Sunday, 16 January 2011

Jose Mojica Marins will take your soul (part one)


part one: The Coffin Joe Trilogy

At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul” (1964)

This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse” (1967)

Embodiment of Evil” (2008).


At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul” (1964) and “This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse” (1967) give us Ze do Caixao, or Coffin Joe: Brazilian horror superstar, played by the director himself, Jose Mojica Marins. The unusual point about this irresistibly titled horror double bill is that these are not the threats of our remarkable antihero and all-round bad guy, but that they are threats made to him. And what does Coffin Joe do to deserve these wonderfully ornate curses? Well, what won’t he do? And what debauchery he doesn’t do is not for want of trying, but more down to a low film budget. .

The plots of these two films are more-or-less identical. Ze is a cape-and-top-hat wearing gravedigger with apparent wealth, long fingernails (all the better for eye-gouging) and an irrepressible affliction for metaphysical and nihilistic posturing and oration. Alone or with an audience, he cares not. “Soul” starts with Joe glaring and pointing into the camera: “What is life?” Such soliloquies, often very much asides to the audience as if we are being taken into Joe’s confidence, are fundamental to Marins’ films, as much as the phantasmagorical silence sequences. However, I am cautious about quoting too much for I am not about to put much faith in the subtitle translations, but we get the gist. (For this reason, I shall refrain from close-reading of Ze’s orations.) Joe goes for the big questions of life, death, mankind’s disgusting nature and insignificance, his own superiority, and so on. How much of this is in earnest on Marins’ part, how much of an actual philosophical enquiry or how much the character of Coffin Joe’s madman’s ravings is perhaps not totally clear. But he is not quite the only one given to preaching: “Soul” opens with Joe doing so, and then we are given a bold credits sequence made up of the juiciest bits to come later in the film (!), after which we are introduced to a hammy witch who clutches a skull also addresses the audience directly to dare them to deny the existence of the supernatural and horror. At the very least, these monologues make for highly entertaining and absurd padding.
Joe likes to go into town to provoke and terrorise the locals by mocking their beliefs in the supernatural and religion (same thing). He goes about like some untouchable feudal lord. Ze spits viciousness at the locals and then monologues about his superiority, about life and death and other such cosmic considerations that may or may not defy that innate superiority. When challenged he lets loose with Mr Hyde-like bloodshot eyes and tantrums with a near superhuman fury and violence, always besting his challengers through sheer brutality. He murders those that upset him. But in these confrontations, he is always just the right side of superhuman; he is more extraordinarily savage and sadistic than demonically possessed. In fact he mocks the concepts of possession, ghosts, witches, God, and even the Devil, with whom you would expect him to be on pretty fraternal terms. Ze’s nihilism and belief in nothing but himself is all-consuming. This is the tale of Coffin Joe’s megalomania, his love-hate war against anything unearthly, his love-affair with cruelty and misogyny, plus his quest to become immortalised by having a son and passing on his superior genes. One of the perversions of Ze is that he genuinely values children, although this too fits with his egomaniacal vision of the universe around him. He chooses and pursues a woman who may or may not be worthy to bear his child, but in murdering someone unworthy, he is cursed by his victims - in the very words of the title!! - and ultimately has a supernatural experience that puts him in his place and is vanquished. It is all very Gothic and melodramatic and delicious in its search for perversion, which it frequently pulls off not by explicitness - although it has its moments - but by tone and intimation. And it is all highly engrossing with Jose Mojica Marins’ thickly layered acting, some successful minor surrealism and inevitable unintentional humour. This is very much Marins’ show as he directs, produces and writes himself into a frenzy, oblivious to budgetary or acting restrictions. Committing himself with a gusto that motors the whole enterprise, Marins chews scenery, sneers and quivers his lips in demonic disgust, raises an arched eyebrow for sadism, unafraid to give himself a long unbroken take in which he throws himself around the somewhat shaky set design and battles the forces of the universe against him. In fact, his face is probably a little too soft to truly carry off the EVIL, but this too makes him more fascinating and works to good use particularly in “Corpse” when Ze comes to accidentally murder an unborn child and is overcome with guilt … it is almost like acting. Coffin Joe demands to be a compelling antihero and theatrical villain in the manner of old barnstormers. You get the idea that he would happily take on all of Brazil, should it doubt his pre-eminence, and that like Ze himself, Marins is oblivious to nay-sayers.
It is like a Hammer Horror by Herschell Gordon Lewis, by way of the scratchy realism of Night of the Living Dead”. But Marins is a real film-maker, and not a bluffer like Lewis. Considering it pre-dates “Living Dead”, the eye-gouging and axing and litany of torture Marins serves up may seem relatively tame by contemporary standards, but it feels quite verbose for the period and still carries a genuine frission of perversity and shock, a frission embedded in the very ambience of the film. In this sense, in a more overt interest in cruelty and gore and given the era, Marin feels ahead of his time. Coffin Joe himself feels like a Victorian villain gone amok, so it is somewhat a surprise to see buses and other such modern details creep in around the edges. Ze’s assault on the town, women and good taste still disturbs and shocks with its venom. There is also a Jacques Tournier-like claustrophobia to “Soul” … or should I say the use and aesthetic of the often D.I.Y. sets falls somewhere between Tournier and Ed Wood; or perhaps a downmarket James Whale. Zest and inventiveness and decent composition of shots compensate for any wobbly sets and limited special effects… it is hard to disparage effects that simply put glitter upon the film stock to achieve a ghostly aura.
These films are full of ambition and genuine vision: Marin’s films nearly always open with striking credits montages that immediately set the atmosphere of depravity and chaos. As with the best of all low-budget successes, Marin barely seems conscious of restrictions and often experiments and goes for broke to achieve the effect he wants. The opening credits play with editing and text in a manner that forecasts the standard varied styles of late twentieth century credit sequences; even the closing maggoty corpse in a mausoleum finale of “Soul” feel like a precursor to some Fulci excesses (and Joe’s cadaver looks pretty horrible and explicitly mutilated too). He is always looking to experiment formally: there is the sudden shock in “This Night I Will Posses Your Corpse” where Coffin Joe descends into hell (for the first time) and the film lurches into sudden vibrant colour. Hell is psychedelic and full of neon colours and again it is remarkable how much hellishness Marins can conjure up with so very little: parts of bodies sticking out of walls, various other tortures and nudity going on whilst the underworld glows red, pink, blue, green, etc. Marins is never lazy.
In the manner of most sequels, “This Night I Will Posses Your Corpse” goes for bigger and adding more: Where “Soul” was almost entirely conceived, built and filmed in a small area of a hall, “Corpse” certainly opens up and reaches a broader canvass, having more confrontations set around town squares and other exteriors and not only within claustrophobic rooms and graveyards. In “Corpse”, the town and secondary characters are more of a notable sideshow: a (rather unconvincing) hunchback henchman for Ze - of course! It’s about time! - a one-eyed strong-man and, later, as if from a spaghetti western, a small gang of hired assassins. As typical of any sequel, it goes for bigger and fuller: where once he murdered his wife cruelly with a single Spider in “Soul”, in “Corpse” he torments a handful of barely clad lovelies with a whole bunch of creepy-crawlies. Later, as he seduces the winner in this dubious lottery of who he will decide earns the right to bear his progeny, he will do so as he murders the losers with snakes. Such motifs, like the themes, are both consistent and repetitive troughout Marin’s films: the inclusion of the natural world at the service of male tyranny appears again and again, touching on our fears of the least popular of creatures and also a long history of their association with the demonic. It is not the natural world that thwarts Ze.


Coffin Joe himself is quite an disturbing personification of misogyny and male arrogance, and although Marins is happy to film breasts whenever he can, the films feel more like criticism of masculinity’s malice and egotism. Similarly, Marins has suggested the films are condemnations of fascism and if one sees the Coffin Joe tales and the “Theory” episode of the anthology “The Strange World of Coffin Joe” as forerunners of Pasoloni’s “Salo”, we can see similar tricks being employed: self-indulgent and detached declarations of various theories about ‘perfection’, ‘superiority’, the death of “God” and so on, and how this leads to inhumanity, sadism, torture and slaughter. As polemics, Marin’s films may be clothed in exploitation and horror’s cheap thrills, but then so was the ostensibly more pedigreed “Salo”, and one could never doubt that Marin’s conviction or determination was any lesser than Pasolini’s.

From the colour sequence of hell from "This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse"
As Joe has all the trimming and lordliness of aristocracy, it is easy to forget that he is just a coffin maker and gravedigger. Indeed, his delusion of supremacy is not one perpetuated by class but simply of his sociopathic and psychotic disdain for all others. To him, his pre-eminence is something like a cosmic given, and undisputable fact, and this greatness, tied so closely to machismo, must be passed on to progeny. If only he can find the right and worthy woman. Any hold of affection to his one apparent friend and romances are short-lived as soon as he feels slighted. Everyone else is wrong and his narcissism knows no bounds.


Coffin Joe mocks the preternatural and he scorns both the Godly and the Satanic in equal measure; he is something far more primal and telling about man (and men). But inevitably, Coffin Joe must get his comeuppance and in both these early films, he has a born-again revelation and near redemption. It is the supernatural forces of divinity and vengeance rather than the natural world and his enemies that thwarts Ze. Is this, then, what Marins ultimately wants to say, that faith and God will prevail against corruption and cruelty? Or is this just another perversion… Coffin Joe finds God? Really? Doesn’t it feel like another black joke to close upon?


But you can’t keep a good villain down, and it seems that Coffin Joe neither truly died nor found enlightenment. No, rather he comes back as the “Embodiment of Evil” (2008), forty (!) years later, his fingernails longer than ever. A flashback to this third entry reveals that the ending of “Corpse” was only half the story, and therefore somewhat a cheat. After forty years in jail, Coffin Joe is released into civility again to shake his head at Twenty-First century children puffing glue in the streets. As soon as Ze hurls his first accusation of the inferiority of others, we know he has not been rehabilitated at all. Indeed, he pontificates about chaos, death and the universe as he ever did and it’s all wonderfully amusing. He is also an unrehabilitated misogynist and egotist, still demanding women be worthy of his seed and child. He sees a coffin and coos. When he first meets his little gang of followers - put together by his loyal hunchback in his absence - he simply asks them “What is real? (Answer: Life, and nothing else) And after life? (answer: The continuity of blood, or oblivion). What is the fate of the inferior beings? (Answer: Destruction!) It is all wonderfully ludicrous and we see that we shall be in for the same mix of ambition, invention, unintentional humour and bouts of true surrealism and horror imagery..In “Embodiment”, Marins himself now has a more weathered face and arguably age suits his old barnstorming villainy well. No, he has not changed a bit: the long nails, the cape and top hat, it’s all there. Has Ze’s/Marin’s strain of high-Gothic horror now outdated by the movement of real, streetwise horrors that have since become the currency of contemporary horror? A horror out of time in the Twentieth Century? Perhaps not: he is an early and quite unique example of the franchising of villains, certainly unforgettable, and all his eye-gouging, torture and bizarre side-characters seem totally at home in contemporary horror. Marins was quite ahead of his time and a genuine b-horror auteur. “At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul” and “This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse” was only the start of the Coffin Joe-Marins phenomenon: in Brazil, Marins has had Ze front a TV horror series and a whole host of other horror films (to be covered in following articles), and it is with these that Marins’ fascination with social decay and psychedelia really come to the fore. They also often included a post-modern depiction of horror, and one that combined both horror’s melodramatic artifice and the streetwise. Coffin Joe’s wardrobe was always out-of-place and anachronistic. In “Embodiment”, Coffin Joe may seem a relic but he takes to the new explicitness and penchant for graphic torture with revived gusto: it is as if an old Boris Karloff scoundrel learnt all he needed to about horror from the golden age of Seventies banned titles. The torture sequences and gore reach new heights and few gorehounds will be disappointed: graphic scalpings, people hung by hooks, etc., etc. And we may enjoy his excesses, but there is never the sense that Ze do Caix is to be celebrated: he is vile and poisonous and crazed. He is an argument for order and restraint in a manic universe. For all his monologues and consideration of the universe, he is wrong because his behaviour is abhorrent and deluded.

Marins pulls it all off because he believes in the medium of horror and not just one facet or the other. His reliance upon the Coffin Joe persona throughout his career has been inspired rather than tired out, always searching around what the character and his own celebrity means and represents. “Soul,” “Corpse” and “Embodiment” may be the main story arc for Coffin Joe, but between and around them Marins has been remarkably prolific and fascinating.

But there is a need to backtrack. These three films may be the main story arc for Coffin Joe, but he was busy elsewhere too. Marins has in the meantime made over 30 films and developed a television series, and so this is far from the end of the story.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Let Me In (further notes)

Firstly, I really like this promotional picture for "Let Me In". Probably better than the fingery one they finally went with. Simple, evocative and very much acting as if presenting a moment from the story that we never got to see (note the bare footprints).
Kim Newman - that funky horror critic and about as cult celeb as critics get, one side of Mark Kermode - thinks that Reeves' "Let Me In" is a better horror film than "Let The Right One In" (see his Sight and Sound review). He feels that the American version's streamlining of all the ingrediants make it more focused, which is quite the opposite conclusion that I came to. It reduces the original novel and Swedish adaptation to a far more conventional genre piece.
And slantmagazine's proposal that "Let Me In" is superior to "Let The Right One Is" is, well, just a remarkable misreading of what is conventional and what is not, and all but misses that Reeves borrows heavily from Alfredson's film when saying: "Reeves impresses his already jaded audience with stark images that reveal the story to be about impenetrability of the teenage mind, about finding a new language forged from exhausted images, and about combating inevitable world-weariness with fantastic violence and brutal romance." That is plainly wrong: go back to the original text and adaptation and it is there that you will find the transcendant images and "new language" if any. "Let Me In" is fun, but it ain't half as troubling, scathing and unique as the originals.