King of the spook house

Pub date March 22, 2011

BRAZILIAN CULT HORROR English-language horror cinema has had its share of actors identified with playing one particular role over and over, from Bela Lugosi’s Dracula to Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger. But we’ve never had anything quite like José Mojica Marins and his infamous Zé do Caixão (José of the Grave). Known to cult movie fans worldwide as Coffin Joe, this top-hatted, cape-flaring, bearded undertaker with extra-long curved fingernails and a mile-wide sadistic streak has been a sort of folk hero in Brazil for nearly 50 years.

His vehicles are unique fever dreams — alternately silly, shocking, or surreal, when not all three at once — that take great pleasure thumbing nose at traditional morality and any institutional authority, whether state or (especially) church. “Destroy me, I believe in nothing!” he dared God while desecrating graves in his first film, 1963’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. God demurred, perhaps intimidated.

This week sees the U.S. release (in Synapse’s Blu-ray/DVD combo pack) of 2008’s Embodiment of Evil. It’s Marins’ return to the role after a long layoff, and to the director’s seat after a longer one — apparently since 1987’s 48 Hours of Hallucinatory Sex, last among the porn movies he was reduced to during an extended career lull. (Those films are said to be stubbornly, grotesquely anti-erotic, which would be entirely in character.) It’s an official conclusion to the “Coffin Joe Trilogy” left off in 1967’s This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, which was advertised promising “200 Snakes! 300 Spiders! 1,000 Extras! The most terrifying film in the world!” and certainly gave sensation-seeking patrons their money’s worth with a prolonged color climax depicting the torments of a papier-mâché hell.

That makes Embodiment perhaps the longest-delayed end to a horror trilogy, kicking Dario Argento’s ass — you will recall his “Three Witches” triptych of 1977’s amazing Suspiria, 1980’s incoherent but picturesque Inferno, and 2007’s daft Mother of Tears. Perhaps Embodiment‘s biggest shock arrives when it opens with the 20th Century Fox logo — clearly somebody is still very big in Brazil. Otherwise it’s back to blaspheming basics for our antihero, who after many years is being released from prison, despite having apparently “killed nearly 30 guys just in jail.” (Never a paragon of political correctitude, Marins has the warden reluctantly “letting the beast loose” and telling his terrified guards: “Any of you turns chicken on me, I’ll get you to stand watch at the queers ward!”)

Once out, Coffin Joe resumes his lifelong quest to find a “perfect woman” capable of bearing a child “higher than God, lower than Satan,” thus allowing our “visionary of the superior bloodline” to achieve immortality. This he’ll do “even if it means imploding the entire cosmos!” For all his hubris, however, this archvillain is still scared shitless whenever his past victims appear as accusatory apparitions.

As ever, auditioning mates (most screaming kidnapees) involves “testing” for fear and resilience in ways they’re unlikely to survive. En route he also acquires lots of new enemies and is happy to orchestrate their grotesque demises too. If Coffin Joe is a sort of spook house incarnation of ideas from Nietzsche and Sade — he’s a mortal superman imposing his will on those haplessly constrained by the societal conventions he scorns — his horrors are hardly grandiose; instead they are manic plunges into the realm of ick.

One unfortunate’s face meets a bucket o’ bugs; another is coated with hot cheese, followed by hungry rats. While CJ evinces disgust at how the world has changed during his long absence (favela kids sniffing glue, etc.), his new adventure takes advantage of some new cultural norms, including goth-punk henchmen, seemingly real body piercings, and a young priest who enjoys applying electric nipple clamps at the altar. (None of this is as memorable as one “terrifying” vision in 1970’s LSD-themed Awakening of the Beast: mooning butts with cartoon faces painted on, several clutching plastic “noses” ‘tween cheeks. Run for your lives!)

Far from the best Coffin Joe movie, Embodiment nonetheless brings the crazy with Marins’ distinctive zeal for outrageous offense. His once frequently-banned works now look loopy and quaint, yet there’s still a subversive edge. Then again, he’s also a lot like the snickering older brother at the Halloween party who thrusts blindfolded kids’ hands into cold wet spaghetti, crowing “WORMS!”