Wednesday, August 1, 2007

This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse: or, Coffin Joe Thinks You're Weak and Stupid, and He's Right

Before 1963 when Brazilian genius/madman Jose Mojica Marins made his first feature film, At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, there was no such thing as a "Brazilian Horror Movie." Sure, the movie theaters in Sao Paulo got the Universal classics and the Hollywood poverty-row chillers in dubbed versions, not to mention the German silent films and other international efforts in various states of decay, but the country of Brazil, and indeed the entire Portuguese-speaking world, had no tradition of their own they could point to and say "Yes! This is it! THIS is Brazilian Horror!" But when Marins burst into the movie houses of the largest South American country with his unique vision of pre-Lynchian surrealist horror, cinephiles across the land jumped out of their seats and said "Que o inferno é este?" Even more than the striking imagery and bargain-basement but still inventively effective production values, AMITYS's Machiavellian, blashpemy-spewing, claw-handed antihero, Zé do Caixão ("Joe of the Casket," or Coffin Joe) was the keystone in this foundation of South American filmmaking. In a staunchly Catholic country the ultimate horror was perhaps not physical but spiritual, and Coffin Joe was not afraid to insult the religious and even call God a liar to His face, tempting the thunderbolts to do their worst. While many movie houses refused to screen such blashpemies, the decentralized ratings board in Brazil at the time meant that each state could decide for itself, and where AMITYS screened it was an instant infamous smash. Marins and his alter ego were on their way to horror stardom.

A few years later with a little more money and a lot more ideas, Marins made the second of a projected Coffin Joe trilogy: 1967's This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse. Picking up immediately where AMITYS left off, we find Coffin Joe recovering from the injuries he received at the end of the last film (Mmmmovies review here). He undergoes trial for his crimes in the previous adventure, but is acquitted as there is insufficient evidence (and presumably because all his victims fear him too much to testify). Indeed, as he returns to his job as undertaker and gravedigger in his small village, it is clear that the entire populace lives in fear of Zé do Caixão, as they cross the street to avoid him and even pull their children indoors as he passes. Though small of stature, Marins is very impressive and intimidating as Coffin Joe, with an almost palpable air of menace and malevolence that comes through wonderfully in the b&w cinematography. Back at his funeral home he meets his disfigured hunchback assistant Bruno and starts making plans to continue his quest--to find the perfect woman to give birth to Zé's son, who will in turn be the perfect man fit to rule over the idiots and superstitious rabble of the world.

You see, Zé do Caixão is more than a villain--he is a demonic philosopher. He does not believe in God, in the immortality of the soul, in heaven or hell or anything past this life. He believes religion is stupidity and the devoted fools and weaklings, and he's not afraid to say so: in fact much of his screen time is taken up by Joe's philosophical monologues, with Bruno grunting in the background. To religious Catholic audiences of 1966 this must have been hugely offensive and terrifying, and even now there's a malevolence in the scenes that affects the modern viewer. A man as amoral and nihilistic as Zé do Caixão is capable of anything, any atrocity, any evil in the service of his twisted ideals.

And what are those ideals? Not believing in the immortality of the soul, Joe believes instead in the immortality of the blood--that is, in heredity, in children. The only way he can be immortal is through his offspring, who will carry on both his blood and his philosophy into eternity. In fact, despite his poisonous misanthropy, Joe thinks that the most perfect thing in the world, the thing most worth preserving and protecting, is a child. Early in the film Joe actually saves a child from being run over by a motorcycle, becoming a sort of Satanic superhero, and then roundly abuses the driver for nearly destroying the perfect creature. Unfortunatley, the superstition of their parents and their belief in God ruins most children. "It's a pity," Joe opines to Bruno, "that they grow up to become idiots."

You and me both, pal.

So Zé do Caixão is searching for the "perfect woman" who can carry his seed and bear his child, a child who will rule the world and make Joe immortal. Shortly after returning to his shop, Joe and Bruno kidnap several local maidens and take them to his underground crypt, where he puts them through a series of tests to determine which is the "perfect" one. The greatest of these tests involves waiting till they're all asleep and turning hundreds of tarantulas loose on them! From now on, this is how I'm choosing all my dates. Scenes with the tarantulas crawling all over the sleeping and admirably stationary actresses are some of the best in the film, truly disturbing and alluring at the same time. When the girls finally wake up screaming--all but one--Joe makes his choice.

I could tell you more about the plot, but it really needs to be experienced to be believed. As I said, Marins as Zé do Caixão is a really charismatic screen presence--you just can't take your eyes off him. Some of the things he gets up to are truly sick and disquieting--as when, having selected his bride, he attempts to consummate over an open trap door, below which the failed brides are dying in a pit of venomous snakes! Another bride is found, Joe shows his fighting skills against a muscle-bound bodyguard, and in the trippiest scene of the movie Joe, learning that one of the women he has killed was pregnant (and thus he has destroyed a child) has a nightmare in which he is assailed by a truly terrifying demon and dragged down to hell! And while most of the movie is in b&w, the hell sequence is in bright psychadelic color! The hell effects aren't great, but the juxtaposition is so stark that it really pulls you in anyway.

Victoria's Secret introduces its Arachnobustier, to mixed reviews.

Production-wise this is a very low-budgeted affair, as most of the film was shot in a 600-sq. ft. studio. But what Marins achieves with so little is truly great to see. Here is an inventive, passionate, slightly whacked-out filmmaker doing what he can to make his vision real, and he succeeds. The opening credit sequence alone lets you know the kind of Lynchian bizarreness you're in for, and the dream and hell sequences further show Marins's skill. The cinematography often recalls the Universal horrors (partly b/c of the forced staginess of the cramped set, but also in some of the gothic set-pieces--particularly scenes in Joe's graveyard, or in the chamber of horrors beneath his headquarters--very Edgar Allen Poe-type stuff going on down there.) The script and the Joe character are fantastic and compelling, and the episodic disjointedness of the story can be forgiven since the episodes are so entertaining and involving. Great, low-budget, passionate stuff.

Though the ending of the movie might be a bit unsatisfying to demon-lovers and Satanic nihilists like you and me, all in all TNIPYC is a one-of-a-kind piece of cinematic history, and an immensely enjoyable flick. Three enthusiastic thumbs up.

1 comment:

Soiled Sinema said...

Wow. An incredible review for an incredible films. I reviewed AWAKENING OF THE BEAST at

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