Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Embodiment of Evil (2008): or, Dear God, Joe, What Have You Done?

I've been a fan of Jose Mojica Marins' work for some time now. I was blown away by his no-budget inventiveness and uniquely perverse sensibility in This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, went back and was wowed by Coffin Joe's debut in At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, and was completely brainfuckled by his nightmarish metafictional trip-out, Awakening of the Beast. I was mesmerized by his artistry, hypnotized by his vision, thrilled and awed by what he achieved through creativity, passion, and sheer force of will. I grabbed everything of hs I could get my hands on in order to complete my education. I wrote a feature article about him for the late lamented City Slab Magazine, singing his praises and encouraging everyone to check him out. Any chance I've had since that first exposure, I've done my best to spread the gospel of this largely unsung cinematic savant from Brazil.

I have loved Coffin Joe in all his incarnations, been shocked and delighted by his creepy cool. I have respected the director, the artist, in all his efforts. But I have never been literally afraid of the man, Jose Mojica Marins, himself.

But now I've seen Mojica's 2008 opus, Embodiment of Evil (Encarnação do Demônio)--and I don't mind telling you, parisioners: I'm scared.

According to interviews he's given, Mojica always wanted to do a third and final film about his iconic alter-ego's life, but due to a confluence of unfortunate circumstances--and perhaps the machinations of a loving but moribund God--he was never able to complete the trilogy.* Lacking funding, support, and even film stock, Mojica had to take the projects that came his way, letting the ideas he had for the final Coffin Joe film percolate and distill themselves in his brain all these years.

*Though Coffin Joe appeared as a character in several other of Mojica's films--The Strange World of Coffin Joe, The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe, The Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures, just to name a few--only At Midnight... and This Night... are actually about Zé do Caixão's own story.

Ready or not, here he comes.
(images © Twentieth Century Fox)

With the greater exposure he's enjoyed over the past few years and a growing fan base (not to mention a cadre of supportive young filmmakers influenced by his work), Mojica was finally able to realize his goal in 2008 when he completed Embodiment of Evil, the third and final chapter in the Coffin Joe saga. Questions flew wildly--at 83 years old, would Mojica still have the imagination and energy to deliver on the promises of nearly forty years? In a world where Coffin Joe's shocking exploits have become almost quaint by comparison with newer, gorier horrors, could the aged filmmaker hope to make Zé anything more than a nostalgic retread?

Allow me, my loves, to allay your fears: Coffin Joe is back, and he's lost *none* of his edge. In fact, he's put edges ON, delivering such an avalanche of shocking, horrifying, soul-scarring imagery and ideas that it's almost hard to believe it could be allowed, even now, even in this day and age. Over-hype, do I? History will be my judge--but I don't think so.

The movie begins in the present day, where some very nervous prison guards are descending into the lower depths of a very filthy fortress to free a prisoner who's done his 40 years and is scheduled for release--as if you had any doubt, the claw-like nails that creep through the opening door announce his identity: Zé do Caixão, known to us as Coffin Joe. Undaunted and unreformed, Joe strides out of the prison in his trademark top hat and cape, his wrinkled, aged countenance a roadmap of hatred and contempt for the inferior beings who surround him.

Guess who?
(images © Twentieth Century Fox)

He is met at the gate by his trusted, faithful assistant Bruno, still hunchbacked after all these years. After a surprising bit of difficulty getting out on the streets, Joe and Bruno head to the slums of São Paulo, where the seemingly mentally challenged Bruno displays some frankly astounding organizational skills. Not only has he secured and furnished a perfect lair for Coffin Joe's operations (complete with coffins, chains, sharp implements, and a horned-skull throne fit for Lucifer himself), he's also rounded up four devotees of the just-established Cult of Zé, two men and two women willing to give their own lives at Joe's whim, and anybody else's even more readily. Thus headquartered and staffed, Joe gets right back to the business at clawed-hand--finding the perfect woman to bear his child and thus make him immortal.

Alas, the course of Evil Immortality never did run smooth, and Joe is opposed in his quest by various representatives of the side of "good," though most of them with very questionable angelic credentials. His chief adversaries are a couple of extremely corrupt police officials (one of whom Joe blinded in one eye, as we get to see in an excellent flashback), two elderly Macumba priestesses intent on keeping their niece out of Zé's clutches, and a fanatical priest whose father Joe killed back in the day and who wants to damn Joe to hell before killing him in revenge--as if such a precaution were necessary.

If there were ever any doubt about Mojica's technical skill as a director, Embodiment of Evil should lay them to rest once and for all. The low budgets and borrowed equipment that made his early flicks impressive in their ingenuity clearly were not masking any directorial shortcomings, as is sometimes the case--this movie looks GREAT, with wonderful cinematography, long shadows and garish eerie lighting, and truly spectacular practical effects. From the dirty streets of São Paulo to the hellish lair where Joe continues his atrocities to the nightmarish dreamscapes where he confronts the ghosts and demons who stand in his way, Embodiment of Evil is a visual feast. The pacing is superb, the music evocative, the story disquieting--everything here bespeaks an artiste still at the very top of his game, finally possessed of the resources he never had before in order to bring his vision to the screen. It's something to see, and Mojica's visuals will be rattling around in your head long after the end credits.

Who says you can't find good help these days?
(images © Twentieth Century Fox)

As for Coffin Joe himself, you'd think that a portly 83-year-old man in old fashioned clothes would have trouble inspiring the shivers, but brother, you'd be wrong. Zé has never been more imposing, more frightening, more dangerously unhinged. Whether he's assembling his bevy of possible Perfect Women (almost all of whom are naked and extremely Zang-worthy), taking revenge on those who would stand in his way, or simply ordering a mug of wine, he takes his trademark palpable malevolence and turns it up to eleven. And he backs it up too--the movie boasts several extremely difficult-to-watch torture scenes (including such niceties as flaying, unsimulated hook suspension, forced self-cannibalism, and submersion in a barrel of guts--and that's just scratching the surface!), as well as some fascinating set pieces with his brides, including a smokin' hawt nude Macumba ritual and a jaw-dropper where Joe takes his bride carnally in a rain of blood! As the Duke of DVD opined after watching this, "Just when you think even Joe wouldn't go there...not only does he go there, he razes the ground, builds a house, and moves in!"

Coffin Joe has always been a complicated character, paradoxically haunted by personal demons even while denying their existence. In this flick these demons take the shape of his former "brides" from the earlier two movies. We get flashbacks to their deaths which are pristinely restored scenes from At Midnight... and This Night..., in black and white of course--and in a nice cinematic touch, when the women appear to Joe, they are shown in unearthly monochrome, despite the dark colorful world around them. (The latex masks used to replicate the original actresses' faces look strange and disturbing, another example of Mojica using low-tech methods to greater-than-expected effect.) And a dream sequence in which Joe once again enters the afterworld to observe the activities of the damned is equal parts Hell from This Night... and LSD trip from Awakening of the Beast, but harsher.

Make Love the Coffin Joe Way
(images © Twentieth Century Fox)

If the movie has a weakness, it's perhaps that it absolutely presupposes a knowledge of the first two films in order to appreciate it fully--not a problem for hardcore Joe fans like me, but perhaps a bit confusing for newcomers. Still, even if you're not entirely sure what's going on, Mojica will crawl in your mind and stay there--I'd bet real cash money.

This is a triumphant and mind-blowing conclusion to the Coffin Joe saga (the ending image is just *perfect*, imo), and one that I hope horror fans get to see--if not in a region 1 release, at least in region 2. But if you're a Coffin Joe fan, SEE THIS, by hook or by crook--but be warned: you are not ready.

666 taloned thumbs for this, imo the movie of the year, any year.

Hail to the King, Baby
(images © Twentieth Century Fox)

To watch the mind-blowing trailer, see soul-scarring stills, and read up on how best to prepare yourself for Joe's reign, visit the Embodiment of Evil Official Movie Site!


The Duke of DVD said...

Ahh Vicar, I was scared when you said you were going to give this one the holy treatment. Scared for you, that is, for to even attempt to write about the scenes in this movie is to dance on the razor-thin edge of the abyss. How can one possibly recount the horrors this film visits upon one's self without further defilement?

You have done it, though, sir, and with a rating that is beyond perfection. Movie of the Aeon this is, no doubt. Coffin Joe has not only managed to beat all other horror directors at their own game, he has also managed to corrupt the previously-thought uncorrupable: Me. I felt like I needed a shower after watching this. (Note to those new to MMMMMovies: I watch movies about nuns having sexual relations with Satan.)

Dearest readers, if you watch no other movie this year, watch this one.

Samuel Wilson said...

The fact that Marins got to make this film is a triumph not just for him but for the global fan culture that has emerged since the advent of VHS (so kudos to you, Vicar)to give the man enough of an international audience to justify the venture. Having seen This Night and Awakenings of the Beast, I'm definitely ready for this one.

Nate Y. said...

I'm ready. Bring it on.

(Er, how is this to be brought-en, anyway? Is it out on Region 1 in the States now?)

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Duke--I'm so glad the two of us got to watch this one, having been Mojica fans for so long. The lesson here is: watch it with someone you love. :)

@Samuel Wilson--This one really is a culmination of what Mojica did before with the Coffin Joe character--it escalates through each movie, reaching an apex here. If you haven't seen At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, you should go back and check it out. I think it works better as a prequel to This Night than chronologically, but that may just be b/c that's the order I originally watched them in. :)

@Nate Y.--according to this article on Dread Central, Anchor Bay UK has picked up EoE for distribution; we can only hope the US wing of the company follows suit.

Rachel said...

OMG - I would rather not run into this guy in real life. I will have to challenge myself to see this one - it sounds the kind of scary that you can't dismiss as just a movie - it sounds like it seeps right through into real life...

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Rachel--thanks for commenting!

Don't get me wrong--Embodiment of Evil is very fantastical and not at all a "slice of life" (one hopes, anyway); but the imagery and ideas are powerful and hard to shake, esp. if you've seen some of Mojica's earlier Coffin Joe flicks.

If you see it, let me know what you think! And thanks for the linkage! :)

Gary D Macabre said...

How is it you were so able to view said movie that we all have been awaiting with eager anticipation?

The Vicar of VHS said...

Gary--there are some screeners floating around, and I am not a man without connections. ;) Thanks for stopping by!

The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

I ran into Marins at one of the first, if not the first, CHILLER conventions in the early '90's. One of his entourage got to chatting with me and I informed her how I had been unsuspecting witness to one of the Coffin Joe films when I was but a wee bairn in the '70's while eating at a place called Frank'n'Stein in Boston. This joint was awesome -- a double feature projected on 16mm while patrons chomped down hot dogs and siphoned fine ale! When my family got there, I think The Maltese Falcon had just ended and the Coffin Joe flick came on -- needless to say, I stayed with my mom for the entire film while my dad took my horrified sisters around town -- this might have been Cambridge -- can't remember. So I told CJ's entourage ladyfriend this and she quickly whisked me over to the Mordant Master himself and relayed this story to him. Turns out that they had been in dealings with a "distributor" from Boston in the mid-70's who made off with some prints and was never to be heard from again (I think this is what she told me, but I would love to double check with someone). In any case, it pays to be a blabbermouth to friends of scary strangers! I was in awe of Marins in person -- he was like a dark Santa -- I wanted to sit on his lap and make a wish for Candlemass before getting my eyes ripped from my skull and my soul thrown into a pit of exquisite torment for an eternity.

Great post, BTW - how did you come to see this film???

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Maciste Bros.--I'm so jealous! I would *love* to meet Mojica. And the idea of someone programming The Maltese Falcon (also a fave of mine--Humphrey Bogart has to be the coolest man ever to walk the earth) and following it with a Coffin Joe flick is so awesome, I might just explode with joy at the thought of it! BTW--Mojica as "Dark Santa" FTW. :)

I've heard of Frank'n'Stein before, but never been--it *does* still exist, yes? If so, should I ever find myself in Boston again, let's meet for franks and geekery!

As to how the film fell into my clutches, see above. ;)

Steve said...

NO! What are you doing?! This is the sickest, most disgusting movie of all time, and I have seen OVERFIEND! And this Coffin Joe gorefest gave me nightmares! I'll never look at melted cheese or car batteries the same way again!

I saw it at a film festival in Korea and it made women run away SCREAMING! I also heard someone puke.
Save yourselves! DO NOT WATCH THIS MOVIE! Stick it in the corner with Manos: Hand of Fate and burn it!

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