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Sunday, Oct 15, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the Good vs. Evil aesthetic of Brazil’s Jose Mojica Marins.


There probably isn’t a more unique filmmaker in the genre of horror than Jose Mojica Marins. This Brazilian eccentric, a true multimedia giant in his homeland, crosses all boundaries with his films, his television work, his books, and his comics. Over the course of his nearly five decades in the limelight, he has directed dozens of movies, acting in several more, and has turned his unique approach to terror into a solid cottage industry. He’s even dabbled in art, costume and set design, special effects, and has composed the music for his films. Having created a national sensation with his first horror effort (the first true horror film in Brazil’s cinematic legacy) and its seminal character Zé Do Caixão (or as he is called in America, Coffin Joe), Marins has made Zé and his ideology into the closest thing to a god that South American cinema has ever seen.


He is either loved or hated in his mother country, viewed as a truly gifted artist or merely the man-incarnation of the onscreen demon he portrays. Theologians attack his anti-religion stance and the heretical simply don’t buy his pagan leanings. In retrospect, Marins has devised a kind of career self-fulfilling prophecy, a character so associated with him that, through osmosis or karma, he has literally become Coffin Joe. He even has taken to wearing the outrageously long and sharpened fingernails of the fictional entity and styling his beard, hair, and eyebrows after same.


True, living in a country divided by conservative censorship (the likes of which kept Awakening of the Beast from ever being shown in theaters) and intense sexuality (nude beaches, Carnivale, the obsession with plastic surgery and beauty) makes for a truly schizophrenic sensibility. And Coffin Joe is so successful because he rides the balance between both brilliantly. This is especially true in the few films we in the West have been able to view. All throughout At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964), This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967) The Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968) Awakening of the Beast (1970) The Black Exorcism of Coffin Joe (1974) and Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind (1978), Marins weaves his distinct ideas about dread into a magnificent phantasm of fear and faith. 


While he may be many things—philosopher, writer, scholar—Marins is first and foremost a filmmaker, one who draws inspiration directly from the history of the macabre. Marins does not work in the usual terror trademarks of monsters and the supernatural, nor is he only interested in death and dismemberment. His thematic palette revolves around ethical and religious principles, in the universal rhetoric of absolute good versus true evil. In the world of Marin’s Coffin Joe, there is only God and Satan. Ghosts and demons are a manifestation of the will of either or both. Man is the only corruptible being; there are no zombie blood drinkers or human wolves, and all slaughter is based in the sacred or the sacrilegious.


Taken at its fundamentalist foundation, Marins then develops an entire element, in this case the alter ego of Coffin Joe, who flaunts wickedness in the name of good and the desire to perfect man’s place in the hierarchy between heaven and hell. Coffin Joe terrorizes people because he confronts their belief system, challenges the powerful entity of the church, and dares to undermine conformity with his self-absorbed, autonomous mindset. Yes, he does relish the devil and his works of earthly pleasure, but the ultimate goal for Joe is man’s superiority over both God and Satan: the creation of a superbeing whose immortality will challenge the authority of the spirits. We don’t just get blood and guts, killings, or deformed beasts. We get theological discussion and battles between the primal forces of morality and sin. In fact, this is the main narrative theme that connects almost every movie this maverick has ever made. It is a testament to Marins’ ability behind the camera, as well as the bravura performance he gives before it, that these treatises somehow turn into terrifying works of horror.


Marins is also a maverick cinematic visionary, one of the few pure film artists working in the realm of the supernatural. Unencumbered by the world of films in Brazil and admittedly a complete student of the Hollywood/American motion picture ideal, Marins implicitly understands the camera’s ability to tell a story. He is obsessed with the visuals’ important place in the creation of dread and suspense. From the handwritten animated credit sequences that seem to suggest the calligraphy of a long banned book of evil, to the old-fashioned gothic garb Coffin Joe wears as an undertaker, we have striking images that immediately suggest the sinister and unnatural. Then include the fever dream depictions of hell and hallucinations (brought to broad life in vivid, virulent color), the sinister set pieces, the wild juxtaposition of metaphors, and you have a singular, specific voice - an over-the-top talent that rivals Fellini or Joderowsky.


Marins’ visual surrealism also creates breathtaking images, powerful pictures that his camera holds on until they resonate fully with the audience. Sound too is important. His movies usually contain a cacophonous chorus of music, voices, effects, screams, and dialogue to recreate the chaos when one confronts the very forces of nature and the underworld firsthand. Marins isn’t afraid to experiment, to glue glitter around ghostly images to give them an otherworldly effect, or treat his negative chemically to affect its appearance. While monochrome and color switch off within the vast majority of the visual palette offered in his films, there is also plenty of eye candy craziness. Marins knows it’s all well and good to discuss the terrors of the human heart. It is much better to see them directly, however, to understand their visceral power.


Marins also creates a truly lasting horror icon with Joe. Like Freddy Krueger, he is a three-dimensional character with a detailed backstory and plenty of individualized distinctions to make him work even outside the realm of a motion picture. Coffin Joe, Zé Do Caixão, is a complete package, a man who wears his beliefs firmly on his vest and lives them in every action/reaction to things around him. Unlike Wes Craven’s creation of the dream world boogeyman, Joe has never degenerated into a slapstick spoof spook, a stand-up comedian of cruelty. Joe is deadly serious in his beliefs and in his ways, and his abuses are all the more startling because of it. As Freddy’s deaths became more and more based around the one-liner, Zé is merely ruthless and heartless, killing for the great cause of his intellectual and moral superiority. Murder is all in the advancement of his humanistic theories. Torture is a test, not only of physical stamina, but also of character and emotional/spiritual strength.


There is also no trepidation in Coffin Joe’s actions. He is the one who inspires menace. However, deep within his mind is a subconscious cowardice, a fear of being undone by forces beyond his control. And while the movies that surround his persona can either be straightforward narratives about procreation or psychedelic dissertations on the status of society in a more permissive time, Jose Mojica Marins and his grave digging demon stand at the center, cursing God and spitting at the Devil. For Coffin Joe there is only one true ruler of the world: man. In his mind, there is only one truly superior man: himself, Zé Do Caixão.


This is why Zé is such a superior image of dread. The great theological battles are all built on the philosophical foundations of ethics. Wars between man, nature, God, and Satan make up the system under which so much of our religious morality is defined. For eons, those who challenged these belief codas were considered criminal, profane beings that didn’t understand the need for an afterlife-based dogma. After all, to admit that this world is all there is would doom everyone to a finalized death that’s really worth fearing. But if there was a greater reward on the other side, some manner of continued creation where we all go to spend our infinite soul days, then let’s protect that notion at all costs and condemn those who dare challenge it.


Jose Mojica Marins is one such deviant. He dares to look death in the face and spit on its limits. Through his character of Zé Do Caixão, or Coffin Joe, he has taken on the old-fashioned pious value ideals and argued around and against them. In man, Zé argues, is the ultimate power over nature. There is no God. Satan is a buffoon. The only true force of will in the world is the individual. Neatly wrapped up in outstanding fright films of visual magnificence and intellectual stimulation, the work of Marins proves that one of the best ways to defeat the fear of death is to challenge it head on, to tackle its twisted mysticism and to try and determine one’s own spiritual fate. The truth is, in the end, we all will pass from this realm and into something else, be it emptiness or the glowing love/hate of God’s/Satan’s grace/damnation. While his films may not save your mortal soul, they will heal and lighten your entertainment essence. That is why Jose Mojica Marins is an unheralded genius.


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Sunday, Oct 15, 2006

Since I’m usually so damn serious here, I thought it’d be nice to have a good laugh about something for a change.  I really enjoyed this Indie Life-O-Meter posting. “Your garden variety, moderately successful indie band lasts an average of five years. Chances are, if you’re not already on Matador or Sub Pop, yours won’t even last that long.  What will break your band up, you ask? Well, if it isn’t the oft-cited ‘creative differences,’ or the excruciating tedium of touring the United States, it’ll most likely have something to do with sex or drugs. It’s anyone’s guess, but don’t wait for anyone to, because no one cares.”  Then again, if you’re an indie band, maybe this ain’t so funny…


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Saturday, Oct 14, 2006


Alicianne Del Mar has been hired by the Nordon family to serve as nanny for their youngest, oddest child, Rosalie. Seems the girl has never truly gotten over the death of her mother and spends far too much time in the local graveyard, remembering the funeral and communicating with her “friends.” Anti-social and abrasive, Rosalie threatens everyone around her, claiming she will call upon her cemetery pals to punish those who bother or have wronged her. No one really takes her seriously (she’s just so…strange) but perhaps they should.


For you see, Rosalie has psychic powers and the ability to reanimate the dead. She’s been hanging out in the boneyard working on bringing the local residents back to life. And it’s these flesh hungry fiends that Rosalie commands to do her evil bidding. After several of the local townsfolk turn up dead, all eyes fall upon this disturbed and destructive kid. Unfortunately, she has that undead army to protect her, and when Alicianne and Len (Rosalie’s older brother) try to escape, the ambulatory, angry corpses chase the hapless duo into an abandoned lumberyard. There, it’s a final showdown between the living dead, their intended victims, and the evil mastermind behind the mayhem…The Child.


For a low budget, even lower expectations exploitation horror movie, The Child is a surprisingly effective and incredibly creepy zombie workout. The movie mingles aspects of the classic Dead films and American Gothic style horror with references to other “evil children” films like The Bad Seed and Village of the Damned. The small budget and atmospheric locations bring an aura of authenticity and naturalism that an overly produced Hollywood film cannot create. While Rosalie Cole (in the role of…Rosalie?) is a little dull (she comes across as more spoiled than scary, more amateur than menacing), the rest of the cast is first rate, selling the terror and terrorizing seriously and realistically.


There is a feeling of uneasy suspense and foreboding created, in both the sets and direction. The Nordons live in a very spooky and atmospheric house, and there’s a scene during a blackout that really heebies up the jeebies. In addition, the final showdown between little Rosalie’s living dead “friends” and our heroine/hero is also exciting and terrifying. Thankfully, there is blood and gore aplenty, especially in said climax and the scene where the groovy ghoulies slaughter an old neighbor woman. Anyone expecting a cheap, cheesy slice of drive-in style dreck should walk away from The Child with their bloodlust sated and their reanimated corpse craving satisfactorily quelled. While not up to the standards set by someone like George Romero, or even some of those pus loving Italians like Fulci, this is still a solid, claret spewing creep fest.


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Saturday, Oct 14, 2006

I’m always a little wary about getting into gender issues because I don’t want to lapse, as may be the male tendency, into a paternalistic, patronizing attitude about them: My friend Carolyn has fond grad school memories of being lectured to about what it means to be a woman by some male student who had read a little Cixous and Irigaray (“Don’t you see, Carolyn? All women wear the mask”); I definitely don’t want to be that guy. I’m not entirely sure which is worse, blundering through a discussion of such issues in ways that reveal my tunnel vision or ignoring them altogether—but then again ignorance never stopped me from proclaiming opinions on other subjects, so why should it stop me here?


In yesterday’s WSJ was a review of Beauty Junkies, a book about the cosmetic surgery industry and women who are “addicted” to having work done. Reviewer Alexandra Wolfe (who judging by her status as a WSJ critic and by her forthcoming book about “the culture of entitlement” is probably fairly conservative) sums the situation up this way:


These days, dots on the derriere are just one clue among many—including the shiny sheen on stretched cheeks, the ever-alert eyes and the perky, unbouncing breasts—that someone has “had a little work done.” Beauty Junkies captures the sad fate that has befallen the feminine ideal: Since women can achieve an approximation of attractiveness through one procedure or another, they all end up looking vaguely like the same person: an aging porn star. In the end, the book leaves the reader not only aware of the emptiness of cosmetic surgery’s results but also conscious of the vacuity of our current concept of beauty itself.


Though I would toss out the reference to the feminine ideal, that seems an apt description of what is so creepy about cosmetic surgery: it permits women to eschew their natural looks in favor of a technologically produced fashionable alternative. The standardizing technology of the surgeries and injections and so on allow the beauty of any person to be judged by the same set of criteria, rather than each person evoking her own criteria to explain her unique beauty. And it makes of this standardized “beauty” a proxy for money and class—those with the income and the access to the right surgeons can achieve the robotic look Wolfe describes and will thus be held to be beautiful by society, though they are clearly hideous to any person marvelling at their plasticity close up. Aesthetic beauty has no objective reference point (there’s no universal “feminine ideal”); it always derives from the imperatives of signifying class. Cosmetic surgery forwards that aspect of the ideology encoded in beauty; it makes it a choice but presents that choice as a natural fact (much like class is supposed to be, blue blood is proof of a natural and God-intended superiority). Cosmetic surgery extends fashion’s domain from their clothes to their very bodies, which in turn allows the outward expression of their natural self to be altogether eradicated. Carolyn’s grad-school friend might say they are completely and perpetually safely behind “the mask.”


My defensive preface to this post comes in here, because I don’t want to sound as though the women who get plastic surgery are either dupes, victims or shallow collaborators with an oppressive male order. As Pandagon blogger Amanda Marcotte is always pointing out, “you can criticize the power inequities that the garment is evidence of without attacking women who are better off wearing it than not, for whatever reason. And same thing with make-up or high heels or shaving or whatever. That women feel they have to act more or ‘do’ femininity to achieve perfectly reasonable goals, like be attractive or to get a job or whatever is not a sign that those women are somehow awful. It’s a sign that they are in a socially inferior position and have to put up with more shit to get half as much.”


But this isn’t so much about gender, I guess, as it is about technology standardizing behavior and expectations as it presents more “choices.” Women have more choices and options than ever in how to conform to an oppressive standard of beauty; isn’t that great? What freedom. The choices are actually coercive in practice; they destablilize one’s sense of self and intensify feelings of insecurity, they intentionally create the impression of inadequacy. When consumer choice colonizes a realm of everyday life, it absorbs it into the play of the cycle of fashion and the zero-sum rigor of manufacturing class distinctions, the requirement of consuming conspicuously. That’s why Marcotte’s prediction that the pressures of self-presentation men and women will be subject to will be distributed more equally seems both plausible and extremely depressing. “Grooming standards are going to go in this direction, I suspect. As women gain power, we’re going to grow weary of tap dancing for men, but on the other hand, men are going to start tap dancing for us. I’ve got no problem with this; in the abstract sense, a lot of things marked feminine are joyful in themselves, but only problematic because they’ve got the baggage of inferiority attached to them. Ornamental dress and grooming isn’t really a problem, unless you have some sort of grudge against color and beauty.” I guess I do have a grudge against color and beauty, because in consumer society those concepts aren’t for themselves but are tools of producing, displaying and reinforcing inequality—now they reinforce gender inequality, but should they shift in the way Marcotte anticipates, then they will express and uphold class inequality. The “baggage of inferiority” is always attached to beauty once it becomes subject to fashion—that is, once it becomes an on-demand product; ultimately that’s the whole point of “feeling beautiful” as opposed to simply being beautiful: to make yourself feel superior and others inferior. And its byproduct, that we all feel insecure over just where we rank in the beauty hierarchy, just makes us that much more cooperative with the existing social order.


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Friday, Oct 13, 2006


It is safe to say that, among the movies made in that defining cinematic decade of the ‘70s, The Other is one of the best—a near-flawless example of tone and storytelling melded with wonderfully effective material and meaning. In the hands of Academy Award nominee Robert Mulligan (responsible for To Kill a Mockingbird and Summer of ‘42, among many others) and adapted by actor-turned-writer Thomas Tyron from his own best-selling novel, this paranormal period piece about psychologically unsound twins takes elements of The Bad Seed and twists them into an amazing American Gothic. It utilizes the recognizable realities of an old-fashioned family in the middle of a picturesque, pastoral setting and then scans the surfaces for the ugly underneath.


Eventually, we start to see the horrors hiding behind the antique old-world gentility, Like all great genre efforts, The Other uses a familiar foundation—in this case, a child’s reaction to death and other domestic strife—to forge a significant supernatural pathway. Tyron wants us to see the unsettled state of youth and how it can easily, and eerily, turn over to the dark side. Through an expert maintenance of atmosphere and action, along with a directorial flair that never telegraphs the tricks or overemphasizes certain elements, we wind up with a significant motion picture masterpiece, a missing link in the growing maturation of the overall genre.


This is not a rock ‘em, sock ‘em shocker however, even without its delicious third act denouement. No, like the slowly decaying portrait of Dorian Gray, Mulligan and Tyron use the idyllic backdrop of the Perry estate—all Victorian flounce and spreading countryside—and slowly begin to peel back the paint. Soon, evil is uncloaked in the secrets being stored inside—all the dead bodies, all the shattered souls, all the unspoken horrors. One of the most successful elements of The Other is its perfectly paced storytelling. Mulligan never rushes his reveal, never hurries his delicate horrors. Instead, he moves us through this summer of suffering and has us in the palm of his knotty narrative right from the start.


We are intrigued by the presence of a mother pining away in her self-imposed exile, of the fruit cellar where father died, the grouchy neighbor hinting at the devilment contained inside the twins, and the odd symbiotic siblings who seem carved out of one complete identity. Setting each one of these inherently interesting pieces inside his jaded jigsaw, Mulligan makes us care about the characters and the circumstances first. Then, once he has us hooked, he is more than capable of turning the suspense screws. A literal reflection of the personal fears onscreen, The Other is so magnificently moody that future filmmakers should study it for lessons in how to create, and control, angst and dread.


That’s because, at its heart, The Other is a film that uses calm and ease to manage corruption and evil. Its story is a symbol of both sides of the human personality, in ways both obvious (the twins) and less iconic (the mother’s madness, Ada’s affection). While it does trade on substance that is both stereotypical (the bad-seed brother) and surreal (the “game” that the boys and Ada play), this masterful horror film never once loses its amazing, frightening focus. We feel the cold hand of destiny enveloping the Perrys in its vice-like (and filled) grip. We sense the damaging truths lying just beneath the frilly lace and country quaintness. Victims make themselves known from the moment we lay eyes on them—they pretend to see beneath the surface and must pay the ultimate price for doing so.


Yet the villainy here is varied—in the eyes of a child, the lost look of a fractured mother, the acquiescing affection of an elderly grandmother. Some or all play a part in the death surrounding The Other’s often ordinary elements. When we get to the telling twists—made a little less effective because of time and familiarity, not anything inherent in the movie—we feel somewhat vindicated for our suspicions. Then The Other takes another, more mean-spirited step and, suddenly, all bets are off. The final shot fulfills all the promise only hinted at during the rest of the film, and makes us reconsider everything that came before.


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