It's a fraught business, completing a film trilogy. Leave it too long and you're on a hiding to nothing, for you can never hope to recapture anything of the texture and harmony of the original work. Just ask Dario Argento: as a cheaply made, kinda silly little riff on the occult thriller, Mother of Tears was enjoyable enough. But when you tout it as the final installment of an influential trilogy that began in 1977 with the all time Italian horror classic that is Suspiria - one of the most artistically distinctive baroque horror films of all time - you can only expect to induce completely unrealistic expectations in the expectant fans, followed quickly by a huge walloping dose of disappointment - or worse, outright hostility.
With this in mind, spare a thought for mental Mexican Horror auteur José Mojica Marins, then. Embodiment of Evil represents the final installment in a trilogy of films that kicked off over forty years ago with the bonkers 1964 classic At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, and which then continued three years later with the equally deranged and highly original This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse. These two films introduced the world to Marins' wonderfully bizarre character, Coffin Joe: a mad-eyed, top hat and cape-wearing undertaker who sports unfeasibly long fingernails. Much prone to grandiloquent bouts of soliloquising and random acts of extreme violence, committed with a glee that was almost palpable, the character became a Mexican Horror icon, and appeared or was mentioned in many of the other weird and wonderful films shot by the director over the intervening years, as well as in public; for Marins frequently took on the persona of Coffin Joe, appearing at public events dressed as him, and growing his fingernails to the same prodigious length.
Now a graying, portly pensioner - a long way removed from the slim, dapper, dark-eyed young man who once played the character and directed the first two films with such manic energy - what hope is there that in 2008, Marins can bring his alter-ego to the screen once again with any of the unforced élan that marked those earlier works?
The film cannot, of course, even try to replicate the visual character and tone of the originals, with their low budget guerilla film techniques and surrealist flourishes; but it does take every other opportunity of reminding the viewer of its august lineage. Just as the original sequel shamelessly revised the apparently final destruction of Coffin Joe at the end of the first film, inserting newly shot material enabling him to carry on with his diabolical plans, so Embodiment of Evil pulls exactly the same stunt - but to an even greater extent; even going to the trouble of employing a Coffin Joe look-a-like from the U.S. to play him in extra scenes that have been tagged on to what was originally an even more final denouement, at the end of the last sequel!
When Marins shot that film in 1967, the Military dictatorship running the country at the time would not release it unless the atheistic, defiantly irreligious antagonist recanted his Nietzsche-ian philosophies and accepted the Cross! A rather unlikely, last minute conversion thus occurs at the end, which pretty much makes a mockery of the character's previous contempt for all forms of weakness and his total disregard of human suffering. Now, in new scenes that have been almost seamlessly blended with the black and white finale of the original, Coffin Joe's conversion turns out to have been merely a ruse to enable him to get close enough to kill the offending priest and blind one of his main military tormentors with his gnarled nails, before being taken into custody and banged up in a mental institution for the next forty years! And this is where the new film starts: with Coffin Joe (José Mojica Marins) back on the streets of São Paulo after the lawyer wife (Cristina Ache) of the blinded Colonel Pontes (Jece Valadao) who originally captured and imprisoned him, signs the release form that lets him free!
But São Paulo is now a very different state to the dusty shack-lined town the black garbed anti-hero of yore once dominated with maniacal ease. Now the poverty exists in even more extreme forms, side by side with the bustling, crime-ridden, tin shack & concrete metropolis. Coffin Joe and his trusty hunchbacked assistant Bruno (Rui Rezende) look like a pair of anachronistic shuffling old men rather than the surreally incongruous spectacle they once were in years gone by. Although without morality, Coffin Joe always venerated children to an almost sentimental degree in the other films, seeing them as Man's only hope for immortality, through a crazy scheme of preferential breeding. In the previous film he would leap to the rescue of an endangered child, express remorse when it transpired that he'd killed a pregnant woman, and always appeared on screen to a childlike music-box theme cue. Now, the character finds himself in a world where homeless slum kids are mercilessly executed in the street by military police. His first undertaking job sees him angrily having to lead the procession in the burial of one of these very children.
Just as it seems the film is to take a somewhat jaundiced, reflective view, recasting the character as a sort of avenging angel (if only a fallen one), disgusted by the casual brutalities of modern life that have been allowed to flourish alongside the religious blandishments heaped on the cowed populace by hypocritical authorities, Joe and Bruno take a turning into the shadowy recesses of a dirty slum dwelling and, passing two old gypsy crones of the type familiar from the world of the original Coffin Joe, find themselves in a dusty, crepuscular basement that is equal part Gothic vault - furnished with weird skeletal sculptings and battered old coffins - and antiseptic torture chamber of the sort we're all too used to seeing these days in so-called torture porn films such as the Saw franchise.
This dwelling sums up pretty well the attitude Marins takes to the classic heritage of his own past and the newer context he now finds himself having to accommodate. Coffin Joe simply carries right on where he left off: trying to sire the perfect son, doing so by kidnapping women off of the street and subjecting them to hideous tortures in order to determine which of them will survive the experience and therefore provide his future son with the best genes. Since torture has always been a vital component in the previous Coffin Joe mythos, the character actually fits in rather un-fussily with the new torture porn 'fashion' in horror cinema. The difference is that while Coffin Joe's methods of torture where previously quite strange and surreal in nature, now the predominating aesthetic is one of gross out gore, and an almost comically overstated misogyny that goes so far over the edge of good taste and acceptability that it cannot possibly be taken seriously.
The film constantly refers back to past characters and reminds us of events from past films in the trilogy, incorporating old footage from these original films. Many of the previous female victims reappear, still haunting Joe with nightmarish visions of spiders, snakes and Hellish torture. There is a masochistic assassin-monk who seems to have been cut and pasted straight out of the pages of The Da Vinci Code, but who turns out to be the son of a victim from the first film. The film follows practically the same pattern as before, except now Coffin Joe has even more helpers: a quartet of followers made up of two biker-like blokes and two leather-clad female dominatrix types. Once again, many of the female victims later become followers of his themselves — somewhat implausibly, given he's now a jowly old fella who must be in his late sixties, at least!
But Marins overcomes the rather tired repetitive plot and the unlikeness of Coffin Joe appearing as much of a threat to anyone, or in any way sexually appetising given his state of high dotage, by simply piling on as much grotesqueness and gory excess as he possibly can (making this rather a tough gig for the secondary cast who have to endure being covered in a putrid brew of gunk teeming with spiders, snakes, maggots and scuttling cockroaches!). We have naked women being lowered into vats of entrails; a woman being sewn into the guts of a pig; women being scalped, flayed, whipped and even forced to eat parts of their own bodies. Then there's crucifixion, hanging by hooks through the skin, and all manner of unpleasant purgatorial tortures. The film is, in fact, a potent brew of the over familiar tropes of the Coffin Joe franchise, ramped up with modern levels of sex, violence and gore, and filmed in a more modern style with typical over-saturated colour and cheap CGI.
It's all undeniably enjoyable, but more a guilty pleasure than the originals were, since they now feel like they can happily stand alongside some of the work of Cocteau or Buñuel without shame - although they would have been dismissed as trash by many at the time of their release.
The DVD and Blu-ray editions from Anchor Bay both feature an excellent transfer with readable removable subtitles. There is a pretty good 'making of' feature that last thirty minutes and features interviews with most of the production team and lots of behind the scenes footage. The film's trailer is also included.