The Undertaker And His Pals… THE COFFIN JOE COLLECTION Reviewed

Strange World Of Jose Mojica Marins.jpgDVD. Region 2. Anchor Bay UK. 18.

Apparently there’s been something or other going on in Brazil… a legalistic coup in which a progressive President with a huge popular mandate has been deposed on a cooked up charge and replaced by neo-liberal goons? Nah… if that had happened, you’d have seen or heard about it on the news or read about it in the paper, right? It certainly wouldn’t have been relegated to journalistic limbo while our media worked themselves into a froth about some stupid sporting events… would it?

Anyway, in our ongoing quest to be topical, we thought it was time to check out  ABUK’s blockbusting Coffin Joe Collection, an admirably ambitious box set comprising 5 discs, 9 films, 754 minutes (over twelve and a half hours!) of bravura Brazilian bonkersness from the undisputed top dog of favela fear flicks, Ze De Caixao himself. After a couple of marathon sessions digesting that little lot, I staggered out of the screening theatre here at The House Of Freudstein, my brain totally fried, an enthusiastic convert to the cult of Coffin Joe, whom the back cover of this box justifiably declares “a horror icon so full of sadism, immorality and brutality that he would undoubtedly make even Jigsaw squirm and send Jason running to Mommy” (they forgot to mention that he makes Seed look like a total twat but then, so does The Brady Bunch!)

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As evidenced in this box, Joe first came to the attention of an astonished world in 1964’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (A Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma). The film opens with a demented gypsy crone haranguing us and threatening that if we don’t leave the theatre (or presumably, by extension, eject the disc) we’ll fall victim to the aforementioned soul snatching when the big and little hands meet up at the top of the clock. Having shelled out for this box, you’re unlikely to be put off so early in the proceedings… well, you can’t say you weren’t warned! While the gypsy’s words are still reverberating in our ears, CJ himself appropriates centre screen to start ranting the kind of doggerel (“What is life? It is the beginning of death! What is death? It is the end of life! What is existence? It is the continuity of blood! What is blood? It is the reason to exist!”) that you’ll be hearing over and over again before you’ve worked your way through this box. Our man’s a sinister grave digger who scandalises the townspeople with his wild appearance (top-hat, cape, long curly fingernails), aggressive behaviour (after casually glassing an unfortunate dude during a punch up in his local, he announces that he’ll charge double for burying anybody that he has personally killed) and flagrant disregard for religious observances… chided by his wife for not sticking to the “fish on Friday” rule that will be familiar to our older Catholic readers, he declares his determination to have meat for dinner “even if it means that I have to eat human flesh!” It’s this total inability to keep things in perspective and mount a proportionate response to life’s little setbacks that both defines Joe’s character and brings about his downfall. Most significantly, when he and his wife find it difficult to conceive a child, Joe might consider changing his diet, changing his underpants, scrutinising her menstrual cycle or seeking medical advice. Admittedly IVF research wasn’t too advanced in Brazil during the mid-60s but this really can’t excuse Joe’s subsequent antics…

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… he chloroforms Lenita (Mrs De Caixao, played by Valeria Vasquez), ties her up and empties a bucket of tarantulas over her. Even in Brazil, circa 1964, forensic science is up to detecting that there was something suspicious about  this death, but the coroner’s attempt to write a damning post mortem report is thwarted by CJ gouging his eyes out, soaking him in some flammable liquid and torching him. Keen to restart the quest for an heir, Joe takes a shine to his best friend’s girl Terezinha (Magda Mei) and after bashing matey’s brains out he starts wooing her in earnest… well, he rapes her anyway. The traumatised Terezinha promptly hangs herself, which really sends Joe off the deep end (“You have doomed my blood line to extinction!”) Defying further warnings from that old gypsy bint, he starts desecrating cemeteries and challenging God to put an end to his rampage. On the night of the Day of the Dead, after he’s been menaced by a preposterous prop owl and hallucinated his own funeral cortege, not to mention vengeful visitations by his victims, the deity duly obliges with a thunderbolt to bring matters to a distinctly anti-climactic conclusion.

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The fondness for Universal’s classic horror cycle suggested by endless, Bela Lugosi like close-ups of Joe’s eyes every time he’s about to kill somebody in AMITYS is amplified by the opening to its sequel This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (Esta Noite Encarnarei No Teu Cadaver)… a caption announces that the action of this film will pick up exactly where its predecessor left off and we’re treated to a generous recap of Joe’s closing moments before some of the most brain-jarringly psychedelic (even in black and white) titles ever committed to celluloid… well, this picture was made in 1967, after all. Predictably, Joe was only stunned by that lightening bolt and has now taken up residence in a new town, at the expense of whose “ignorant” and “inferior” inhabitants he intends to pursue his ill-defined, sub-Nietzscianian mission. Indeed, he intends to make them “cry tears of blood!” Business as usual, then… well, not quite: this time out Joe can call on the services of a deformed, Igor-like henchman named Bruno (Jose Lobo), with whose assistance he renews his search for the perfect mother to his “superior” child but now employing ruthlessly efficient, almost industrialised methods. Sundry local lovelies are abducted and incarcerated in some kind of underground dormitory, where Joe torments them with assorted creepy crawlies, including the inevitable tarantulas… and these are real spiders, none of your pipe cleaner crap like the ones in Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (Jeez, and people will try and tell you that it was heavy going on a Werner Herzog set!) When the caged cuties complain about their treatment, Joe insists that it’s “not sadism, my dears… but science!” Those who flinch from this insect ordeal are derided as “cowards!” and “fools!” while Joe variously showers them with acid, hands them over to Bruno to be used as sexual playthings and consigns them to a snake pit so that he can enjoy their death throes while canoodling with the “lucky” winner of his bizarre selection procedure. After this there are worrying signs of some kind of plot congealing around the character of a colonel who hires a circus strongman to carry out a hit on Joe but that doesn’t really go anywhere and thankfully we’re soon back to full-on delirium as Joe again defies God to show his hand and is rewarded, as the already variable b/w film stock lurches alarmingly into gaudy technicolour, with an audacious albeit cheapskate rendition of the torments of the damned in Hell.

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This gives Joe momentary pause for thought but he’s soon up to his tricks again, only to drown in a swamp while trying to evade a lynch mob that’s been drummed up by that colonel. Aye caramba! In addition to his Universal fetish, TNIPYC demonstrated that Marins was responsive to more contemporary horror trends, Joe’s arrival in town having more than a touch of Spaghetti Western about it.

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The following year’s The Strange World Of Coffin Joe suggests furthermore that Marins was aware of and enthused by those Amicus portmanteau jobbies, comprising as it does three macabre tales for the price of one. Unfortunately, after delivering the mandatory unhinged opening soliloquy, CJ does not pop up as a Crypt Keeper-type linking character connecting the various vignettes… a seriously wasted opportunity! Story 1, “The Dollmaker”, concerns an old toy maker whose dolls are renowned for their life-like eyes… when his beautiful daughters are threatened by a loutish gang of would-be rapists, we learn the source of his raw materials in the biggest non-surprise twist ending of all time. The second instalment, “Obsession” (a necrophilic take on the Cinderella story) works better and the closer – “Ideology” – best of all: Marins plays a variant on his Ze De Caixao character, now a professor debating his own oddball philosophy of human instincts with a scientific rival on some TV chat show. They agree to differ and indeed, things are so cordial that Ze invites his debating adversary and wife round for dinner, where they are forced to witness, then subjected to all manner of unspeakable tortures, by means of which they are reduced to brutish ghouls, neatly proving our man’s views about the primacy of instinct over rationality and morality. One imagines that this picture played the U.S. grindhouse circuit at some point… its throwaway mix of sadism and philosophy certainly seems to have influenced the likes of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s The Wizard Of Gore (1970) and Joel Reed’s Bloodsucking Freaks aka The Incredible Torture Show (1976) and you could probably make a case for it being the godfather of the dreaded “torture porn” genre (though we shouldn’t hold that against Marins). TSWOCJ also boasts an absolutely corking toe-tapper of a title song, extolling the merits of its eponymous anti-hero.

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Fumetti adaptation of The Strange World Of Coffin Joe

Back in 1970, Marins was still jumping bandwagons with the drugsploitation epic Awakening Of The Beast, his characteristically cheap and cheerless attempt to grab a slice of the Easy Rider action. Here a bunch of mental health professionals (including Marins) debate a series of cautionary drug tales, all of them climaxing in some form of sexual degeneracy, all of them played out for our lip-smacking disapproval. We are introduced to a stoner who gets off on washing women’s underwear, a coke snorting producer who deflowers aspiring starlets on his casting couch, a suburban housewife whose own appreciation of “the magic powder” is best enhanced by watching a black servant bang the arse off her daughter (there is even a suggestion at one point that their pet dog is going to get in on the act!)… even more bizarrely, a love’n’peace espousing schoolgirl visits a hippy commune and, after a couple of token tokes on a “reefer”, is apparently abused with a thick tree branch by a Charles Manson type!

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The second half of the picture concerns a controlled experiment in which willing guinea pigs are dosed with acid after a screening of This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse. Just as in that film, there’s an abrupt switch from b/w to colour as every psychedelic trick in the book is trotted out to depict their various trips, all of which feature the menacing figure of Ze De Caixao… the perfect recipe for an unprecedented bummer, one would have thought. Finally it is revealed that none of the participants actually dropped acid, a placebo having been administered instead. What all of this seems to prove is that there’s a little bit of Coffin Joe inside all of us… well fuck me! Ze himself seems to have been eschewing the hallucinogens in favour of cramming doughnuts during 1970, looking distinctly overfed as he delivers his customary diatribe before the titles of this one. Later Marins, debating with those mental health professionals, reminds them not to mistake him for his celluloid alter ego: “He stayed in the graveyard tonight!” Despite the penny-pinching circumstances in which his films are churned out, such narrative devices testify to a Post-modern intelligence at work approximately two decades before Wes Craven had his nightmare, before even that malevolent moggy troubled the murderous mind of Lucio Fulci…

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… the comparison with Fulci’s Cat In The Brain / Nightmare Concert is even more apt in the light of Marins’ Hallucinations Of A Deranged Mind (Delirious De Um Anormal, 1978) in which Marins is called on to counsel and cure a psychotherapist who has become obsessed with the idea that Coffin Joe has chosen his wife to bear him a superior son. Marins does a creditable job of demonstrating that Joe only exists as a fictional character, though this being a horror film, the proceedings have to conclude with a predictable “or is he?” caveat. Like Fulci’s film, HOADM contains about ten minutes of original material, the balance comprising a mix and mis-matched muddle of footage (colour, tinted and b/w) culled from other films in this set. Fascinating as all this undoubtedly is to semiologically-inclined film critics, it also ensures that the flick is probably the least entertaining one in the box, though it does contain one of the greatest lines of dialogue I’ve recently encountered: Marins becomes unwell while dining out with a bunch of psychiatrists but allays their concern for his well being with the reassuring observation: “Don’t worry, it’s only the effects of a heart attack!” Well, that’s OK then…

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Having already argued elsewhere (possibly while seriously pissed) that Marins deserves to be taken at least as seriously as Jodorowsky, I’m going to pitch my praise even higher and suggest that The End Of Man (Finis Hominis, 1964) deserves serious comparison with Luis Bunuel… here a mysterious derelict (the director himself) emerges naked from the sea and strolls into town making gnomic pronouncements and generally acting like Jesus… saving adulteresses from their enraged relatives, thwarting would-be child molesters, healing cripples, apparently bringing people back from the dead… you know the kind of thing. Hippies and free-loveniks adopt Finis Hominis (as he is dubbed by a priest) as their guru and, when his fame and influence spread, commercial interests attempt to recruit him to their own agendas. The film climaxes with Marins’ messiah delivering his definitive statement to a waiting world. If the fact that the venue for his platitude-laden sermon is a rubbish dump rather than any Mount does not alert you to this film’s satiric intention, the closing scene will… having said his piece, Finis Hominis calmly strolls back to the mental institution from which he has absconded, where his keepers are patiently awaiting his return. Brilliant!

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Marins is back in his Coffin Joe persona (albeit sporting a bowler rather than the more familiar top hat) for 1967’s Strange Hostel Of Naked Pleasures (A Estranha Hospedaria Dos Prazeres, 1967) which demonstrates the continuing influence exerted over him by the Amicus legacy: hippy no-goodniks and corrupt representatives of straight society rub shoulders (and other bits) in the eponymous establishment, getting their sinful rocks off until the not exactly unpredictable twist revelation that their host is none other than… put it this way, the shadow of Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors looms large here.

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Hellish Flesh (Inferno Carnal, 1977) deviates entirely from the Ze mythos, Marins instead essaying the role of a workaholic scientist whose alienated wife conspires with his best friend (her lover) to attack him with acid and set fire to him so that they can abscond with his money. It takes them scant months to blow that, at which point the crippled doc makes the extraordinary declaration that he has forgiven his erring spouse and will take her back. If you think that’s unfeasible, wait till you catch the mind-boggling (and completely senseless) twist that caps off this overblown melodrama.

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As if all that weren’t enough to leave you stunned and gibbering, the final disc in this set contains The Strange World Of Mojica Marins, a 2001 documentary profile of the great man (by Andre Barcinski and Ivan Finotti) that achieved what none of his own prolific output ever came close to achieving, a special prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Barcinski and Finotti capture Marins at home in his modest apartment and hanging out on the mean streets of his home town, reminiscing about his upbringing in, literally, a series of cinemas and his consequent fixation on film. His mother reveals that little Jose was born on Friday the 13th, his bodyguard Satan (!) declares that the director is really a nice bloke (cut to footage of Marins and Satan at a bullfight, laughing their asses off as the matador gets gored). We also learn that the Coffin Joe character emerged from his creator’s nightmares and that JJS is a mentally unstable, amphetamine-fuelled workaholic who really does put his actresses through the kind of auditions that are probably outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. He and his crew are proud of the fact that they kept working during tough economic times by cranking out porn, especially proud that they authored Brazil’s first hard-core cinematic encounter between a dedicated actress and a dog… if all of this seems just too bizarre, bear in mind that the host of a Brazilian answer to CrimeWatch was arraigned for arranging murders to provide content for his programme!

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All of the films are presented in full-screen format, some of them with dodgy sound and / or careless subtitles and at least one of them has a brief outburst of the kind of picture disturbance you only get when mastering from video tape… it is, therefore, a tad disingenuous for the pack to claim “each disc boasts digitally enhanced picture and sound” although, bearing in mind that nobody has ever taken Marins’ stuff seriously enough to archive it properly, the second part of ABUK’s pack boast, declaring this box to be “the definitive celebration” of Marins’ oeuvre, is undoubtedly true and looks likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. The art-work on the box cover is quite beautiful, albeit sufficiently understated (surprisingly so when you considering that its subject matter is maniacs, topless girls, living corpses, skulls and bats!) for the box to run the risk of disappearing into the shelves. Make sure you hunt it down, anyway. Essential stuff for any horror fan whose horizons stretch further than the latest remake / reboot of Hollywood product which probably wasn’t any good in the first place.

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