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February 01, 2017

Two Nights with Coffin Joe

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At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul / A Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma
Jose Mojica Marins - 1964

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This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse / Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadaver
Jose Mojica Marins - 1967
Synapse Films Region 1 DVD

Halloween comes a bit early this year with the release of the first two Coffin Joe films on new DVDs with a bunch of extras. I'm something of a latecomer here, having read about the films, but not seeing them until now. At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul is notable for being Brazil's first horror film, made around the same time as Brazilian filmmakers of about the same age were making the first wave of films that were part of the Cinema Novo movement. In one of the supplements, Mojica discusses showing is tiny studio set to Glauber Rocha, probably the most famous of the Cinema Nova filmmakers. Glenn Kenny shares anecdotes about that connection. It's not just a matter of genre, but in creation of a character that is specifically Brazilian, with Mojica taking on church and state, both off and on-screen.

Mojica wrote the first film in response to a nightmare in which he was dragged by a faceless being to see his tombstone. The character, known in Portuguese as Ze do Caixao, is an undertaker, always seeking the "perfect" woman to bear his son. Only a few are attracted to this bearded man in black, with the cape and top hat. Those who reject Coffin Joe, or get hysterical discovering themselves sharing a bed with a handful of big-ass spiders are dispatched in a variety of brutal ways. Men who attempt to stand up to Coffin Joe, or worse, attempt to kill him, lose fingers with a deftly placed broken bottle, or Joe's long nailed fingers stuck in their eyes.

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I would guess that Mojica had seen one or two films from William Castle, as Midnight opens with a cackling witch warning viewers to leave the theater or get ready to be shocked. Coffin Joe lives in open rebellion of all religions, beliefs, and mores, starting with a feast of lamb eaten on Good Friday. The shot of Joe chewing on a leg, while a procession led by a priest is seen through a window in the back, is Mojica's opening shot that nothing is sacred, an image that has brought comparisons to Luis Bunuel. The film is mostly a triumph against a very austere budget, with one special effect achieved by gluing glitter onto the negative.

The popular appeal of the first film enabled production of the second Coffin Joe film. Seemingly left for dead, shocked at the sight of his victims putrefying bodies in their respective coffins, the second film takes up at the moment the first film ends. Eyes bulging out of their sockets, Joe is hospitalized, with bandages on his face, recovering completely. Going to a small town to serve as undertaker, the mission to find the perfect woman continues. Rescuing a young boy from getting hit by a motorcyclist, Joe lets us know that he loves children. It's the adults they grow up to be that he hates. Aiding Joe is his hunchbacked servant, Bruno. Bruno has a face that appears to have had a close encounter with a cheese grater.

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Not only does this second film have better production values, but Mojica pushes the envelop with both the sex and horror. Six would-be fiancees spend the night at Joe's wearing panties and diaphanous nighties, appropriate for a night interrupted by the nocturnal visit of dozens of spiders, each the size of a man'm fist. While the film was made in 1967, the town and its people could easily be from ten or twenty years earlier. And yet, the color sequence, when Coffin Joe goes to hell can rightly be called psychedelic in its use of color. That sequence is an elaboration of Mojica's inspirational dream. Human statues, a parade of crawling sinners, body parts sticking out of walls, and a riot of lurid colors, horrifying Joe, and delighting the viewer.

Both DVDs contain interviews with Mojica discussing the making of his films. Additionally, Midnight includes an excerpt from an earlier film, Reino Sangrento from 1952, quasi-Arabian Nights historical fantasy, shot in 16mm. The title translates as "Bloody Kingdom". This Night includes the short documentary, The Universe of Mojica Marins, with glimpses of Mojica's other films.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 1, 2017 07:57 AM