The first Brazilian horror movie, and it’s not a wax job put on film either. “Coffin Joe” is the nickname horror fans have given the top hat and cape-wearing undertaker who stars in this film and a dozen others– vilely performing acts of violence, murder and worse yet, unabashed atheism– before he gets his comeuppance from God and/or the spirits of the dead. He possesses piercing eyes that turn bloodshot right before he commits some fiendish act, and unwholesomely long fingernails that are good for poking someone’s eyes out in a pinch. He is actually named Zé do Caixão, but to conserve accent marks I will call him “Coffin Joe” like his fans do.
He’s sort of the Freddy Krueger of Brazil, an evil and murderous rogue who is yet somehow likeable and enjoyable to watch on screen as he commits his nefarious deeds. His cavalier attitude toward the superstitions and religious beliefs of his fellow villagers is also entertaining. The movie begins with him demanding meat for dinner on a Friday– he actually says “Where’s the Beef?” Later he’s gambling at the tavern and he chops a guy’s fingers off with a broken bottle when he won’t give up the pot.
Coffin Joe’s obsession is “the continuity of the blood,” and he wants to make a child with the perfect woman. Problem is, his wife ain’t perfect. So he kills her by tying her up and letting a poisonous spider bite her. This baffles the authorities, so he is left to pursue Terezhina, who just happens to be engaged to his best friend. Sorry Antonio, you gotta go. When they go to see a witch to have their fortune told, she predicts that tragedy will befall their marriage, and Joe is happy to force the hand of fate. He invites Tony over and knocks him out, and drowns him in the bathtub.
Then he hooks up with the perfect woman, but of course she rebuffs his advances. That’s no obstacle for old Coffin Joe. He just beats her around and has his way with her. She commits suicide so he can’t have his perfect child, but doesn’t incriminate him in her note. So he’s still walking around free, wooing the village women and beating and whipping men who defend them. One even gets a small crown of thorns stuck in his face, the ultimate sacrilege.
When the town doctor writes a report that may implicate him in the village’s recent spate of tragedies, he puts his nails to good use and pokes the man’s eyes out in delightfully gruesome fashion.
As the Day of the Dead approaches, the witch woman repeats her warning that Joe will pay for all his evil works. Instead of repenting, Joe stays up all night mocking God during a thunderstorm, demanding that he prove his existence.
Well, you don’t mess around on the Day of the Dead, even if you’re Coffin Joe. As he walks to the crossroads by the graveyard, the words of the witch come to haunt him, as he encounters sign after sign that her imprecations are coming true. Finally he sees the Procession of the Dead: Antonio and his wife return for vengeance. But is it real or in his mind? He flees the ghostly apparitions and finds himself in their burial crypt, driven mad with terror. In the morning the villagers find him sprawled at the crypt, his crazy bloodshot eyes wide open.
Like the old folk tales of Stagger Lee and other badmen who get their comeuppance, it’s a cautionary tale justifying our belief that justice will be meted out in this world or the next. José Mojica Marins plays the role with relish; no one else wanted the part, so he directed and starred in it. He’d eventually grow his nails out and become the boogeyman of Brazil, playing Joe or directing 11 other films involving the unrepentant evildoer.
He’s making another Coffin Joe movie called The Incarnation of the Devil that should be out this year. The original movie has cheap effects, but doesn’t come off cheesy because he films it like it’s a silent film, with a lot of expression in the actors, and it’s all taken very seriously and without camp. It’s still funny at times, intentionally and not. The sequel This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse is on the DVR, and I’m told he goes to Hell in that one. If you like old horror movies, this is a must. If not, it’s still entertaining, and I imagine it is projected on the brick walls of hipster bars wherever Pabst Blue Ribbon is ironically served. With a shot of Curaçao, or better yet a caipirinha.
What is life? It is the beginning of death. What is death? It is the end of life! What is existence? It is the continuity of blood. What is blood? It is the reason to exist!
The original Brazilian movie poster.