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Among fans of the more exotic realms of cinematic horror, names such as Jean Rollin and Jesus Franco have long generated great interest for their unusual mixes of the supernatural, violence, and sexual situations. Another name deserves mention in this select group--José Mojica Marins. None of these three directors are exactly polished filmmakers. Rollin's almost complete lack of interest in the art of acting frequently makes his movies difficult to watch. Franco's obsession with the female form can occasionally cause his movies to degenerate into peep show excursions. And Marins' inexperience with the finer technical issues of filmmaking typically makes his movies blunt and unsophisticated. All these deficiencies have a flip side for segments of the viewing audience who paradoxically see strengths arising from these perceived weaknesses. For Rollin, a lack of interest in acting helps focus his eye upon imagery--with frequently astonishing results. For Franco, an uninhibited fixation on female anatomy helps fuel his obsessive contemplation of the connection between violence and sex. And for Marins, a surface of crude imagery has the effect of making his movies seem more immediate and honest.

Significantly, Marins is also the best storyteller of this group. Rollin's tales of nude vampires and secluded castles are frequently beset with incoherent narratives and Franco's tales of mad doctors and globe-trotting female spies are frequently saddled with plots cobbled together in cumbersome bits and pieces, but Marins' stories can be conventional in structure, even evoking vintage '30s Universal horror. However, Marins' tales convey a ferocious malevolence that few filmmakers have ever dreamed of attempting and that makes Marins' movies surprising and shocking.

Marins was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1936. According to Pete Tombs in Mondo Macabro (St. Martin's Griffin, 1998), Marins' father had emigrated from Spain with the intention of becoming a bullfighter. Instead, he operated a movie theater--an environment that had a powerful influence on the young Marins, who tried making his own movies, first with an 8mm camera (a gift from his father) and later a 16mm camera. His initial projects were largely disastrous: with alarm regularity, his lead actresses were injured or became ill. Storms destroyed sets and equipment. And completed scenes were later found to be out-of-focus and completely unusable.

In 1963, Marins created a character that would reverse his fortunes--Coffin Joe. Bedecked in a top hat and a black cape, Coffin Joe immediately stands apart from the other inhabitants of the Brazilian village where he makes a living as an undertaker. But he's growing impatient with his vocation: "I'm sick and tired of all this boohoo," he says after a funeral service. He seems to spend very little time at work, and it's a mystery why anyone would turn to him in their time of grief.

Everyone in town seems to fear Coffin Joe--and for good reason: he's a formidable opponent. Even when confronted by men who outweigh him by 100 pounds, he proves himself a plucky fighter. At crucial moments, his eyes go wild and then, with a seemingly supernatural surge of energy, he kicks and strikes and sends the larger men sprawling in the dirt.

Few more despicable characters have ever walked this earth. He isn't above killing his own best friend in order to move in on the friend's girl friend. Coffin Joe's own wife is barren, and according to him "A woman who can't bear a child needs no care." So he looks for a woman who can bear him a child. About his best friend's girl friend, he boasts, "My lineage will continue from her womb." However, when she spurns him, he rapes her (in an ugly scene where she holds a canary in her hand, and as Coffin Joe assaults her, she squeezes the life out of the bird).

In his yearn for a male progeny, he will stop at nothing. He kidnaps women and places them in a dungeon, where he lords over them while deciding which woman will best serve as the mother of his child. He tortures the women who don't make the final cut by placing them in a pit and unleashing dozens of vipers. He has a hunchback accomplice with a scarred face, but Coffin Joe is no Dr. Frankenstein. He isn't interested in science or knowledge. He's only interested in himself and his vengeful, despicable agenda. He seemingly draws his energy from the fear that he creates. When he enters the local bar, everyone acts as if they're walking on thin ice. He's like a fangless (but just as insidious) Count Dracula. Instead of being a monstrous "other," he's a human character of apparent innate evil. His one redeeming characteristic is his love of children: "Nature's perfect creation--children … pity they grow up to become idiots, lost in a labyrinth of egoism and dominated by an imaginary power--the faith in the immortality of the spirit," he says.

One of the surprises of Fantoma's recent DVD release of three José Mojica Marins movies comes during the video interview included with At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul. Marins provides a background sketch of Coffin Joe: he served during World War II, and when he returned home, he found his wife was cheating on him. Now, his bitterness has turned him into a creature of near demonic intensity who only believes in himself. We don't learn about Coffin Joe's past during the two official Coffin Joe movies, At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1963) and This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (1966). Maybe Marins planned to reveal Coffin Joe's background in the final installment of the planned Coffin Joe trilogy. But that movie never materialized. Coffin Joe appeared in a supporting role in several movies, frequently introducing stories like the Crypt Keeper from EC Comics' Tales From the Crypt, but the Coffin Joe trilogy remains unfinished and thus the Coffin Joe character is difficult to comprehend. He's an insidious creation who bullies, maims, murders, and rapes. And he does so while leaving little incriminating evidence. Significantly, local law enforcement is so weak that Coffin Joe rules the village by default. And even if his background isn't represented in the Coffin Joe films, he nonetheless carries a compelling presence that suggests a depth of characterization rare for the horror genre.

These are relentlessly sadistic movies that might be insufferable if not for the fascinating central character. Coffin Joe is an amazingly outrageous creation, but Marins' vision is remarkably consistent with respect to Coffin Joe's resentment of society's conventions: Coffin Joe sneers at religious traditions and at the immortality of the soul. In At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (immediately after Coffin Joe rapes his best friend's girl friend), we get a startling scene of Coffin Joe perched on the fence surrounding a graveyard. He taunts the dead while hurling liquor bottles at headstones: "Arise! Out of your tombs! … Take me straight to hell!" he yells. But nothing happens. No hands arise from the grave. No skeletons shamble forth. So Coffin Joe cackles and jeers. It's at once a pathetic, shocking, and horrific display.

In This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, Marins ups the ante with one of the most audacious scenes of his career. Coffin Joe is quite literally dragged to hell. He's lying in bed in the middle of the night, after having sex with a woman who gladly gives herself to him ("My womb will take the seed that will immortalize the perfect man," she says), when a thin, black, ghostly creature (sort of like the tall zombie from Val Lewton's I Walked With a Zombie) appears in Coffin Joe's bedroom, grabs him by the heels, and drags him kicking and screaming to the local cemetery, where hands reach up and pull Coffin Joe headfirst into the earth. Suddenly, the black-and-white film turns into color and we see naked men and women embedded in walls and half-submerged in floors. Quivering body parts protrude from the ceiling. A demon makes the rounds poking each citizen of hell with a pitchfork. Another demon drives a spike into foreheads. Another wields a whip. People are crucified on crosses. And all the time, snow is falling! (Yes, Marins' hell is as cold as a meat locker.)

This scene arrives as a ferocious warning should Coffin Joe continue his ways, but he can rationalize his way through anything and soon he's back to his old tricks. However, the implications remain: Coffin Joe is aware of the evil actions he has been taking and at some level he feels guilt, but the ease in which he can force delusions upon himself is unsettling. For example, in the movie's closing scenes, as villagers are pursuing Coffin Joe, he cynically challenges God to make an appearance: "Come, forces from beyond. Show me the truth!" he shouts. Of course, he expects nothing to happen, but then lightning strikes a tree less than five feet away and a burning branch falls on him! Seconds later, however, he scrambles up: "This doesn't convince me! It was only an accident! An accident of nature." His self-delusion continues once the villagers catch up with him. He greets them with "I don't believe in God," and he hurls a crucifix at them.

Technically, the Coffin Joe films are crude. Marins had so little money to work with that he could only afford a tiny studio--about 20x30 feet in size. At times, this limitation is painfully obvious, as in the graveyard scenes, where the graves and headstones are squished together in a setting reminiscent of Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space. But in other scenes, Marins makes remarkable use of the space while creating the illusion of much larger areas. But even while the sets seem claustrophobic, the small confines help reinforce Coffin Joe's power and his tenacious hold upon the villagers.

Marins' filmmaking can be shockingly amateurish, as in the opening shots of Awakening of the Beast (1969). We see Coffin Joe standing on the roof of a house. Suddenly, Marins inserts an awkwardly framed shot of a rather ordinary looking cat, followed by a stuffed bat and a shaky shot of a bullfrog. Then Coffin Joe appears again: "My world is strange indeed," he says. But these inserts are so amateurish that the effect is ludicrous. Seconds later, however, we're treated to an astonishingly bizarre sequence where a group of men sit watching as a woman inserts a hypodermic needle in her ankle (the camera watches unflinchingly as she squeezes the syringe and an unspecified liquid flows into her bloodstream). Then she begins to peel off her clothing. The dark sweaty faces of the leering men turn to sheepish grins after they offer her a present wrapped in plain brown paper--a commode! She laughs and then squats for their pleasure. Marins films this strange fetish sequence with quick edits and an active camera that finds unusual angles, as when it moves behind the woman for a shot of her audience framed between her legs. And for the scene's conclusion, Marins places the camera beside the commode as the woman's derriere descends so that she practically sits on the camera. Instead of backing this sequence with leering striptease music, Marins uses a cheerful pop song that provides a surprising counterpoint to the scatological action.

The Coffin Joe character is indeed present in Awakening of the Beast, but he makes little more than a cameo appearance. Instead, the movie takes the form of a tract against drug usage. We see several vignettes that reinforce the connection between drug use and depravity. During the video introduction on Fantoma's DVD, Marins explains the movie's genesis: he saw policemen beat a pregnant prostitute who was apparently high on drugs. This event left a strong impression on Marins and he asked about her the next day, but she had disappeared. "She was never heard from again," he says. As a result, Marins strove to invest the movie with a strong dose of political awareness. He calls it his greatest "social commentary." Inexplicably, however, Marins begins the film by using comic book panels as a background for the opening titles. Surely if Marins intended this movie as social commentary he might have begun less frivolously. The following movie has nothing to do with comic books.

Individual sequences of Awakening of the Beast move from the frivolous to the horrific. In one sequence, for example, a pair of men pick up a teenage girl as she walks home after school. They bring her back to their pad, where several men are waiting. After she smokes a reefer, men begin slipping their heads under her dress. "Eureka!" shouts one. They whistle the theme for The Bridge On the River Kwai while dipping their fingers into her vagina (this is only implied but it's clear what's happening). Eventually a man dressed like Moses shows up. He shoves his staff inside her and she dies. In sequences like this one, Marins' attempt at social commentary is exceptionally naïve. He's much more interested in the salacious details of the sequence than its more harrowing implications.

Least we fail to discern Marins' serious intentions, he occasionally provides us with more somber sequences where psychiatrists, professors, and other professionals discuss the drug problem. One man says "Society is in chaos. The world closes its eyes and society refrains from action while a whole generation collapses!" A doctor tells us that drugs "stimulate depravity and promote corruption." Marins participates in these discussions but he mostly just sits and takes notes: "I'm not even sure why I'm here," he says.

Unfortunately, the movie tends to confuse drug use with sexual perversion. In each episode, drug use directly leads to sexual depravity. Eventually the movie brings together four drug addicts from four different levels of society. They will be used for an LSD experiment. And what's the first thing the doctor does? He takes them to a sex show! Eventually, he injects the four subjects with LSD (or does he?) and we witness their hallucinatory trips (at which time the black-and-white movie turns into color). But what do we see? We see a shambling monster that looks suspiciously like a penis wrapped in hair. And we see a group of strange creatures that are clearly human buttocks with faces painted on them. Scenes like these are supposed to be subversive, but the staging is so amateurish that they become nothing less than pathetic--even boring.

Some critics consider Awakening of the Beast to be Marins' finest achievement, but I think it's a clumsy movie. It's certainly an outrageous movie, with some of the most memorable sequences of any Marins' movie, but Marins' attempt at social commentary is so simplistic that the entire movie is undermined. I much prefer the two genuine Coffin Joe movies. At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul and This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse are genuinely eerie and unsettling, and Marins' storytelling is concise and effective. But to enjoy these movies, you have to be able to look past their crude surfaces--which occasionally evoke Ed Wood with their low budget sets and their narrators who speak directly into the camera like creature feature hosts: "I wish you a terrible evening," says the host of At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, a terrible old witch who cackles and carries a skull. Marins, however, exhibits much greater control of imagery than Wood and his vision is much more malevolent. And, in general, Marins uses his cut-rate sets effectively, as when the camera moves in front of the torch-wielding villagers as they pursue Coffin Joe through the swamp during the final sequence of This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse. You might think you've stumbled into a Universal B movie (or a Universal imitation, such as the films of Mexico's Churubusco-Azteca Studios).

During the video intro for This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, Marins claims his Coffin Joe sequel is more sophisticated than its predecessor. But he defines "sophisticated" in terms of the vermin at his disposal: "I used hundreds of spiders and snakes." Indeed, working with frogs, snakes, and other vermin was indeed important for the actors in Marins' movies. A screen test for a Marins' movie might consist of sliding a toad into an actress' cleavage and watching her reaction. Once he'd hired a particular actress, he might help enhance her performance by exploding bombs on the set or by twisting her finger with pliers. And during the hell scene from This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, he used electrical shocks on the floor to make the actors writhe in pain. Not surprisingly, Marins preferred to work with amateur actors (as he explains during the video intro for This Night…): he found pros are set in their ways while amateurs would accept his potentially dangerous techniques.

Marins' cheap, crude methods actually helped generate interest in his films among the Brazilian filmmaking underground, who advocated the use of raw methods (for they defined professional techniques as dishonest and artificial). Marins became the darling of the "trash cinema" movement and made many cameo appearances in the films of other filmmakers. Conversely, several Brazilian filmmakers, actors, and celebrities made cameo appearances in Awakening of the Beast.

While famous in Brazil, Marins was little known in America and thus his films were difficult to see until 1994 when Something Weird Video released a dozen of Marins' films on video. Now Fantoma has released three of Marins' films on DVD in new digital widescreen transfers (aspect ratio 1.66:1) from the original 35mm negatives. Marins himself supervised these transfers, and he appears in video introductions (about 10 minutes each) for each film. During these intros, he offers some valuable insights into each film. But arguably the most valuable extras are the reproductions of original Coffin Joe comic books (38 pages each) that come tucked inside the DVD cases.

Despite the use of digital video and audio restoration techiques, the video transfers still contain numerous deficiencies (such as bad splices, dust speckles, and streaks), but the image is reasonably sharp and the range of grey tones is adequate. The color segments show some fading, but the image quality is a definite improvement over Something Weird's VHS releases. The audio for Awakening of the Beast has suffered the most. It is frequently distorted. (And unfortunately, it's at its worst during the pop song "War" that accompanies the movie's opening scatological sequence.) However, Fantoma assures us that they used the best surviving materials, which come straight from Marins' own personal collection. Quite likely, therefore, these are the best looking copies of these movies that will ever be released on home video.

If you purchased any of these movies on VHS from Something Weird, it's time to upgrade your collection with the much superior digital transfers from Fantoma. But remember Something Weird if you want to search out more of Marins' films. They offer nine additional Marins' movies on VHS.


At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, and Awakening of the Beast are now available on DVD from Fantoma in new digital transfers supervised by director José Mojica Marins. The discs include video interviews with the director and original theatrical trailers. In addition, each disc includes a reproduction of an original Coffin Joe comic book (36 pages). Suggested retail price: $29.99 each. For more information, check out the Fantoma Web site.