Coffin Joe on DVD!
It cannot be stressed enough that before 1963’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul there had never been (to the best of my knowledge) a horror film made in Brazil. There had been a version of Jekyll & Hyde and some Poe adaptations done in Argentina during the 1950s, but by and large the social climate of South America – a mix of the fiercely Catholic with deep strains of superstition – has been prohibitive on these types of productions. The cultural stew is rich with spooky ghost stories and supernatural folklore, but none dared think such things were respectable subjects for popular entertainment.
A young filmmaker named José Mojica Marins held no such reservations – after all, he’d already made the first Brazilian western, and had no fears about breaking taboos – but at that moment in time, he wasn’t really thinking of a horror story. He was more interested in crafting a social commentary on juvenile delinquents, though his unfamiliarity with rock music and youth culture made the project difficult. While struggling with the subject matter and his finances, Marins became quite ill. In a fever, he had a nightmare about a figure in black that dragged him off to the cemetery to see his own grave. This nightmare, and an earlier episode where he’d seen ghosts in a cemetery, frightened him so thoroughly that he knew he had found a stronger image to commit to film.
At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul introduces us to the character of Zé do Caixao (translated with Marins’ permission to the more English-friendly Coffin Joe), a small town undertaker so wicked that Marins could find no other actor aside from himself to take the role. Unlike the devout peasants of his community, Zé is a blatantly blasphemous atheist with no sense of ethics or morality other than his own. His one belief is that man lives only to propagate the species, making his wife’s inability to conceive a constant torture to him.
Zé’s unholy attitudes keep his neighbors too fearful to oppose his vicious actions, believing he bears the Evil Eye. Knowing this, he brags that for any upcoming funerals “I’ll charge double for anyone I kill!”
Without the belief in any God to punish him or any authority to stop him, Zé embarks on an evil plan to seize a more suitable mate. First, he sadistically kills his own wife by forcing a venomous spider to bite her. Then he attacks and drowns his only friend Antonio, the seemingly accidental death leaving the victim’s fiancé Terezinha easy prey. After forcing himself on the grieving Terezinha, she foils him by committing suicide. Frustrated, a drunken Zé still howls out his hatred for a God he maintains does not exist. When a young woman from the big city comes to visit relatives in the town, Zé immediately begins making plans of conquest. However, the crazy old witch that lives by the cemetery repeats her curse that at midnight he’ll meet his fate, and while he makes his way toward home strange things begin to happen.
Stemming from a childhood spent peeping at the forbidden Hollywood monster movies playing in his father’s theater, Marins’ horror films have a delightfully exhilarating atmosphere of spook show theatrics. The film begins with a glaring Zé making a statement of his philosophy surrounded by howling winds and cracks of lightning. The old witch then appears to offer a cackling warning to the less courageous members of the audience. Screams and moans echo from the thundering soundtrack.
However, Marins goes far beyond Hollywood taboos in his depiction of violence. Zé’s villainy is graphically documented with unflinching views of eye gouging and skull cracking. These types of elements, in a film created on a budget below any Ed Wood project and drenched in a folklore that’s both strange and exotic, would be enough to draw the interest of any horror fan.
The film also shows a depth of cinematic technique that belies Marins’ relative inexperience. Except for a few location shots, the entire film was shot in a tiny 600 square foot studio space, yet the camerawork and editing rarely give any hint to the project’s cramped and impoverished conditions.
The film is clearly a very personal look inside the psyche of its director. At the time of its production, Marins still considered himself a devout Catholic (Zé’s famous beard was grown for lent), and Coffin Joe is clearly shown to be an outright villain to be condemned. But one also cannot escape a certain degree of sympathy shown for the outcast, and though he eventually faces a comeuppance for his crimes, it is never plainly stated whether it comes via supernatural means or as a product of Zé’s own conflicted soul.
Though Coffin Joe had become the Brazilian equivalent to Boris Karloff and Vincent Price – appearing not only in films, but also television, radio and comic books – his films were little known outside of his own country until recently. Monster magazines dropped hints of his work over the years, but it wasn’t until Something Weird Video gained the rights to release Marins’ work in America that his films became a cult sensation.
Fantoma Films now bring the Strange World of Coffin Joe to DVD, and has done a great job of it. Featuring a new digital transfer direct from the 35mm negative, the films have been given fresh, removable English subtitles. Despite some scratches and speckles on the source materials, the films look and sound much cleaner and brighter than the tape releases. There’s a segment of interview footage with Marins in which he reveals several new facts about the film, including Coffin Joe’s back-story and motivations, and how he had to complete the film with only 13 cans of negative available. Also included on the disc are trailers for all three Fantoma Coffin Joe films, which differ from those seen on tape. Marins’ biographer Andre Barcinski provides a brief but fascinating piece on the film’s production as an insert.
But the feature that makes the extra expense of these discs worthwhile is the inclusion of a translated reproduction of a vintage Strange World of Coffin Joe comic book, printed much smaller than the originals, but still quite a welcome treasure. Hopefully, Fantoma will continue to present more films in the Coffin Joe series.