Writer/actor/director Jose Mojica Marins created one of the most memorable cult movie characters ever in Zé do Caixão, or Coffin Joe as he's known in English-speaking countries, when he directed his first feature, and the first Brazilian horror film ever, At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964). Coffin Joe, played by Marins, owns a funeral home, dresses in black cape and top hat, has extremely long fingernails, and is a staunch, outspoken atheist and misanthrope who despises all adult humans and rejects all laws, gods, and devils. This makes him very unpopular in the neighborhood, but he's also feared and enjoys a reputation as a spawn of the devil (though he doesn't believe in Satan). He has a soft spot for children and regards them as pure, innocent beings who unfortunately transform into weak, stupid adults as they mature, which inspires his life quest to find the female equivalent of himself to produce a male offspring who will be free of all human weakness and live exclusively on instinct. This son will ensure immortality by continuing the bloodline of perfect beings. Coffin Joe's an ambitious dude. He's also not above engaging in a little torture and murder to achieve his goals.
In the first film, Coffin Joe seemed to get his comeuppance and was presumed dead. In the delightfully named sequel, This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, which begins immediately after the first film, we learn that he survived his ordeal with some damage to his eyesight. He recovers in the hospital before being tried for his crimes. The court frees him when substantial proof is not forthcoming, and the unrepentant funeral home director picks up right where he left off. He walks the Sao Paulo streets with his deformed, hunchbacked assistant, pausing to watch some children playing before launching into this great monologue: "There is the most perfect creation of nature: children! A pity that they grow up to become idiots. In search of nothing. Lost in a labyrinth of egoism and dominated by a nonexistent force: faith in the immortality of the spirit. Man in his stupidity doesn't comprehend the only truth of life: the immortality of blood." Good stuff.
Soon, the plan for a male offspring kicks back into high gear. Coffin Joe kidnaps six atheist women he considers excellent candidates for motherhood and puts them to the test. As the women sleep, he fills the room with tarantulas. They crawl all over the women, who soon awake and begin screaming, with the exception of one brave soul. He instructs her to wait for him in his bedroom, and, disappointed in the other five, he kills them by throwing them in a pit full of poisonous snakes. One of the women puts a curse on Coffin Joe before she dies, telling him he'll never bear a son and that one day she will return and possess his corpse. Coffin Joe laughs and considers her curse so much superstitious twaddle until he finds out the woman was pregnant. Despite the rest of his beliefs, Coffin Joe and the Christian right have a few things in common: namely, a patriarchal view of family (come on, Coffin Joe, a daughter could also carry out your master plan) and the idea that a fetus is a child. This news throws Coffin Joe into a panic, though he remains determined to achieve his goal.
The previous two paragraphs may make you think I revealed most of the film's story, but Marins is just warming up. A whole lot of weird is still to come. And, in a big way, story is beside the point here. Someone else made the comparison to Evil Dead II, but it's worth repeating. Like that film, this one is a more elaborate, more comedic remake of the first film, and most of its pleasures are the result of atmosphere, dialogue, crazed setpieces, and style, not the linear grindings of plot. The opening credits sequence alone is worth the rental price, with its pop art graphic design and ultra-quick flashes of some of the film's most memorable moments. It's like a trailer for itself. Marins as Coffin Joe is charismatic and hilarious, spitting out blasphemous, misanthropic screeds that angered the mainstream 1960s Brazilian establishment, grinning evilly, carrying a small music box with him that he puts up to his ear in the moments before he unleashes some violence, using his long thumbnail as a serving dish for grapes while watching the action in his snake pit. He's a great movie villain.
Marins' filmmaking style is a weird combination of Ed Wood-style crudity, classic '30 Universal horror, and deeply personal, eccentric innovation. He uses the black-and-white cinematography and small budget to his advantage (though a color dream sequence set in hell goes on a bit too long, despite some memorable images), gets some amazing shots, and has an almost avant-garde sensibility when it comes to editing. His anarchic, middle-finger worldview should also appeal to punk fans and juvenile delinquents. No wonder Os Mutantes mention him on their first album. He's a kindred spirit.
Without revealing the ending, I have to admit its pro-Christianity message seemed a cop-out after the hour and forty minutes of gleeful blasphemy that preceded it, though Marins rectified this forty years later with the third film in the trilogy, 2008's Embodiment of Evil. I haven't seen that one yet, but it's nice to know Coffin Joe is back to his old, evil ways. Maybe the tough Brazilian censors pushed him to come up with that ending, maybe it was the only way he could get it released, maybe in his own strange way he's a man of faith. I don't know. It's not enough of a caveat to make me warn anyone away from this film. On the contrary, I highly recommend the first two Coffin Joe films to anyone interested in psychotronic/cult/weirdo/mondo bizarro/underground filmmaking.
If you'll forgive the personal reminiscence, I had a Thursday night routine for the legal drinking age years of my undergraduate days at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Wow, I used a lot of prepositions in that last sentence. My fellow record store employees and I would meet up at a downtown bar for live karaoke with local bar-band legends Shithook. (I occasionally tortured people with off-key renditions of Cheap Trick's "Surrender," but I redeemed myself somewhat by sitting in on drums when their drummer failed to show up one night. There's also the "We Are the World" incident, but I'll save that story for later.) As often happens when cheap pitchers of beer are involved, I usually left the bar in a much sorrier state than I entered it. Fortunately, sitting across the street was a fine representative of a regional burrito franchise that offered "burritos as big as your head." One of those delicious gutbombs, and you were halfway to sober again.
One particular Thursday night, I overindulged beyond my usual capacity and shoved the gigantic burrito into my then-skinny frame to try to get back to halfway normal. It didn't work. It just sat in my stomach, taunting me. I knew if I had so much as two gulps of an adult beverage, I would deliver the burrito, all the evening's drinks, and maybe a few internal organs onto the pavement. The undergrad chopped salad. (There's nothing more boring than someone bragging about how drunk they got in the old days, but I'm telling you this because it has some bearing on my first impressions of this film.) It was at this vulnerable point in the evening that my friend Jeremy suggested my roommate and I saunter over to his nearby apartment for a screening of a film he thought we would love. I did what anyone who should have been home in bed with a glass of water and two aspirins would have done and readily agreed. We staggered over to his place, and he plugged in a VHS of Tetsuo: The Iron Man.
Now, any of you who have seen this film know you should probably watch it with a spring in your step. I was a half-step from nausea, dangerously close to Vomit Mountain, and unable to sit up straight in my chair, and it was in this state that I initially experienced the full-body assault that is Shinya Tsukamoto's avant-garde cyberpunk gonzo freakout. I don't recommend this to anyone, but it left a massive impression. I felt like I was experiencing everything the characters experienced, and though I knew I would have loved what I was seeing in a healthier state, I felt like I was being pummeled by an army of mutating half-metal/half-men. I had to call it quits halfway through and somehow made it home without incident. A week later, I rented it on a day when I had nothing in my system but water and, possibly, a couple fast-food tacos. It was a much more comfortable situation, but I still felt twinges of nausea and discombobulation. I've seen it twice since then, and I always get a mild flashback to that first viewing. Ladies and gentlemen, that night was my Vietnam.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a real oddity, a late-1980s film that looks ahead to the 1990s and beyond while referencing much of the cinematic and manga past. It's a relentless blend of 80 years of Japanese (and American and Canadian and French and et cetera) counterculture and pop culture, a pop art nightmare that has one of the most frenetic and assaultive paces I've experienced short of recent CGI monstrosities (though the pace here comes with a point of view and an actual aesthetic). Tsukamoto wisely wraps things up just past the one-hour mark, right about the time the pace would render most viewers catatonic.
He captures some incredible images that call to mind past cinematic, musical, and literary touchstones without specifically quoting them. I was reminded, in fleeting glimpses, of Videodrome, Alien, Les Vampires, Suspiria, Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Akira, Onibaba, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Ministry's music videos, industrial music in general, William Gibson's novels, the structure and form of manga in general, John Zorn's work with Naked City, Boredoms (especially Pop Tatari), MTV's advertisements, J.G. Ballard, the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the more extreme stylistic end of avant-garde/non-narrative cinema, and probably plenty of Japanese-specific references I don't have the background to see. These moments occur as flickers of recognition, not extensive quotes, and most may not even be intentional. This film is a kind of cyberpunk Rorschach test, if the images were presented to you for only half a second.
Any plot synopsis is bound to be inadequate, but I'll give it a brief try. A man credited as Metal Fetishist cuts himself open and inserts scrap metal into his body, causing him to mutate into a part-human, part-metal being. A couple, credited as Man and Woman, strike the Metal Fetishist with their car. They think he's dead, but he's not. He causes the Man to mutate into a metal being, orchestrating the transformation. That's as much as I'm willing to tell you if you haven't seen it.
Tetsuo is an intense and stylistically daring film. It's black and white, filmed mostly with hand-held cameras, and most shots last less than a second. You may have read many screeds of mine where I complain about the quick-cut aesthetic and spatial disorientation of current mainstream films, but in the hands of a real artist with a personal style, any technique can be effective and memorable. Tsukamoto is one of those filmmakers who can get away with it. The sound design of the film is impressive as well, layered with scraping metal, grunts, moans, screams, artificial pings and poings, pounding industrial music, cool jazz, and very little dialogue. It's an hour of exciting, affectionate punches to the head. I enjoyed the first half more than the second, mostly because of pacing fatigue, but there are many pleasures throughout. Tetsuo is something else.
Dr. Mystery, aka Robot X, aka Raul "Sous Chef" Mendoza, aka Josh Krauter was killed in a brawl in a Pizza Hut parking lot after expressing his disappointment with the "Dippin' Strips" pizza. His skeleton was saved and inserted into an apesuit-wearing robot powered by an electrical current emanating from the still-beating heart of deceased actor Zero Mostel. He is also a limited liability company and writes the weekly advice column, "Pull Your Head Outta Your Ass," for the Vermont Luthiers Annual Newsletter.