Coffin Joe

B&W, 1963, 82m.
Directed by José Mojica Marins
Starring José Mojica Marins, Magda Mei, Nivaldo Lima, Valéria Vasquez
Synapse Films (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Fantoma (US R1 NTSC), Anchor Bay (UK R2 PAL), Cinemagia (Brazil R0 NTSC), Umbrella (Australia R0 PAL)

At Midnight I'll Take Your SoulAt Midnight I'll Take Your SoulYears before Freddy Krueger, another maniacal fiend with long fingernails stalked world cinemas for years in Brazil. José Mojica Marins, one of the most unforgettable director/actors ever, began his bizarre career in 1963 with At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, a film shot on scraps that turned out to be a huge hit in screens across the nation. With his top hat, chiseled beard, piercing eyes, flowing black cape, and inhumanly long fingernails, Marins became a celebrity as Zé do Caixão, or "Coffin Joe" (the name given when his films first came to American VHS from Something Weird), a self-centered man who becomes more of a demigod with each film.

In At Midnight, the audience receives not one but two introductions delivered directly to the screen, first from Coffin Joe himself and then from a cackling gypsy woman. We then meet our antihero, Coffin Joe, the undertaker of a small village who terrorizes the citizens with his self centered, violent behavior. Just for kicks he ties up a woman and lets spiders crawl over her, he voraciously eats meat on Good Friday, and he regularly picks fights at local bars and cuts off his competitors' fingers with a broken bottle during a game of poker. The goal of Coffin Joe's unholy search is the perfect woman who can bear his son, but even including his own less than satisfactory wife, the locals don't offer a prime candidate... or so it seems, until he meets the lovely Terezinha (Mei).

Though Marins is known for his extreme, personalized filmmaking which often puts the actors through the kind of humiliations normally reserved for carnival freak shows, At Midnight is surprisingly strong in both the story and atmosphere departments. The desolate, shadowy village is photographed in a stylish manner to conceal the limited budget; in fact, some of the nocturnal graveyard sequences recall the similar feats accomplished by Mario Bava in Black Sunday and several of Terence Fisher's earlier Hammer films, not to mention the classic Universal horrors which crop up in numerous little homages. All of the actors were amateurs, either friends or relatives, and Marins handled most of the technical duties himself. As far as homemade horrors go, however, this is a stunning achievement.At Midnight I'll Take Your SoulAt Midnight I'll Take Your Soul

Bearing in mind that it was shot with scraps of film and probably spliced together with Scotch tape, At Midnight has fared quite well on home video for the most part over the years including its first appearance on DVD in 2001 from Fantoma. Some of the process shots, such as the opening titles, still look as ragged as they ever did, but the image quality is crisp and the negative appears to have been well preserved. The previous subtitled VHS edition from Something Weird looked pretty good, but this one bests it easily. The Portuguese dialogue is presented with optional English subtitles, and the disc includes trailers for all three Fantoma Coffin Joe titles (identical to the ones on SW's previous compilation tape). The real treat here is a ten-minute interview with Marins in which he discusses the making of the film, pointing out various locales which had to be altered and explaining how he accomplished that memorable shimmering shot of a spectre offering Coffin Joe a light in a graveyard. The same source was later used for an Anchor Bay release as part of a 2009 Coffin Joe set (marred by some hideous NTSC-to-PAL conversion), an excellent 2002 Brazilian special edition, and a 2011 Australian DVD.

In 2017, Synapse Films brought this film (and its sequel) to DVD under somewhat controversial circumstances; in the age of Blu-ray, it's been noted that the sole extant film materials in Brazil can't withstand another film scan, so it doesn't look like an HD presentation is likely any time in the near future. That said, it's easily the best this film has ever looked on home video, with improvements in encoding revealing a much more impressive viewing experience all around. Extras include the hammy Brazilian Coffin Joe intro (2 mins.), the 10-minute making-of featurette with Marins from the Brazilian disc covering the difficulty in making horror films in his native country at the time, a 9-minute discussion by Marins about his early 1952 short film Reino Sangreato (whose surviving clips are shown), a 6-minute Marins interview about the genesis of his interest in filmmaking, a "new scene" shot in 2002 with a modern-day Coffin Joe assailing a woman clutching onto a pet bird, the original Brazilian trailer, and a "rare promotional trailer" with burned-in subs that could have run during its Something Weird days. Also available in a Coffin Joe Trilogy set along with the second film and the delirious Embodiment of Evil.

B&W/Color, 1966, 108m.
Directed by José Mojica Marins
Starring José Mojica Marins, Tina Wohlers, Nadita Freitas, Antonio Fracari, Jose Lobo
Synapse Films (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Fantoma (US R1 NTSC), Anchor Bay (UK R2 PAL), Cinemagia (Brazil R0 NTSC), Umbrella (Australia R0 PAL)

This Night I'll Possess Your CorpseThis Night I'll Possess Your CorpsePicking up shortly after his first film left off, Coffin Joe returns in This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, an even more extravagant wallow in horror movie excess. After recuperating in the hospital from massive eye trauma (which looked significantly worse at the end of At Midnight, to say the least), he's back to business as usual trying to scout out a future mother for his evil, "perfect" spawn. After auditioning six beauties with his trusty tarantulas and subjecting another young woman to the clutch of a boa constrictor, all with the aid of his new, trusty hunchback assistant, Bruno (Nivaldo de Lima), Coffin Joe finally settles on the perfect mate and even wipes out his male competitor with the aid of a heavy rock to the cranium. Alas, a brutal twist of fate induces him to hallucinate a horrifying journey to hell (in full, bleeding color), where the damned are cursed to an eternity locked into the walls of an icy cavern presided over by pitchfork-wielding minions of the devil, also played by Marins. Shaken to his senses, Coffin Joe embarks on one final, savage attempt to fulfill his destiny...

Encouraged by the popular reception of At Midnight, Marins pulls out all the stops for his second foray into horror territory. The vestiges of a storyline present in the first film are largely discarded for what instead resembles a collision between the aesthetic perversion of the Marquis De Sade and the violent, orgiastic visuals of the '60s S&M Olga films. This is no quick cut and paste sickie, however; Marins' craft had obviously been honed to allow him freer expression of his dark, comic book style fantasies. The sets are more elaborate, the photography is slicker, the acting is better, and the hell sequence is arguably the most striking set piece in Marins' entire canon. Newcomers may be startled by the film's excessiveness, so it's probably best to start with the first film to get one's feet wet; however, anyone curious about world horror cinema should make This Night required viewing. This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse

The technical improvements evident in this film extend to the quality of the film element itself. The opening montage summarizing the highlights from the previous film still looks the worse for wear, but once the new footage This Night I'll Possess Your Corpsebegins, the resolution and print quality are wonderful. The color footage in particular is so vivid it nearly leaps off the screen, worthy of an MGM musical. As with the first film, this debuted on DVD from Fantoma in 2001, and the English subtitles are well written and easily accessible. Once again the disc includes the three Coffin Joe trailers, as well as a fascinating interview in which Marins discusses the sudden celebrity he encountered while making this film, the ordeals suffered voluntarily by his cast members, and much, much more. Also, be sure to read the liner notes for an interesting bit of trivia about the film's frenetic closing line.

Afterwards the film followed an identical trajectory on home video as its predecessor, winding up in that Anchor Bay set (also with conversion issues) and Brazilian and Aussie releases. The Synapse disc again offers the most solid representation of the film so far with a proficient encoding that handles the detail and black levels better than ever before. Extras include a 2-minute Marins intro, the original trailer, an 8-minute making-of featurette with Marins discussing his own personal representation of hell and the many physical issues involved in the climax (with "bank tellers, doctors, and lawyers" among the damned who had to work the next day), a 4-minute look at the Coffin Joe Museum (who looks amazing and comparable to the Profondo Rosso shop in Italy), the great 25-minute Ivan Cardoso love letter "The Universe of Coffin Joe," a 7-minute Marins interview about some of his cinematic legal hassles and tragedies, and a gallery of rare production photos.

B&W/Color, 1969, 91m.
Directed by José Mojica Marins
Fantoma (US R1 NTSC), Anchor Bay (UK R2 PAL), Cinemagia (Brazil R0 NTSC), Umbrella (Australia R0 PAL)

When is a Coffin Joe film not a Coffin Joe film? When it's Awakening of the Beast, a scathing portrait of drugs and decay in modern day Brazil. While the famous caped villain does make an extended appearance in the final half hour, the bulk of the film is devoted not to sadistic torture but to the lurid debauchery wrought by chemical abuse and unchecked crime in an urban environment -- all the more remarkable considering it was mostly shot in one room. Banned in Brazil until 1986, this was promptly hailed as Marins' masterpiece. Though many may find it doesn't quite live up to the hype, Awakening is both essential Marins viewing and a fascinating look at drug-fueled hysteria.

After an extended, lurid curtain raiser in which a woman in bobby socks provokes a group of stoned men into group debauchery, the film's plot (for lack of a more refined term) begins as the renowned Dr. Sergio introduces case studies to convince the public that drugs and crime are inextricably linked. For undeniable proof, he presents four human guinea pigs who were dosed with LSD and forced to stare at a Coffin Joe poster (following a viewing of This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, of course). Then, in color and sepia tone, the viewer witnesses each subject's plunge into delusions involving Coffin Joe, whose appearances are comprised of both new footage and censored or alternate clips from his previous films.

More or less a feature length extension on the final "case study" story in Marins' most demented film, The Strange World of Coffin Joe, this film was most likely banned more for its political subtext than its exploitation elements. The sex is stronger and more deviant than the violence in this case, with a strong and unsettling fixation on bodily functions, but that's really nothing compared to what viewers witnessed from Mr. Marins during the 1970s. The drug material would snugly fit with any roughie exploitation title from the U.S. during the period, making this an ideal companion piece for such fare as Mantis in Lace and Alice in Acidland, but the presence of Marins (both as Coffin Joe and himself in the memorable denouement) makes this a genuinely unique experience.

Since it was never used to strike a massive number of prints and only spooled through a projector a couple of times, this film's negative is in the best shape of the three. Again the color sequences are a marvel to behold, and the black and white footage is crisp and features excellent contrast. The same extras are carried over here, with Marins again contributing a video interview to discuss the importance of the film, its personal message to him, and the potentially disastrous circumstances under which it was carried out.

All three discs in the long out-of-print Fantoma box are also packaged with complete reproductions of Coffin Joe comic books, with translated English dialogue replaced over the original Portuguese. The stories are amusing, Tales from the Crypt-style yarns, complete with amusing photo inserts of Marins himself commenting on the action. These alone are virtually worth the expense of picking up these discs, but the quality of the films and the extras should be enough to convince the skeptical. The film is also available in the Anchor Bay set.

Updated review on March 23, 2017.