Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe (1974): or, Zé is Absolutely Beside Himself

Ever wonder what Satan's holiday special would look like? Well, wonder no more. José Mojica Marins is pleased to satisfy your curiosity.

Released in 1974 and made after The Awakening of the Beast (though AotB would not be released for another twenty years!), The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe (aka O Exorcismo Negro) continues that film's theme of the power of Zé de Caixão (your ever lovin' Coffin Joe) as a fictional character intruding upon the real, non-fictional world. Mojica is obviously very interested in ideas about how myth and reality converge, about where fiction starts and reality stops, and how things that are imaginary still seem to have power to shape our reality. Though he uses film mythology to approach these ideas, the parallel religious implications of this concern are quite obvious--in this it shares thematically with Mojica's Finis Hominis, though BEoCJ has a decidedly darker bent.

The movie opens with Mojica, playing himself, wrapping up filming on his latest horror flick. Afterwards he takes questions from reporters and talks about why he makes the movies he does. The reporters press him about whether he and Coffin Joe are one and the same, despite Mojica's continued protestations that Zé is merely a fictional character. The press won't let up, though, pointing out Mojica's talon-like nails, which he insists her grew only for authenticity in the character. Exasperated, Mojica finally shouts at the thick press corps, "Coffin Joe DOES NOT EXIST!" However, upon this pronouncement, one of the lamps in the room explodes--which Mojica claims is a coincidence, but the press take as proof of Coffin Joe's existence and displeasure with his creator. An exasperated Mojica then announces his plans to go to his friends' country estate to come up with a screenplay for his next film, The Demon Exorcist.

We are then treated to an uncharacteristically calm opening credit sequence. Still, Mojica is not one to waste film, so while the credits roll we get some great shots of Jose on a ferry boat going down river into the country. The sense of movement and growing feeling of traveling away from civilization and into something dark and unknown are very well done, sold by subtle looks of unease on Mojica's face as he travels, as well as his nervous drinking. It's a light touch, but for this viewer it had an effect.

"Excuse me, waiter? Could you tell me where the restroom is? I seem to be a little lost."

It's Christmastime, and Mojica will be staying with his friend, an architect and amateur parapsychologist, for the extended holiday. There's some great characterization of the large family done very quickly and economically, and some more intellectual discussions about religion and myth between Jose and his friend. Discussions such as these will continue throughout the movie, and offer some valuable insight and commentary on the film going on around them, in an almost metafictional way. It's very sly and sophisticated, and a testament to Mojica's serious intellectual concerns expressed through art.

Mojica settles in to start writing, but it's not long before supernatural events in the house intrude upon his creativity. Furniture moves on its own, icons of the saints explode, light fixtures continue to malfunction. The first half hour of the movie very effectively establishes a feeling of dread and impending terror, so much so that when José goes down to the basement on a midnight walk (ALWAYS a good idea, no?), I was actually kind of nervous for him. With good cause, as it turned out.

Things finally come to a head when the grandfather of the clan goes crazy in the best old-man-freakout scene I've witnessed since Gramps' LSD trip in I Drink Your Blood. It's quite disturbing as the possessed patriarch speaks in multi-layered voices, with the patented Mojica odd angles and distortion of sound. The grandpa-thing claims he is owed a debt and has come to collect--then, dispossessed, the old man collapses on the ground.

"Your FACE is IN a BOX! Your FACE is IN a BOX!"

From there the paranormal occurrences fly fast and furious. A little girl (and sleepless Mojica) witness a toy piano playing itself in a VERY creepy scene, and the family's Christmas tree is infested with spiders and snakes--a Zé do Caixão Christmas! Carlos, the pre-incarnation of Ashton Kutcher and fiance to the family's buxom baby Vilma, is also possessed and attacks Mojica with an axe. Strange visions and symbols assail the family and a dark secret is revealed, leading to a memorable and typically wild climax in which Mojica must confront his dark alter-ego to save his friends from damnation.

As usual, there are some truly inspired set-pieces in this movie. The piano/Christmas tree scene is very unsettling, and a late possession-attack from Vilma's younger sister can only be described as F*CKING SCARY! A witch who is tormenting the family has several memorable ritual scenes, all carried out on an altar that looks set for a "Happy Birthday Satan" party! A conversation between Carlos and Mojica about why we need horror movies functions as a commentary on the film itself, opening the possibility that the film we are watching is in fact the film Mojica said he was going to write at the beginning of this film--which if you stop to think about it may BLOW YOUR FREAKIN' MIND.

But the piece de resistance is definitely Mojica's confrontation with Coffin Joe, who is more malevolent here perhaps than in any other Zé movie I've seen. His opening rant to his red-robed disciples is a thing of evil beauty, with such lines as "May the blood of those who don't deserve to live burst from their bodies! May lightning annihilate the scum! May your loved ones be your executioners!" and the famous cryptic Zé de Caixao mantras, "It will be what it HAS to be! If something exists, it's because there is a reason for it to exist!" And the way he says it, he really makes you believe it.

And then follows the Orgy of Pain--a truly disturbing scene depicting the torment of damned souls, in many ways even worse (or at least gorier) than the famous hell sequence in This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse--albeit mercifully shorter. Fingers are chiseled off, tongues ripped out, hands amputated, and demonic ghouls and harpies cavort in evil glee, even taking time out to do an impromptu evil dance number! Mojica calls on his neglected faith to exorcise the demons, but Zé lets him know that no puny cross can dispel Coffin Joe!

Coffin Joe: The Musical!

While Mojica was certainly famous by this time, you can still tell his budgets were nowhere near what he needed for his expansive visions. While the house where he films the outdoor scenes is palatial (nice gardens and a truly amazing swimming pool), the indoor scenes are obviously studio-shot, sometimes with long drapes serving as walls and curtained door frames in the place of doors. This doesn't keep Mojica from filling the frame with dread and creeping unease, though, and his inventiveness as always is to be lauded.

Hard to find (but not impossible, obviously), The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe is another weird, wonderful trip into the strange wold of José Mojica Marins, and one every fan should take. 10 taloned thumbs wayyyyyyyyy up! Find it however you can, and have a Holly Hellish Christmas!

PS--Images were taken from Coffin Joe's Official Site...I hope he doesn't mind! Love you, Ze!


Karswell said...

Wish I could say I was a Coffin Joe fan, but the truth is I find his films to be a little on the ho-hummy side. Now before you scream "HERESY!" or "SACRILEGE!" don't get me wrong, some of his stuff definitely contains some horrifically incredible visuals, but these don't usually add up to a good movie, and it's almost like he knows that too so then he loops those particular scenes over and over and well... tedium leads to the over use of the fast forward button and that to me equals horror disqualification. I like his costume though. Alot.

The Vicar of VHS said...


No, I understand that Ze is not to everyone's taste. Though I'd be interested to know which movies you saw where you felt he was looping particular scenes--the only one I can think of where he does that is Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind, which is basically a cutting-room clip-show (though I still love it).

Sometimes a horror fan finds just the right thing at just the right time to make it click for him, and I think that's what happened with me and Coffin Joe. Also the innovation that Mojica displayed, being self-taught and basically creating the Brazilian horror show from the ground up, is inspiring to me. I've said before that I'd be very surprised to find out that David Lynch never saw any of his stuff, because there could definitely be some influence there.

But as they famously say, there's no accounting for taste. ;) Just don't expect to get a lot of traction from me dissing Ze do Caixao!

Of course if you start ragging on Paul Naschy, THEN we go to war! :D

Karswell said...

>if you start ragging on Paul Naschy

NEVER!!!!! I LOVE Naschy.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Okay. We can stay friends, then. ;)

Karswell said...

>Okay. We can stay friends, then. ;)

The Friendship Medallion is in the mail... wear it with pride bro.

Karswell said...

>ever seen some of the Coffin Joe comics?

If you would like to email me some of those I'd love to see them... or maybe just post them to your blog. Either way sounds cool. Are they from the 50's or 60's?

Anonymous said...

Oooo!! I loves me some Coffin Joe.

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