I would tell thee of my trip to Svalbard in the winter of ’86. I boarded a barque near Murmansk and was quickly ensconced in the captain’s quarters as we set off across the Barents Sea. The ship reeked of the whale and seal fat used to caulk the wood, and I could feel dull thumps each time we struck an ice floe. The trip took several days, and I amused myself by employing oculomancy on the crew as well as wagering with the captain on how long one of his monkey butlers could stay up in the crow’s nest.
The reason I was on this trip at all was because I had heard rumor that a certain artifact had been uncovered during excavation of an old church on the island of Svalbard, north off the coast of Norway. Even the possibility of seeing this precious object had sent me scurrying. After almost 4 days at sea, we made landfall at a tiny fishing village officially called Nartwuld, but known to locals as something far more sinister, a name I dare not commit to this page.
None of the populace came out to meet our ship. Nay, I scarcely saw any living soul, save for a few haggard seabirds, huddled against the icy wind in groups of 3 or 4. A deep, chilling fog began rolling in as we tied the ship down and disembarked, walking down the pitted planks of a short dock. A shutter banged loudly as the fog enveloped us, and suddenly a blood-chilling howl pierced the fog up ahead, a sound that belonged to no animal or beast that I had ever come in contact with, and I didn’t want to start now. At that the captain and the small crew muttered excuses, made warding signs, and backed away, returning to their ship.
I soldiered on, further into the village. The fog was like a living thing, seeming to wrap itself around me. A faint smell, like a ham left outside in the sun, permeated everything. I tripped over a loose cobble, catching myself before hitting the ground. A quick glance at the loose “rock” revealed that it was instead a human skull, worn black by centuries of footsteps. I realized that I had been walking on these the whole time, skulls forming the entire cobbled street. I hurried onward, further into the fog.
The information that I had received said that I was to look for a church, and soon enough I found what had to be it, though it was unlike any church I had ever been in. The whole edifice was built using huge blocks of black volcanic basalt, the stones put together with such craft that no seams were visible. At the top on the steeple hung a symbol that bore no resemblance to a cross of any kind. Christianity had never been brought to these isles. The doors stood open, so I walked inside.
The interior was one huge space, with no seating. On the pulpit stood only an altar, stained crimson. A banner hung on the wall behind the altar, depicting a great, staring eye. I sensed movement to my left. Turning, I saw a priest shuffling forward, cradling something in his arms. He said nothing, merely offering me the wrapped parcel. Footsteps echo’d behind me, and I turned to see the townspeople, filing into the church with heads bowed. Knowing that I did not want to see what was about to take place, I clutched the package to my chest and fled, back down the cobbled street and to the docks. The salt air still on my lips, I said nothing to the captain as he made preparations to leave. Safe in my quarters, I pulled at the frayed strings holding together the package now in my hands, opening it to reveal…
Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures. Finally my dear readers I get to bring you a rare gem from none other than Jose Mojica Marins himself, known to his friends as Coffin Joe. Strange Hostel is most certainly a Coffin Joe film, but does not belong to the Coffin Joe Trilogy. It is a film unto itself, but is 100% a Marins vehicle you can be sure. Filmed in 1976 and on a really small budget, the movie nonetheless impresses with its visual style and the obvious flair that only Marins could bring.
The movie opens in typical Coffin Joe fashion: surreal and disorientating. A troupe of women dancers, wearing skimpy outfits, dance to the drums beat on by shirtless guys. On and on they dance, while screams echo in the distance and lightning flashes in the sky. Finally, we see a black coffin. More dancing, more quick camera cuts. Suddenly, men wearing plastic breasts (seriously) show up, also wearing plastic monkey-esque masks on their faces. I’m not sure of the significance, but it’s very off-putting.
The dance continues until suddenly, the coffin opens, and Coffin Joe rises up. His top hat magically appears on his head, and his cape quickly follows suit, materializing out of the ether. Taloned hands extended, CJ begins to speak:
“Live to die, or die to live? Is there a correct answer? NO! Only doubts…
Only deductions… Only the certainty of the emptiness loneliness is desperately searching for…
Everything or nothing, the wideness of the gloom.
For the answer for this riddle would be the end of this mystery, the end of eternity’s secret,
The apogee of happiness. Before an accomplished mission, because man would be face to face with his best conquest, the awakening of origin itself!”
Obviously CJ is setting us up for some deep awesomeness. The title sequence runs at this point, and I felt it was very well shot, the credits being embedded on graves in a particularly ornate necropolis. We are also subjected to the moans and screams we’ve all come to know and love during CJ credits. We next see a star field surrounded by a bunch of planets (obviously hung from strings). CJ pontificates more on the meaning of life and the infinite nature of the universe.
Next we see a newspaper ad asking for some workers at a hostel. Quite a few prospects show up at the place, named “Hostel of Pleasures”. CJ himself is the proprietor. He walks out, staring at everyone with menace, and proceeds to pick out a man and woman to get the job. Everyone is understandably creeped out, and they all leave, even the ones who got the job. However, those two don’t go far, they return with zombie-like precision, obviously overcome by Coffin Joe’s power.
At this point, the movie goes into utter awesome territory. Seeing CJ in all his glory running the front desk of a hotel is just more than my brain can handle. He’s not in full CJ regalia, though. Still, we get many close-ups of his eyes as they dart back and forth. One after another, customers come in to rent a room, and as each are given a key, we get a close-up shot of a clock hanging on the wall behind the front desk. This will become important later, rest assured.
The customers given rooms already have their names written in the guest book. A terrible storm is raging outside, so many people come in, only to be turned away by CJ, as their names aren’t written in the book. A rich man gets rebuffed and, in his anger, says he will return with the police. Among the people granted shelter are a couple who are obviously having an affair, a group of shady, gambling businessmen, and a giant group of hippie bikers. Seriously. They get one room for the lot of them. We also get a young couple who can’t stop from making out, much to our delight (the chick is seriously smoking). A suicidal man and a group of robbers fresh off a robbery round out the rest of the 12 guests.
I must pause here and give special props to the writing of this movie. Coffin Joe constantly speaks in parables, almost poetry really. For instance, to the rich guy who gets sent away, this is his explanation for refusing the guy a room:
“There is no redemption for those who want to be blinder than the blind one having his sight to see.”
Needless to say, this elevates the movie into the realm of Movies That Are Awesome. From here the movie spends quite a bit of time showing the different people going about their business. The couple in love get naked and start sexing up. The hippies also get naked and appear to be having a good ol’ fashioned freak-out. The gamblers gamble. Everyone just does their thang.
In the morning, they all awaken to find their watches are stopped at midnight. They ask CJ what’s up with that, and he reveals the true reason for the Hostel. It seems that all of them have died this night and that the Hostel is their eternal torment, where time has ceased to exist (queue shots of the clock on the wall again). So, let me get this straight: eternal damnation is having hippy group sex? Where do I sign up?!?!
CJ gives them all visions of what actually happened. The adulterous couple is murdered via knife by a jealous husband. The hippies plunge their motorcycles off a cliff. The robbers are all shot by the police. The suicidal guy is shown shooting himself. Everyone is dead, trapped for eternity in CJ’s own version of Hell. The scene cuts to daylight and we see the rich guy who was so rudely rebuffed show up with the police in tow. Hoping out of their cars, we see that they have arrived at the spot where the hostel was, only in its place is now a cemetery! The police laugh at the confused rich guy, who in turn just stands there looking confused.
As they leave, we see the hostel yet again, with Coffin Joe walking up its steps. The sign for the hostel pops into existence on the wall next to the door. CJ turns to us, and his face fades into a skull as blood pours out of the eye sockets! Leave it to Marins to know how to end a film! This movie was very strange indeed, even more so than most CJ fare. I absolutely loved the imagery. When the suicidal guy shoots himself, smoke, sparks, and blood fly across the screen. It may have been low budget, but they really made what they could out of it, that’s for sure.
One interesting note about the film: Marins didn’t direct this himself, instead handing it off to his friend Marcelo Motta, although it is said that Marins maintained control over how the film was shot. As with the other Coffin Joe films, the movie is very surreal and features lots of screams and other weird sound effects that are designed to really put the viewer at unease. Seeing Coffin Joe standing at the counter of a hostel, stroking a stone skull, is not something one easily forgets. It is amazing to me how well these movies stand up, given their age, and Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures is no different.
3 thumbs way up, the highest praises for taloned benefactor.
Monday, February 9, 2009
Coffin Joe knows how to set the mood.