Monday, April 14, 2008

The Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968): or, I Want My Mommy

After partaking in several of José Mojica Marins's cinematic masterpieces over the past few months, I thought I had a handle on him. Though he displayed a certain fascination with gore and violence, he saved his most devastating assaults for the psychological realm, constructing images of such surreal cognitive disturbance as to make his viewers wonder whether the film were in fact the illusion, or rather that the lives they live every day were thin coverings over the brutal, insane truths that Zé would thrust upon them. The high water mark of this is obviously Awakening of the Beast, the closest thing to bottled insanity ever created by mortal man. Having faced and survived that attack on my very notion of reality, I thought I had a pretty good idea of where Mojica would take me.

I should have realized that Coffin Joe does not rest lightly within any boundary, however far-reaching. He exists as the anti-boundary--he does not break through limits so much as he embodies their very opposite. For proof I point to the 1968 anthology film The Strange World of Coffin Joe (aka O Estranho Mundo de Zé do Caixão) in which Mojica as always goes after the mind, but this time he accompanies that with an assault on the body that would make Romero, Craven, and Cronenberg sit up and say, WTF?!?!

Based on the Brazilian TV show Mojica produced to capitalize on his successes in At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul and This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, The Strange World of Coffin Joe presents us with three stories in anthology format. The tales build from a rather conventional EC-comics-style story, through a stylistically experimental departure with patented psychological disturbance, and finally into a depth of depravity and darkness that will shock even the most hardened horror geek. You think I'm overselling this? If so, you don't know Zé.

After a great opening sequence (as usual) in which Coffin Joe expounds upon his contradictory but true philosophies, we're treated to a credits roll over what can only be called a "Hymn to Zé do Caixão." If these songs are compiled anywhere in Brazil, I need the CD. Though not quite as disturbing as other Coffin Joe credit sequences, the use of extreme close-ups and machine-gun edits still serve to knock the viewer off balance in preparation for the attack to come.

The first episode in the anthology, titled "The Doll Maker," is the most conventional of the lot. We start out in a groovy happening in some bar somewhere, with a great band, cool Brazilian rock n' roll surf music, and lots and lots of groping and drinking--an average night in São Paulo, I'm sure. The decadence on display is staggering.

Pillow fights transcend cultural barriers, as does pervy voyeurism.

After a brief scene introducing the titular Doll Maker, we're back at the bar, where a crowd of no-goodniks are up to no good, talking about the old man. He's known for his dolls' realistic eyes, and is purportedly stinking rich. His four daughters, all very young and beautiful, work with him building the dolls at home. Before you can say "Don't do it, you fools!" the plan is hatched--the four bad guys will rob the old man, "have some fun with his daughters," and leave them all in a big steaming pile of tragedy. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?

You can probably guess, but the destination is less important than the journey here. The camera work and editing is great in this segment, with extreme close-ups being the order of the day, leading to some interesting, arousing, and often disturbing effects. The Doll Maker's daughters, even while they're being pillaged by the gang, are strangely detached and laconic--only when one notices the crooks' "beautiful eyes" do they come to life, getting into the pillagement and showing the bad guys a good time before the predictable but still satisfying conclusion.

The women are fairly hawt in a 60s way, the sex scenes are enjoyable, and the ghoulish ending shots of the girls viewing the aftermath of their handiwork will stick with you long after the final reel rolls. A very nice beginning, and interesting to see Mojica doing more conventional horror here, still with his own inimitable zest. And I'd be remiss not to mention the music and ambient sounds--most notably the sound of the wind and of a dog barking outside that sounds like a hound of hell--which as always Mojica uses to weird, great effect.

Here's looking at you, kid.

In the second episode, "Tara (Obsession)," we step off the beaten path and never look back. The shortest of the three tales, this piece is done all with music and visuals--no dialog at all. We follow a poverty-stricken hobo who makes his meager living selling balloons in the park, where he sees and becomes obsessed with the beautiful Tara. As he stalks her through the streets of São Paulo, her beauty is unaffected by several shocking scenes that happen around her--a fatal car accident with bloody corpse is followed by a languorous Tara bath scene (zang), and a funeral procession cannot distract the girl from making out with her beefily handsome fiance. Love in the shadow of death, as it were.

However, when Tara marries Beefy Boy while a heartbroken Balloon Man watches, we see that he is not the only obsessed person in Brazil: a woman, presumably jilted by Beefy Boy, assassinates Tara on the steps of the church! For most folks, this would be a tragic end--but Balloon Man's love is not so weak as to be vanquished by something as trivial as death, and once the funeral is over, he creeps into the crypt to show his devotion.

Though the sets in this segment could have been ordered from Plan 9 Set Design Ltd., I still found myself strangely moved by the Balloon Man's plight, even during his transgressive and painstakingly filmed necrophilia session with poor dead Tara. Mojica throws in some expressionistic shots of owls, spiders, and mice, together with some nice lightning effects and the patented Mojica disturbing ambient music to create a strange but compelling mood. A story that on paper I wouldn't have thought I'd find intriguing, but in execution, I did. Kudos.

Even in their later years, Menudo still knew how to strike a pose.

So we've gone conventional, we've gone stylistic/expressionistic--but still, nothing I'd seen before could possibly have prepared me for what came next: the final episode, "Ideology."

With a title like that coming from José Mojica Marins, you know you're in for a wild ride, but just how wild it was still shocked me. Mojica stars as well as directs this one, not as Coffin Joe but as a controversial professor of social studies or something ("Dr. Oaxiac," if you can believe it), who in the beginning of the episode is on a television discussion panel arguing that love does not in fact exist. One expert debating him is sufficiently intrigued by the professor's ideas that he asks to discuss it further after the program is over, so Professor Oaxiac invites him to his house for a "demonstration of his theories," making sure to tell his guest "Bring your wife!"

Again, you may well scream "DON'T DO IT, YOU FOOL!" but to no avail. The TV debater and his lovely wife arrive at the Doc's mansion and are taken down to the dungeon, where Professor Oaxiac stages several "burlesques" of perversion and torture for them, including a strange sexual 3-way with scrub-brushes and a needle-torture scene that had to have been done for real. When the horrified couple tries to leave, the prof's assistant (played by Jose Lobo, the same actor who memorably portrayed the hunchback Bruno in This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse) won't let them. The professor then proceeds to prove his no-love theory in a way that will definitely haunt your dreams and make you question even your own notions of love.

What follows shocked me, I don't mind telling you. More gore than I'd have credited in a film of this vintage, more messed up sexual stuff, and an ending "feast" that had my jaw on the floor. I don't want to spoil it for you, but this was a visceral, mind-fucking, cringe-inducing gorefest second to none. Must be seen to be believed, so see it!

The doctor watches 2 Girls/1 Cup. He is not impressed.

It's rare to find a movie that genuinely shocks while still maintaining its artistic integrity, but Mojica does it here, and delivers the goods that any horror fan should find satisfying. A natural bridge between the Coffin Joe films and the madness of Awakening of the Beast, this is a truly wild anthology show demands attention and reverence, outstripping even This Night... in terms of shocking perversity and eerie, disturbing effectiveness. Like many of Mojica's films this one might be tough to track down--though hopefully the upcoming release of Encarnação do Demônio (check out the trailer at Coffin Joe's Official Site! NSFW!) will change all that--it will reward those who put in the time and effort.

Off the thumb scale, obviously. Wowee wow wow.


Mr. Karswell said...

While it's been years since I sat through a poor quality bootleg of this, I do remember a few of these moments from your review. Possibly I could re-evalue this film sometime oh kind lender?

Mr. Karswell said...

Also, I don't think it would take much to make Wes Craven sit up and say, "WTF?!" Hills Have Eyes, Last House on the Left... both are way way way overrated. The first Nighmare is okay, but my favorite film of his is his 1978 made for TV movie called Summer of Fear starring Linda Blair. Give Craven some restrictions and he excels.

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

This is completely insanely fabulous! While this may come off as child-like, I do beleive that the 60s-70s were probably the best time for surreal cinema- and the anatholigies were great.

Dunno why they dont do as well anymore- despite all the gadgetary today, the plots are just not as strong as way back when.

The Film Fiend said...

My exposure to Coffin Joe's insanity is admittedly very limited, which may explain why your review has piqued my interest. This certainly sounds like something I would thoroughly enjoy.

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