The Ballad of Coffin Joe
A New Documentary Awakens the Beast of Brazilian Horror
They are the kind of images you never forget, try though you might. A deformed hand taps obscenely at a conga drum. A rubbery black specter grabs a man from his bed and drags him screaming into a grave. A roomful of half-naked women writhe, covered in horrible black spiders. A young man wakes up in a coffin, shrieking silently as streams of black-clad mourners dash across the graveyard, too late to save him.
André Barcinski remembers the first time he saw a film by Brazilian director José Mojica Marins, the man who created those images. It was 1970's Awakening of the Beast, a febrile look at the drug culture as seen through the nightmarish prism of Marins' onscreen alter ego, a malevolent undertaker with 5-inch fingernails. When Marins' films were eventually dubbed for English-speaking exploitation-film audiences, the character's name, Zé do Caixão, translated as Coffin Joe.
"It went against certain rules of good taste, but all the scenes had a tremendous impact. I had never seen anything like it," Barcinski, speaking by phone from his home in São Paulo, Brazil, recalls of his initial encounter with Marins/Coffin Joe. "The impression I had watching the film was that the guy had a physical necessity to do that film--like if he hadn't shot it, he would die."
Barcinski became obsessed with Marins. He and Ivan Finotti, both journalists and cinephiles, co-wrote the first biography of the filmmaker, published in Brazil in 1998. Finding it impossible to convey the full impact of Marins' work in a book, they moved into his medium. Coffin Joe: The Strange World of Jose Mojica Marins not only rescues Marins' startlingly original and powerful filmmaking from the cult/exploitation ghetto; it tells the story of his life off screen, a tale almost as weird as those he put on celluloid.
Marins was born in São Paulo on a Friday the 13th in March 1936. Since his father managed a small theater, Marins literally grew up at the movies. Though the family was desperately poor, Marins found a way to make his first short film at age 12; by age 18, he had completed more than 40 shorts. Where contemporary American indie filmmakers go to film school and finance early efforts through family loans and credit cards, Marins taught himself everything about making movies and funded his efforts by showing them at local circuses, dubbing the dialogue live via loudspeakers as the reel unspooled.
"It's very funny when people compare him to Luis Buñuel or Dario Argento, guys who studied and read great books and were really intelligent," Barcinski says. "He left school at 12 so he barely knows how to write, even today. He never read a book about films. He knows a lot about films because he's seen a lot of them, but his knowledge of films is purely visual. He can't remember the name of a single director but he can remember whole scenes from films he saw 50 years ago."
Marins earned comparisons to the likes of Spanish surrealist Buñuel and Italian horror-master Argento with the über-indie feature-length shockers he began making in his 20s, beginning with 1964's At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul. "I think Mojica thought, I need to do a character who will shock everyone," Barcinski says. "And then he thought of the four or five things that the character could do that were most shocking." As Coffin Joe, Marins swaggers, smirks, gruesomely tortures and murders townspeople, and casually mocks mourners at their funerals. Even more shocking in overwhelmingly Catholic Brazil, he repeatedly rails against God and relishes meat on Friday.
"In Brazil, nobody eats meat on Holy Friday," Barcinski stresses. "When we show [Coffin Joe] in the U.S. nobody laughs at that scene, but here in Brazil people go crazy. You can imagine the impact those scenes had in 1964. People used to throw rocks at him. Even today some people cross the street to avoid him."
Coffin Joe features extensive interviews with Marins, now a rumpled, balding 65-year-old living modestly in São Paulo. But in his heyday, as the film's extensive and often hilarious interviews with his collaborators make plain, the womanizing and heavy-drinking auteur was a terror off-camera as well. Forever short of time and budget, he finished At Midnight in a single, amphetamine-fueled 96-hour stretch. For the even wilder second Coffin Joe film, 1967's This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (also screening at the Maryland Film Festival), he threw hundreds of real spiders and snakes on his unprepared bargain-basement actors. The macabre and bizarre seemed to dog his every step. On one of his early features, the lead actress died, her replacement died, and her replacement lost a leg in a car crash. As Barcinski quips, "Ed Wood's life was normal by comparison."
By the late '60s, Marins was one of the most famous pop-culture figures in Brazil. He had his own comic books and a Tales From the Crypt-style TV series. He even inspired imitators, the so-called "Mouth of Garbage" school of filmmakers. But he constantly battled government censors over their demanded cuts and alterations to his films. When Brazil's repressive military junta got a look at Awakening of the Beast's crazed take on drug culture, authorities banned the film outright for the next 15 years.
Since each of Marins' films financed the next, censorship stymied his career. Like Russ Meyer before him, he turned to pornography to make ends meet. With typical flair, he managed to transgress even in the world of XXX in 1984 by releasing 24 Hours of Explicit Sex, a deliberately distasteful skin flick featuring a sex scene between a woman and a German shepherd. By the late '80s, after nearly 30 professional features, Marins was reduced to appearing as Coffin Joe at parties and carnivals. "He had to let his fingernails grow, because people would pay him more if he had the fingernails," Barcinski says. "People thought it was very funny, but for the people who knew him it was very sad, because the real Mojica was disappearing."
Thanks to Barcinski, Finotti, and other champions, Marins is rising from the pop-cult grave. Previously his films were available in the United States only on bottom-of-the-barrel videocassette releases, but the interest generated by Barcinski and Finotti's book (due to be published in the States next year by indie imprint Feral House) and documentary led to DVD issues of his classic horror flicks by Fantoma Films. Marins has spent much of the past year accompanying the documentarians on the film-fest circuit, where he and his story have made a splash. (A prior commitment prevents him from appearing at the Maryland festival.)
Barcinski is even working toward getting Marins back behind a camera. With Marins' artistic reputation on the mend and newly restored copies of his nightmarish visions available for sale or rent, a new wave of impressionable minds is bound to encounter that rarest of things in this day and age--filmed images so striking and disturbing that you almost wish you hadn't seen them.