Depth of Field: José Mojica Marins - Coffin Joe's Theological Terror
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.