determined to find the perfect woman to bear him a superior child, the undertaker wastes no time in getting up to his usual tricks. He kidnaps six women, keeping them imprisoned in his secret lair and subjecting them to a series of unpleasant ordeals in a beleaguered attempt to find the most suitable candidate for his conjugal attentions! One of these women is a dissolute heiress called Marcia (Nadia Freitas) while another is Laura (Tina Wohlers), the daughter of a colonel (Roque Rodrigues) who has a lot of clout in the running of the town. First of all, in aid of his diabolical scheme, Zé releases a large number of tarantula spiders into the female captives’ sleeping chamber, having first made sure that the women are all dressed in identical, flimsy, transparent nightgowns!
This film pursues much the same policy as the last one, subjecting the viewer to a series of extremely gory set-pieces (the mutilation of a woman’s face by corrosive acid; the dropping of a heavy stone weight on a man, crushing his head; and the embedding of an axe in someone’s forehead are among the delights to later feature in this offering) but there is an even greater emphasis on sex and nudity in this follow-up. As one would expect in a Coffin Joe feature, though, it turns into a weird, clammy, leering sort of sex that associates disgust and horror with both the sexual act and the erotic image. There is something unsettling about the prowling camera moving in on the creeping spiders as they pad over semi nude female bodies while a pair of eyes leer at the spectacle through two peep holes. Soon the women are completely covered in the hairy arachnids, but only one remains unaffected by waking to discover her new bed-mates: thus Marcia looks to be the best candidate for Coffin Joe’s upcoming plan. The others end up in a dank pit below the bed chamber, being bitten, strangled and suffocated by various snakes, whilst being forced to watch Zé’s unappetising sexual union with Marcia.
In the village, the townspeople are getting jittery. They strongly suspect that Zé is behind the abductions, but the undertaker actually seems to be taking an active role in helping to search for the missing women and they can find no evidence to link him to the crimes. When Marcia turns up again and provides cover for her abductor, claiming she was never really missing, having merely been away on a trip, Coffin Joe seems to have been absolved of blame for a least one crime. The Colonel is not convinced though, and when Zé claps eyes on his daughter Laura -- and she on him -- fireworks are set to blaze. Laura becomes Zé’s willing lover -- signing up fully to the complete set of his theories on heredity and to his mad ‘superior man’ ethos.
Coffin Joe’s obsession with creating the perfect son to continue his bloodline is more fully explained than it was in the first film in a series of very shouty monologues (the character likes to soliloquise freely and at great length!): it’s a direct consequence of his materialist rejection of heaven or hell or any kind of afterlife. In the light of this rejection, he sees immortality as being achievable only through the creation of a child; and this child will not only have to take on his attributes, but improve on the previous generation’s imperfections, getting closer to the superior man who will learn to stand free of all superstition and religion.
In marked contrast to his relationship with women in the first movie, where he expressed complete contempt for them, seeing them merely as vessels for bearing the fruit of his loins -- and they accorded him a similar level of tolerance, forcing him into greedy acts of violent rape if he was ever to get them pregnant -- in this sequel, the character suddenly becomes hugely attractive to women! He casts a sort of Dracula-like mesmeric spell over both Marcia and Laura, both of them happily going along with his plans; Marcia, providing him with an alibi and setting up one of the locals as the likely culprit who is to be held responsible for the kidnappings; and Laura, who would willingly miss the funeral of her own brother in order to copulate with Coffin Joe! (The inter-cutting of Laura’s seduction with her brother’s sombre funeral service is yet another example of the director’s conflicted attitude to sex.) However, when Zé discovers that one of the women he had murdered in the snake pit was pregnant, he is plunged in to existential turmoil, visualised in a nightmarish vision where a giant black stick figure like something from a Max Ernst painting, drags him from his bed and down into a sulphurous cave, where tormented figures are tortured for eternity with whips and metal spikes, while a Caligula-like Devil figure, basking in sybaritic luxury, watches on. That figure turns out to be Zé himself!
This sequence is shot in startling vivid colour in a sort of inverted tribute to “The Wizard of Oz” and “A Matter of Life and Death” (in that film, Heaven was a colourless bureaucratic nightmare, while the material world existed in riotous colour) and is the prelude to the unravelling of all Zé’s mad dreams and evil plans. The pregnancy fails, the villagers gather into a mob for the standard torch-bearing witch hunt scene all those Universal Horror flicks always ended with, and there is a last minute recantation of his sins and acceptance of God’s word, just as Zé is finally pulled below the surface of a boggy marsh.
But after all the madness and cinematic mayhem of these two movies, not to mention their transgressive violence and sexual content -- it seems rather anticlimactic that the story should end on such a conventional note of piety. As it turned out, José Mojica Marins was far from finished with the character of Coffin Joe. The military authorities may well have forced his demise (and they would not release “I Will Possess Your Corpse” unless Coffin Joe was seen to recant his sins at the end!), but that didn’t stop him continuing to appear in Marins’ films, although the next true Coffin Joe feature film would have to wait another forty years with the release of “Embodiment of Evil” in 2008.
1968’s “The Strange World of Coffin Joe (O Estranho Mundo de Zé do Caixão), despite the title, is not really a Coffin Joe picture at all. It’s nominally a portmanteau movie -- of the same style made famous by the British company Amicus around the same time. Like their films, it is a blend of three short stories, quite different in tone and style, which are only introduced by the Coffin Joe character; he plays no actual role in the stories themselves. All other similarities with the Amicus style of horror end there, though. The film is as crazy, if not crazier, than even the two previous Marins horror films! The film starts with a rambling monologue from Coffin Joe that seems to make no sense at all (then again, the English subtitle translation of the Portuguese language is terrible on most of the films in this DVD collection) and which then cuts into a title sequence consisting of fast-paced edits of stills from the coming stories and the previous Coffin Joe films mixed together, while a hymn like ode to Zé do Caixão plays over the top.
It’s the usual jumbled opening fans of the other films will have grown accustomed to: all Marins’ films seem to start with a random, disordered tangle of ideas and noises, gradually coalescing on the screen until they take on some kind of ordered structure, like a chaotic mind sinking into a dream, accompanied by the same mode of narrative logic.
The first story up is an unlikely blend of uncanny, Hoffmannesque fable and one of those strange, stumbling sixties black and white soft porn flicks where cellulite-rich ‘beat chicks’ bumble awkwardly out of their girdles & baggy brassieres with all the finesse of elephants sewing cardigans. “The Doll Maker” (O Fabricante de Bonecas) begins with interminable footage of lots of ‘swinging’, ‘groovy’ couples a-bopping-an’-a-jiving to some ‘cool’ beat tunes. This goes on until your head bleeds, but Marins’ camera is more concerned with filming from such odd camera positions as afford either a straight ninety degree angle up a groovy chick’s miniskirt, or straight down from above, thus leering into some jiggling cleavage.
A group of suspect looking ne'er-do-wells overhear a barman talking about the treasure a local toymaker (whose dolls are famous for their lifelike appearance) is reputed, foolishly, to keep hidden in his house, and they thus set out to relieve him of his fortune. This toymaker turns out to be an affable old Santa Clause-like fella, who shares his idyllic cottage with his five daughters; it is they who make the dolls for him, and, dressed in flowing white night-gowns, appear to set about their work with an otherworldly relish. Soon they go off to bed, just as the thieves enter the house. The old man seems to die of a heart attack from the shock, whereupon the intruders storm the girls’ bedroom where they find them all sleeping in beds arranged in rows, as though they were guests in a hostel. Each of the men picks a girl to ravish, and a typically weird and disjointed five-way rape scene then occurs in which the leering camera zooms in on various quivering female body parts while a cacophonous din made up of what sounds like a mixture of lions’ roars and raging storm winds dominates the soundtrack; it’s inter-cut with shots of scary, eyeless dolls which appear to gaze sightlessly upon the entire spectacle.
This first story is the closest to the kind of thing you would find in an Amicus film, sharing the British company’s conventional approach to their storytelling by concluding with a neat twist in the tale. It’s strange, fairy-tale-meets-mondo-sex-film vibe takes it into the outer reaches of oddness, though. But even weirder is the next story: “Tara” (Obsession). This story about a vagrant balloon seller who develops an obsession with a rich girl-about-town plays out like a silent movie -- almost Chaplinesque.
Except I’m guessing Charlie Chaplin never made a film about necrophilia!
There is no dialogue at all throughout the entire story. The vagrant follows the woman everywhere, waiting outside her apartment while she takes a bath (we, the viewers get much more of an eyeful than he does, of course) and following her about on shopping trips. He procures an expensive pair of shoes that she drops in the street and, after witnessing her die from a fatal stabbing on the day of her wedding at the hands of a jealous rival, finally gets to return those shoes after he breaks into her mausoleum and re-opens the coffin; but not before having had his evil way with her perfectly preserved corpse, of course!
As tinged with crass exploitation as these unusual stories undoubtedly are, they're nothing in comparison to the final tale in the trilogy -- this one starring Marins in a role that, although not that of Coffin Joe, is not exactly a million miles away from the character either: he has the same dark, bearded looks, even down to the extended fingernails (which Marins would retain no-matter what role he was playing), and the same maniacal personality. This story segment though, is possibly one of the weirdest and the nastiest Marins has produced. “Theory” (Ideologia) starts quietly enough in a TV studio, where Professor Oãxiac Odéz (José Mojica Marins) is propounding the theory on a weekly televised discussion programme, that ‘Love’ is a weak, culturally derived concept, and not a true intrinsic human instinct like lust, hate, fear or the will to survive. His ideas are dismissed by a journalist on the panel, and despite the mocking tone of his rebuttal, Odéz is happy to invite this co-debater and his wife back to his home for dinner, where he says he will provide them with the proof he has gathered over the course of his studies in the subject.
Naturally enough, acceptance of this offer turns out to be a big mistake. The demonstration Odéz is to provide will involve his guests intimately, after he has given them a grotesque tour of the lower cellar regions of his abode, where all manner of behavioural experiments are in progress designed to induce the perversity that Odéz believes exists beyond the civilised veneer of human interactions. To that end we witness a catalogue of orgiastic behaviours involving sadism, lust and cannibalism, all existing side-by-side in the once civilised subjects Odéz has imprisoned in order to test out his theory.
The divide between lewd exploitation ‘trash’ and challenging art house cinema is explored and pushed to new limits in the engagingly self reflexive “The Awakening of the Beast” (O Ritual dos Sádicos). In some ways the film represents a drastic departure in style from Marins’ other works. The horror movie trappings and the comic book directness of the Coffin Joe movies are, initially at least, abandoned in favour of the pseudo documentary starkness found in many of the mondo sex films of the seventies, in which apparently true life events are presented in reconstructions which often claim to be the real deal. The film starts with authentic-looking footage of a woman injecting herself with LSD intravenously, but the vignettes that follow are so bizarre and mannered in their surreal staginess that it becomes obvious early-on that most everything else that is presented to us is faked, probably with satirical intent. Most of the episodes seem to involve drug taking and orgiastic grouping between spaced-out beat girls and sweaty, sleazy-looking blokes; and there is a great deal of underwear fetishism in the film, as well; bras and panties are always being removed and sniffed, and the camera likes to dwell on heaps of such discarded apparel for many lingering moments.
Many of these sequences are intercut with scenes that show four dimly lit academics having an intense round table discussion. It transpires that one of them, a doctor called Sergio, has collected the accounts reconstructed in the film as evidence for the thesis of his new book, which is that drug use is responsible for sexual perversity (although there is a twist to this, which we learn about only at the end of the film). One of the guests on the panel is José Mojica Marins playing himself, and the second half turns into a self referential fiction that anticipates Lucio Fulci’s “Nightmare Concert” and “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” in that the cinematic world the director has created -- and its overspill into Brazilian popular culture in the form of TV shows, comic books and even a pop record -- is examined in a form that represents Marins having almost a Socratic dialogue with himself over his own cultural worth.
It concludes with another of the director’s spaced-out hallucinogenic fantasy sequences, where, after four of the characters from the previous sequences are brought together by doctor Sergio in order to conduct an experiment into the effects of LSD, they are first taken to see a ‘challenging’ play involving on-stage sexual conduct, then a lewd rock concert with hip psychedelic light show and half-dressed cavorting dancers, and finally they watch a Coffin Joe movie (specifically, “This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse”). They are then asked to rate which of these events they find the most stimulating. Although they all have a range of opinions on Marins and his Coffin Joe character, they each agree that the film was by far the most memorable and stimulating experience out of the three, and so the doctor chooses Coffin Joe as the subject of the experiment. This means that the four then have to gaze at a Coffin Joe poster while injecting themselves with a controlled dose of LSD, whereupon all four find themselves in different dreamlike LSD-induced fantasies involving the Coffin Joe character -- all shot in the same lurid colour palette that dominated the ‘Hell’ sequence of the film they were taken to see.
By turns bewildering, disorientating and sometimes repetitive and numbingly boring, “Awakening of the Beast” is one of those films you have to see just for the experience, although it’s not necessarily always an enjoyable one; it is ’70s acid-mondo, with the marijuana reek of ‘free love’ and counter cultural rebellion hanging heavy in the air. Despite the challenging and playful self referential and self reflexive nature of it all, really it represents Marins trying to preserve his cutting edge cool by rebranding himself for the age of psychedelia, Coffin Joe having by now become rather a mainstream phenomenon. This emphasis is also apparent in the film that follows it “The End of Man” (Finis Hominis), 1970, a very low budget, seemingly allegorical tale that starts with a naked man who emerges from the sea, walks around the streets and gradually acquires a crowd of disciples who follow him about as he performs seemingly miraculous feats. This plays out like Buñuel on the cheap: surrealism with a satirical edge such as in an early scene where a young girl is left bleeding in a crowded hospital corridor while the doctors crowd around a small transistor radio (next to an icon of Christ and an X-ray chart), listening to the latest racing results in the operating room, until Marins’ nameless prophet turns up to heal her. Despite its hip counter cultural trappings, the film displays a certain degree of cynicism towards the contemporary age, no better expressed than in a scene where a gang of free loving hippies who see Marins’ as their guru, quickly lapse into hypocrisy when he throws the contents of a case-full of money at them, sending them scrabbling on the floor for the coins!
Naturally, the film doesn't risk relying on cerebral art house cineaste audiences to bring in its bucks, though. The copious, rather prurient nudity that adorns almost every scene makes this feel more like hastily shot exploitation with some soap opera melodrama thrown in towards the end, in an episode where a rich business man’s family plot to poison him, but have their plans foiled when Marins’ miracle worker turns up at the funeral!
The disappointing tendency towards ever cheaper-looking, rather generic product which relies more and more on lewd sexual content continues with unabated with “Hostel of Naked Pleasures” (Estranha Hospedaria dos Prazeres), released in 1976. The Wikipedia and IMDb entries for the film credit the Brazilian filmmaker Marcelo Motta as director, while Marins stars in the title role; although Marins probably did also add his own footage as well. The rather quiet surrealism of “The End of Man” is forsaken now for a brightly coloured jumble of images and a cacophonous din of screeches, macumba drumming and reverb-laden moans and howls -- beginning the film in the frenetic style of the openings of the early Coffin Joe films, but then continuing in the same vein for much of the rest of the picture.
By this stage Marins seems to be engaged in a macabre competition with himself in an effort to ‘out weird’ all previous efforts. The opening ten minutes of this film play like a demented 1972 episode of Top of the Pops, or Marins’ crazy attempt to reproduce the sensory overload of “Suspiria” on a budget of tuppence: flabby-arsed dancers in garishly coloured underwear perform a crude, lumbering dance to some frantic drumming in a blacked out studio, amid an abundance of dry ice that swirls profusely from and around a black-wood coffin. Weird enough in itself as this is, the rhythmic madness is periodically interrupted with the same incongruent cluster of images (accompanied by a soundtrack of piercing shrieks and growls) depicting strange, rubber-masked figures apparently cowering at some stock library footage of lightning flashes. Eventually, Marins, in a suitably mid-’70s sequined version of his usual Coffin Joe garb, rises from the coffin to deliver yet another long and numbing monologue on the origins of existence and the nature of materialism. Then it’s into a rather standard Amicus-style “Tales from the Crypt” scenario in which a bowler-hatted Marins is the mysterious proprietor of a secluded hostel. One by one a number of visitors take a room for the night, sheltering from a terrible storm, each of them greeted at the reception desk by the unnerving heavily bearded owner intoning the ominous words: “I’ve been waiting for you!”
Of course, their names are already in the registration log, and all the clocks and watches inside the hostel have stopped at midnight. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on here, but the film takes a murderously laborious route in getting to the point, unfolding in a series of crudely edited scenes that look like random cuttings from the studio floor spliced together with an audio track which itself often sounds like it’s been entirely composed of audio snippets from other films. Marins and Motta do still manage to force a great deal of rather lame nudity into the film though before revealing the obvious ‘twist’ at the end.
One has to apply some degree of dedication in watching Marins’ films from this era; now fully embracing the ‘Mouth of Garbage’ aesthetics and subject matter of Brazilian low budget film making, it feels like one has to sift through hours of dross to find the occasional inspiring nugget, a startling image, or a well-executed set-piece. The colour photography, with its Bava-like gel work, is often very striking here, but the jumble of acid-hippy druggy clichés and confused flash-frame editing makes this a bit of a chore to sit through if truth be told.
The 1977 film “Hellish Flesh” (Inferno Carnal) seems, on the surface at least, to be an equally cheap but rather more conventional horror b-movie, thematically and plot-wise in line with many of the ‘mad scientist’ flicks of the late-thirties and early-forties which Boris Karloff used to knock out for various studios at that time. The library derived music cues certainly seem to come from that era. Here, Marins, though still in possession of his trademark uncut fingernails, otherwise appears as a rather placid, avuncular figure. As Dr. George Medeiros he plays a quiet, thoughtful man who likes to wear a comfortable cardigan and cravat and smoke a pipe while contemplating his latest scientific project -- the development of an ultra corrosive acid. Unfortunately, so much time does he spend in his cellar laboratory, mucking about with brightly coloured liquids in pipettes and foaming test tubes which he uses for dissolving caterpillars (???) with his specially brewed acid, that he fails to notice that his wife Raquel (Cristina Andréia) has fallen in love with his best friend. They decide to kill him so that they can claim his life insurance, but the ‘plan’ they come up with is no more sophisticated than Raquel walking into her husband’s laboratory, picking up a glass of his newly developed acid and flinging it on his head! This causes red and orange gunge to flare up all over his face as he flails around in agony on the floor -- but it is not enough to kill him. Instead, Dr Medeiros is hospitalised for many months, his head wreathed in bandages while his wife and her lover manage to spend most of his fortune on a champagne lifestyle and on visiting dodgy night clubs where the bored-looking band plays ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose’ on a Bontempi organ!
This seems like it's heading for a bog-standard revenge plot then, and in many ways that is exactly what we're getting here. The storytelling is certainly a great deal more linear than we’ve seen thus far in the films in this boxed set, despite the random soundtrack of howling dogs which seems to start up every now and again for no reason. However, Marins still has an eccentric way of going about things, and the first hint of it appears in the operation scene where Dr. Medeiros is having his face reconstructed. What we are actually seeing is footage of a real operation, filmed as it was performed on Marins himself for the removal of a cataract in the director’s eye! It’s the ultimate gruesome nod to Bunuel and Dali’s Un chien andalou -- and a great deal harder to watch if one has an understandable aversion to eye violence!
Medeiros changes from his friendly cardigan-wearing persona to a rather odd and threatening figure who wears a rubber mask of an old man over his face and dresses in a black raincoat with the heavy collar turned up high around his neck. A fairly obvious revenge scenario appears to be in the offing, but Marins does throw a few curve balls in the mix to keep the viewer guessing. First of all, the wife Raquel becomes a rather tragic figure in a way, because her lover is clearly only using her for the money she has gained from her divorce settlement, while all the while carrying on with an assortment of Brazilian beauties behind her back (cue unpleasant sex scenes involving hairy middle-aged man cavorting with a succession of glum-looking female as hideous saxophone music warbles away on the soundtrack). Her former husband, now a mysterious figure who looks like some sort of surrealist's superhero, employs a detective to keep an eye on her, but, curiously, does not seem interested in exacting revenge. Indeed, when she is run over in the street by a car, he makes sure she is well looked after and that the funds are made available to ensure that her leg wound is sufficiently well-healed (by this time, her abusive lover has spent all of her divorce money as well!). Raquel gradually begins to see the error of her ways, and that she is still in love with Medeiros: Even if his face is disfigured beneath that mask, his soul is clearly still beautiful. She decides to prove her love for him in a rather unlikely and drastic fashion. The film ends with a cruel twist and an unexpected revelation that is actually pretty clever, if rather hard hearted. The film lumbers along with a total disregard for pacing, not so much of a problem when there is no proper story to speak of anyway (as is often the case with Marins’ films) but the elliptical, fractured approach employed by Marins even here becomes a great deal more wearing as the seconds tick away, and the film starts to feel almost twice as long as its eighty minutes suggest it should.
“Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind” (Delírios de um Anormal) from 1978 provides even more of a test. If you can stay attentive throughout this maddening collage of clips from previous films (mainly the three Coffin Joe films, plus a smattering of gruesome footage from others as well) then you truly are a José Mojica Marins super fan. There is only about half-an-hour of new material here. Once again it features the device of having Marins play himself, called in to help a psychiatrist who has started to suffer from hallucinations in which Zé do Caixão tries to steal his wife and make her the bearer of his offspring. The hallucinations are all clips from old films but put together in a typically haphazard, random way. The cumulative effect is both disturbing (all the clips involve Marins’ usual brand of sadistic torture on a zero budget) and mind sapping. Lucio Fulci used exactly the same device in “Nightmare Concert” where he was haunted by footage from his old films; and of course, Marins also played himself in “Awakening of the Beast”. The new material is too slight to justify thinking of this as a bona fide film in it own right rather than simply a long and laboured sado-psychedelic compilation.
The last film in this box set is a documentary, “The Strange World of José Mojica Marins”, a 2001 Brazilian- produced film which won the Special Jury Prize at that year's Sundance Film Festival. Through a compilation of interviews with family members, work colleagues and with the man himself (interspersed with many clips from the films), a portrait of the film maker is gradually built up. There is also a lot of intriguing footage of Marins making public appearances as Coffin Joe, often whipping the crowds into a religious frenzy, illustrating his belief that the supernatural is really just the human imagination brought to life in theatre. Even at the end of this sixty-five minute examination of the great man though, he remains something of an enigma.
The films themselves have suffered neglect over the years. None of the prints here are really of adequate quality, despite attempts at restoration. Thus, newcomers may be put off by the quality of these DVDs; most of them have rather scratchy, sometimes faded imagery (“The End of Man” looks like a bad video-dubbed dupe) and absolutely dreadful mono sound, sometimes sounding like it was recorded off the TV on someone's home portable tape recorder. (Given the rarity of some of the films, that could well be the case!) On the other hand, Marins fans will be glad just to get a chance to see some of these films at last: they are incredibly hard to get hold of, and probably exist in no better versions than we get here. It is a shame that the English subtitles have been so poorly translated from the Portuguese language that they are sometimes completely unintelligible, though! Anchor Bay’s boxed set consists of five discs -- two films per disc, and a fifth disc featuring the documentary on it own. Although they may not all be ‘satisfying viewing’ in the conventional sense, watching these bizarre, thoroughly mad escapades in no-budget surrealism remind one that there are mavericks such as Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jess Franco as well as Marins himself, who can find a voice and create some kind of twisted misshapen art against all odds; and even if the official history of cinema may pass over them, they have produced a body of work whose influence will inevitably one day seep through the cracks, eventually showing up in strange, unacknowledged ways.