The Coffin Joe Trilogy: Or Nietzsche Gonna Getcha’
It all begins with a dark admonition from a cackling witch. Breaking the fourth wall, she waves a skull at the camera and says, “There is still time. Don’t watch this film. Go Home!” Then she bursts into the fits of sinister laughter so often employed by her kind.
The film trilogy is not about witches. It’s not even a horror trilogy for that matter. The three films are all melodramatic treatises on a kind of Nietzschean atheism. At least half of the screen time of these films is taken up with operatic soliloquies damning humanity’s fears and superstitions as irredeemable weaknesses, and expounding on the rise of the master race of fearless, immortal, atheists unencumbered by religion and anxiety. It’s exhausting.
Coffin Joe, or in Portuguese “Zé do Caixão,” is a character dreamed up by Brazilian actor and filmmaker José Mojica Marins, who wrote, directed, and starred in all three films. Coffin Joe is the star of the first two films At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1963), and This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967), and he is the driving force in the third, Awakening of the Beast (1970).
Coffin Joe is a narcissistic, sadistic, delusional, atheist, psychopath who is fixated on producing an heir, even though it kinda sounds like he may be immortal. Like most atheists, he wears a black top hat with a billowing black cape and has long pointy fingernails. Apparently, the fingernails are real.
The first film, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, is mostly watching Coffin Joe bully everyone. He goes to the bar and bullies the patrons, he goes to a funeral and bullies the mourners, he stops people in the street so he can bully them, he’s just a nasty piece of work. It gets tiresome but his boisterous pronouncements are pretty entertaining. “Nothing is stronger than my disbelief!” he bellows at a foggy graveyard. Throughout the whole film, it is as if his atheism gives him superpowers. He frightens people into a stupor and then pokes their eyes out, or slits their throats or whatever strikes his fancy. His courage stems from his understanding that humanity is in charge of its own destiny and all the weakling believers in God or supernatural forces are but chaff before the nobility of his ideology.
Coffin Joe is in search of a young maiden who he can breed with to produce the perfect, Übermensch, atheist, hero. She must be beautiful, fearless, and obedient. Try putting that into eharmony. He spends the film seducing women and killing everyone that gets in his way until, of course, it all catches up with him.
Societal norms dictate that all non-conformists must pay for their transgressions, and so poor Joe is driven mad by the ghosts and/or hallucinatory visions of his victims. Finally, he collapses and appears to be thoroughly dead, however in the next film, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, he’s alive again! This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse picks up shortly after the last one left off, as we see Coffin Joe almost fully recuperated in his hospital bed. There is a brief reference to Coffin Joe having been put on trial for murder. Even though the whole town witnessed him kill people, the prosecution was unable to make a case against him, so Joe is released from the hospital and returns to the little town to resume his bullying.
This time he expedites his search for the perfect wife/incubator by kidnaping half-a-dozen lovely ladies and stashing them in his castle. He tests them by covering them in tarantulas and snakes to see if they are strong enough to produce his super-son. This enables Marins to cobble together a montage of creepy crawlies, creeping and crawling over half-naked women. Somewhere out there is a subreddit for people who like that sort of thing or maybe a Discord channel.
It’s all fine and good until Joe starts killing the women who fail the tests. In the process, he ends up killing a pregnant woman without realizing she was with child. Joe reveres children as the treasures of the future. He loves and protects all of them. When he finds out that he has killed one, he is gravely disturbed. That night when he goes to sleep Joe is treated to a full-color tour of Hell, and what a tour it is.
Joe stumbles through a labyrinth of styrofoam caves lit with red and blue lights and flooded with smoke and fake snowflakes. Everywhere, people are screaming and crying as they are assaulted by naked men who are painted red and carry pitchforks. Bloody arms and legs emerge from the walls. People are hanging on upside-down crosses and the Devil himself is on his throne laughing and torturing and having a grand old time. The Devil is also played by Coffin Joe, which results in the classic dream trope where the protagonist must face himself.
As evil as he is, Joey is still prone to fits of anxiety, which he calms with a little wind-up music box that plays, of all things, Tico Tico. There are actually quite a few strange musical choices in these films. One night scene is scored with taps. When Joe finally gets one of his victims pregnant, we hear Handel’s Hallelujah chorus from The Messiah.
Joe dies again at the end of the second film. This time he is shot in the back and then drowns in a swamp, but not before renouncing his atheism and begging a priest for a cross. As he sinks into the murky water, text appears on the screen, “Man will only find truth when he searches for truth,” which seems like a fair assessment. You probably won’t find it searching for your car keys.
Installment numero tres, Awakening of the Beast, begins with a sonic assault of screaming, screeching, symphonic bombast, some explosion noises, moaning, torrential wind sound effects, synthesizers, and I think maybe a recording of a chimp. It’s apparent from the get-go that Coffin Joe is going to get experimental with this one.
The film begins with a montage. We start with a tight shot of a woman injecting, what I assume is heroin, in her ankle. Then there is a barrage of closeups of men’s faces interspersed with porn magazine pages. The men are bug-eyed and look a little worried. Then we pull back to see the men are in a room with the drugged lady and the porn stills are on the walls. The woman stands up and commences a striptease while a psychedelic 60s song yells “War! A word that lives inside me. Fear of the end, end to kill. To extinct. Extinct all love. Extinct all the hope.” You know, typical stripper stuff.
The scene ends when the men give the young lady a large bowl and she squats over it. The assumption being that she will deposit one of two things in it. Fortunately, we don’t find out which. It’s quite a way to begin a film, but it’s nothing compared to what follows.
Awakening of the Beast came out only 3 years after This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, but they are miles apart in almost every way. Awakening of the Beast is a mannered, self-conscious stream of loosely associated imagery. Unlike its predecessors, it does not take place in some sleepy Brazilian town. It’s in São Paulo where all manner of weirdos dwell.
The loosely rendered premise of the film is that Coffin Joe is being interviewed by a group of psychologists or a panel of assorted professional types. There is some kind of prosecutor/interrogator/psychology professor named Dr. Sergio who is recounting all of these strange episodes of debauchery which he believes are connected to drug use, and maybe somehow to Coffin Joe. Each of Dr. Sergio’s stories is played out before us like a flashback, although it gets a bit more confusing than that.
One episode involves what looks like a group of beatniks. It’s 1970 so you would think they would be hippies, but they are much more like the self-serious, beats of the 50s and early 60s. They wear turtlenecks and button-up shirts, play drums, get high, and snap a lot. They grab some young woman off the street and whisk her away to an apartment where they play bizarre sex games with her. One game involves a guy dressed as Moses who uses his wooden staff in ways the Bible doesn’t mention.
There’s another where we see a mother and her teen daughter sitting on a couch. The mother excuses herself and says she is going to bed. In her absence, the black butler gets on his hand and knees and crawls over to the daughter on the couch. They begin to have sex while the mother watches from her bedroom. As the couple’s sex escalates, the mother snorts something up her nose. In her arousal, we see that her arm is moving around, but when the camera pans down we do not see her masturbating, instead, she is rubbing a donkey and gripping his hair.
The whole thing starts to feel like a Mondo movie, but then it turns surreal. There is an episode involving a casting couch situation with a portly, cigar-chomping boss and a pretty, young, lady in a short skirt. There is no dialogue, only the echoing thoughts inside their heads. While he degrades her sexually, he turns first into a pig, and then into a dog, and later into a horse, all while matador music plays in the background. It’s a crazy collage of ideas that transcends the silly horror antics of Coffin Joe and becomes something closer to a Buñuel film.
Then, as if all the sex, drugs, and perversion weren’t enough, Coffin Joe goes meta! Suddenly we see him on a television show being interviewed and criticized. He starts complaining about the movie industry in Brazil and culture in general. He breaks character and claims that he is no longer Coffin Joe but José Mojica Marins. The whole film collapses in on itself and now we are listening to the filmmaker rail against what he has become, or something like that.
Then the characters in Awakening of the Beast go to a movie theater to see This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse. Afterward, they are given LSD by Dr. Sergio and are told to stare at a Coffin Joe poster. Everything goes into color again and off we go back into the wacky world of hallucinations. Although they predate him, the color sequences have a definite Ken Russell feel. Maybe Ken saw these movies in his youth.
The hallucination scenes have some interesting images, but it goes on way too long and degenerates into a lot of sleazy nudity and misogyny. Finally, it’s all brought to a close with some more Nietzsche. Of course, Freddy was no fan of the ladies either, but if you had to live with his mother and sister, you probably wouldn’t have been either. Anyway, the movie ends with a whole treatise on the dark instincts that drive us and how their energy fuels man’s superiority over the universe. It’s part of a whole 19th century idea about human nature. For Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud, all humans have a roiling evil pool of animal cruelty somewhere deep within them, and society’s purpose is to teach us how to sublimate it. Marins seems determined to free his and ride it to complete supremacy.
José Mojica Marins/Coffin Joe is an entire universe unto himself. There are the movies, but there were also comic books, television shows, a talk show, and he even appeared in some porn movies. He has his own perverse philosophy and the narcissistic bravado to deliver it to the masses. I imagine Marins keeps his hat and cape on even at home when he is in private. There probably isn’t even a José Mojica Marins. It’s Coffin Joe who is real and Marins who is the fictional persona. Supposedly Marins died in 2020, but he just doesn’t seem like someone or something that would die. He was actually born on Friday the 13th, March 1936.
In 2008, Joe decided to add a fourth film to the trilogy, Embodiment of Evil. That’s both the title and a description. The Coffin Joe films from the late 60s would have been shocking for their time, so to ensure that his new film would be equally shocking in 2008, Coffin Joe had to get pretty extreme. Embodiment of Evil is drenched in blood, like Evil Dead II levels of blood, but Embodiment of Evil goes much further. Halfway through I really wanted to quit, but a fellow cinephile pushed me to finish it for the sake of completing the set. If I show signs of PTSD. I’m gonna sue him. There is a scene where the now 72-year-old Joe cuts the right butt-cheek off a naked woman and forces her to eat it. He scalps another woman and folds her skin forward over her face like an inside-out hat.
The way women are depicted in the film and what is done to them is completely unacceptable. It’s clear Joe has a serious problem with women. He arranges plenty of scenes where he gets to fondle beautiful young ladies with his wrinkled claw. He lasciviously caresses them while demanding their complete submission, but it always ends in butchery and degradation.
To be fair, several men in the film get their penises eaten off in graphic detail. Also, Joe found himself several body-piercers to do yucky things to themselves on camera. I suppose it’s a clever way to up the ante and save on special effects. It also looks like he may have found some S&M enthusiasts who genuinely enjoyed being beaten, but I doubt they enjoyed having their faces smushed into a barrel of live cockroaches.
Besides being completely offensive, the movie is also stupid and awful. It has nothing to say. The Neitschzean rants have been replaced with nihilism and psychopathy. It definitely looks like he had a bigger budget for this film, so he manages a few moments of cinematic drama, but it is in no way worth sitting through the rest to see them. There is no reason to watch a woman having her genitals covered in hot, melted cheese and then having a rat shoved between her legs. My advice is to stick to the original three.
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