Coffin Joe - DVD Boxset

Wednesday, 12 August 2009 07:47

Cult figure José Mojica Marins has so far acted in, written, produced or directed approximately 50 movies in his 73-year lifespan. This five-disk DVD box set comprises eight of his best-known horror films, along with an award-winning documentary on this strange man from Brazil and his work. The movies span his most industrious and creative period, from 1964’s “At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul” to 1978’s “Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind”.

In many of these films, Mojica Marins plays his cult gothic creation, Zé do Caixão aka Coffin Joe. Coffin Joe started out as a grave digger in a small Brazilian town, sporting a flowing black cape, tall top hat, dark beard, eyebrows and moustache, and chronically overgrown fingernails that, in what must surely be a homage, closely resemble the talons of Count Orlok from 1922’s “Nosferatu”.

Coffin Joe DVD Box SetWhilst his undertaking duties get sidelined, his costume remains with him at all times, and – in the case of the absurdly impractical fingernails – in real life, as Mojica Marins maintains them to this day. The character is therefore a blend of familiar horror tropes.

Additionally, because most of the movies were made on a shoestring budget, and as most modern viewers will be coming to them so long after their initial release, there might be a tendency to see them as more of a curiosity than as a scary spectacle. That is not to say, however, that they do not feature themes and horrifying and gratuitous scenes that might disturb the unwary.

Like many of his fellow horror writers and directors, Mojica Marins dwells on familiar subjects such as finding the ultimate bride (or more particularly a potential mother of his offspring, in this case), revenge, fear and especially sin. Sex, drugs and drink feature prominently. Coffin Joe is a spectacularly misogynistic and sadistic creation, and although plenty of men meet their comeuppance in these movies, it is the women who fare the worst, both in terms of physical violence and sexual exploitation and abuse. Female naked flesh abounds, certainly to a degree above that seen in Hammer horrors, and women are ogled and then discarded with alarming regularity.

Whether the audience find this titillating or offensive is probably a matter of opinion and taste, if not gender. There are plenty of naked male bottoms and torsos on offer as well, so the balance is redressed a little! The basic message is that if you are easily offended, you are advised to look elsewhere. Then again, you could not innocently wander into a boxset containing movie titles such as “The Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures”!

Beyond the sexual content, there is of course an avalanche of gore. Bodies are hacked up, crushed, tortured, showered in acid, and subjected to all manner of spider, snake and insect attacks. Again, because of the very limited budget and the age of these movies, a lot of this bloody activity is not as compelling as it might have been, and there are many occasions when a chuckle has to be stifled (not least for the 'homogenised bread people' in “Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind”). You could say that those films that are shot in black and white have an extra disadvantage, providing you do not consider how effective the original “Psycho” was!

When colour is first introduced into these movies, it is shockingly garish. This is probably by design, as in 1967’s “This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse”. This viewer was reminded of “The Wizard of Oz” then Coffin Joe is dragged to Hell, and the film jumps from black and white to bright colours to depict the fiery underworld below. Later movies feature more subtle and moody lighting, either reflecting the increase in budget or Mojica Marin’s elevated directorial skills.

The story-telling and overall quality of these movies does vary quite considerably. Highlights include the first two parts of the Coffin Joe Trilogy – “At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul” and “This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse”, following as they do the rough templates of countless Dracula and Frankenstein films. The baddie reaps a whirlwind of death and devastation before the previously sheepish local populace decide they have had enough, and take him down.

I would also recommend 1968’s “The Strange World of Coffin Joe”; its anthology format means that three stories are covered instead of one being over-milked to the point of exhaustion (a common impression here), and 1977’s “Hellish Flesh”, an intriguing and creepy tale of an adulterous couple’s failed murder attempt, and the victim’s twisted bid for revenge. This last film comes closest to presenting a tightly-woven, mainstream horror tale that UK audiences will recognise and enjoy.

The lowlight if you have already seen the other films has to be 1978’s “Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind”, not least because it is predominantly made up of clips from the other movies, with little rhyme or reason beyond assailing the audience with disjointed scenes of horror! It is a case of genuine familiarity with the material, rather than a vague sense of déjà vu!

It is regrettable that the picture and audio quality of the films is frequently poor. Video integrity varies quite widely, and sometimes it is difficult to make out precisely what is being shown. Worse still, sound quality is almost universally dire, with echo-ridden and scratchy dialogue, and soundtrack mixing that beggars belief. Random musical soundbites come and go, either drowning out the dialogue or vice versa. Budgetary constraints and limited technology are undoubtedly partially to blame, but this failing has to be pointed out. Yes, the characters are not speaking in English, but it is still distracting. Later films feature music that genuinely fits the mood of the scene; the earlier pieces commonly have what sounds like an ice-cream-van jingle playing out when the tension should be mounting!

Mojica Marins appears to have been fearful of any breaks in his soundscape, and felt obliged to stitch annoying and anachronistic (royalty-free?) music together instead. Some of the movies feature long stretches where the plot is moved on visually rather than through dialogue, which only serves to labour the point.

Talking of tension-breakers, special mention must also go to the subtitle writers. All of the movies feature “burned-in” subtitles that cannot be turned off. That in itself is not an issue unless you can speak Portuguese. However, it seems like the further into the boxset you go, the less time has been spent on checking the accuracy of the subtitles, and sometimes they fly by too quickly, resulting in the rewind button on your remote control being employed. It is as though a monkey has been thrown into the mix to spice the titles up a little. Lines increasingly resemble pigeon-English (or 'Chinese Whispers'), aural interpretations of what a translator might have said, or just complete nonsense. Here are a few choice examples:

“When syntonized, this person feels itself attracted by his complement.” (“The Strange World of Coffin Joe”)

“The little, forever midget, and the great, eternal giant.” (“Awakening the Beast”)

“He prepared an acid that can destroy a big arm in a few seconds.” (“Hellish Flesh”)

As humour commonly plays a big part in horror films, either wittingly or unwittingly, we will let these errors slide, as this reviewer has not laughed so much in ages.

There are no special features in this boxset, but the 2001 documentary, “The Strange World of José Mojica Marins” does largely make up for the omission. This feature-length piece won the Sundance Film Festival’s 'Special Jury Prize' in that year. It carefully and effectively pieces together talking head interviews with the man himself, as well as his core cast and crew, in addition to choice clips from the movies featured here. Besides his aforementioned nails, Mojica Marins comes across as a fairly normal, humble human being – albeit one with a frightening and often obscure imagination.

In what could be seen as a sad indictment, Mojica Marins moved into explicit porn films in the 1980s, largely, he says, to pay the bills. In the 1960s and 70s, each film’s profits were ploughed back into funding the next film, denying him the opulent life that we envisage many Hollywood directors experience. Finally, the box set features some nice poster artwork on the sleeves, and a simple but effective “distressed” art theme which also filters through to the DVD disk menus.

“The Coffin Joe Collection” is out now on the Anchor Bay Entertainment label, Certificate 18, RRP £39.99, or less from Interested parties might also like to check out our review of the final part of the Coffin Joe Trilogy – “The Embodiment of Evil” in the Cult Movies section of our website. Strangely, although that DVD was released at the same time as this collection, it is not included in the box set.


The Coffin Joe Collection (Certificate 18)


Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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