Saturday, January 25, 2014

#174: This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (Jose Mojica Marins, 1967)

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.


Thomas Herpich said...

I've commented once before for probably the same reason I think- so lemme just reaffirm my appreciation for this blog of yours: I don't particularly like watching horror movies, and the three or four times I was swayed enough to watch one you really dug I REALLY didn't like those… BUTTTTT- I love love love READING about horror movies and your passion for them is so strong and your taste so interesting and your writing so funny and honest, that it's all just super infectious and I very eagerly look forward to reading these every week (and am bummed when there's no update). So thanks again!!!

Josh Krauter said...

Thank you so much for the massive compliment, especially from a very talented guy such as yourself. If you'll forgive the self-promotion for a bit, I have two other blogs and a Twitter feed that you might like. We Can't Stop the Dancing Chicken ( is my blog about film in general and Can-Smashing Robot ( is my blog about everything except film. I try to write comedy on Twitter, and my handle is @DrMystery99. Thanks for the support. I'm curious. Since you're not a horror fan, how did you stumble across my site?

Thomas Herpich said...

You're very welcome. I will definitely spend some time poking around on your other blogs. Thanks for the heads-up.
I don't remember exactly, but I'm pretty sure I heard about your site from my brother (who also digs it and is also very talented, you'll be pleased to hear), but he's probably even less into actually watching horror movies than I am, so who knows how he stumbled onto it...