I just learned Coffin Joe (José Mojica Marins) has passed away at the age of 83. This is a column I wrote for a magazine called BABY BOOMER COLLECTIBLES back in 1994. Back when Bob Dole was the scariest politician worth citing. More innocent times, to be sure.
What is scary?
I don’t mean merely frightening or suspenseful. In this modern world—equipped with gun-toting pre-teens, genocide in European countries, the threat of sudden joblessness and homelessness, freak-of-nature floods, and Sen. Bob Dole—it takes more than a little chainsaw massacre to jolt our jaded senses.
When I was growing up it was the freak show that scared me more than anything else. Even now, a trip to the State Fair isn’t complete until I walk down the midway and stare at the luridly painted tarps; “Mistake of Nature! The Four-Headed Man of Peru!” “Do You Dare to Witness the HALF-SPIDER, HALF-WOMAN?!?!” That was scary.
I have never in my life been inside a freak show tent. The true entertainment for me was outside, illustrated on canvas and blaring from loudspeakers. We‘re all quite aware of the trickery afoot, but the thing that scares and fascinates me is the absolute purity of intent involved. These folks want so badly to scare you that they don’t hesitate a second before deciding that, yes, a horrible car accident did occur twenty years ago that left this here head torn from its body—yet still living and talking, folks! And let’s remember that the carnies make their living from your fascination, so they’re more than ready to go that extra mile to ensure some sense of realism. It’s not inconceivable that they signed some form of “sideshow body donor cards” for the good of the troupe. Semper fi.
Now that’s scary.
Thanks to the efforts of Mike Vraney at Something Weird Video, I recently experienced that same sense of slack-jawed fear and fascination while watching with wide-eyed wonder the collected works of the Brazilian filmmaker José Mojica Marins, a.k.a. “Zé do Caixão,” a.k.a. “Joe the Grave,” a.k.a. Coffin Joe.
Vraney is a cult-film archeologist who knows strangeness. If you’ve been itching to add Lust Weekend, Thigh Spy, The Acid Eaters or Secrets of a Door to Door Salesman to your collection, you need only pick up his Something Weird Video catalog. Vraney’s vocation is the preservation of “exploitation” and “sexploitation” films and loops produced in the pre-hardcore 1948-1971 era, and it‘s that unwavering dedication to celluloid sideshow attractions that moved Brazilian writer Andre Barcinski to bring the work of Coffin Joe to Vraney’s attention. After some negotiation, Something Weird Video wrapped up a licensing deal that makes it possible for unsuspecting Americans to bring Coffin Joe home via the release of nine videos. Shudder.
Watching a José Mojica Marins movie is unlike anything you’ve ever done before. Blurring the line between reality and fantasy, Marins himself plays the top-hatted character Zé do Caixão (Coffin Joe), appearing in every film as a combination Crypt Keeper, devil’s messenger, soul-stealer, existential philosopher, and boogie man. In most of Marins’ films, Coffin Joe is on a bloody quest for the perfect female who can produce for him the perfect son. With trademark bushy beard and outrageously long fingernails, there’s every reason to believe that Marins and Coffin Joe are one and the same; in fact, due to the fact that the Brazilian government of the 60’s banned his films, Marins traveled the South American countryside and exhibited the flicks in tents. To his countrymen, he was Coffin Joe.
The movies are twisted products of an unschooled filmmaker completely without pretense or subtlety. Unrelenting images of sadism and creative cruelty parade by, often in a sort of non-linear visual tone-poem manner that pulls you “inside the freak show tent,” so to speak. Marins employs a very amateur acting troupe that is selected more for the courage of its members than anything else (rumor has it that casting calls would involve spider-eating and rat-handling “tests”), and switches from color to black and white stock as his finances allow (the film At Midnight I‘ll Take Your Soul is all black and white until the awe-inspiring descent-into-hell sequence; Marins could only afford a few cans of color negative). Dealing with shoestring budgets, monsters are constructed from whatever‘s handy; crimson-soaked dough makes for a fleshy sight, and creatively painted buttocks become demons under the right conditions. And of course, live animals and reptiles were used whenever the script called for them.
Even the unavoidable technical shortcomings of these videos—the clumsy subtitles, off-the-meter sound spikes, crackling film-to-video transfer—add to the surreality of the experience. The viewer is spared nothing; dozens of large spiders crawl over the naked bodies of brave “actresses,” heads are crushed by giant stones, blood is quaffed, flesh is eaten, tongues are extracted from screaming mouths. Heck, the soundtracks to these movies alone are enough to freak you straight into the fetal position. Disturbing, to say the least.
For a “package tour” of the Coffin Joe experience, try Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind. Marins uses this particular film to re-use the most outrageous of his footage, which includes in-your-face flesh munching, the creative co-mingling of live rodents and breasts, and a very authentic blood-letting sequence. To completely obscure any boundary between fantasy and reality, the storyline manages to incorporate Marins in the role of Zé do Caixão (Coffin Joe) as well as that of himself, José Mojica Marins the horror movie producer (he pulls this same trick in Ritual of the Manics). Is it any wonder that folks in Marins’ home city of Sãn Paulo, where he lives with his third wife and 23 children (!), tend to cross the street when they see him coming?
That’s not to say he doesn’t command respect. “Once I needed a skull for a movie, so I called a local morgue and asked the guy there if he could lend me an old one for a couple of days,” Marins recalled in an interview for Fangoria magazine. “He was a big fan of mine and said, ‘Mr. Mojica, I will give you a nice surprise!’ Half an hour later a car pulled up in front of my studio, bringing five fresh corpses!”
Willing to go that extra mile. Shudder.
Marins’ work is enjoying newfound cult status here in America, and he’s the featured guest of many film and sci-fi expos. Perhaps there’s a convention in your hometown. Maybe he’s there right now, buying a Slurpee at the corner 7-Eleven. Maybe he’s in the back yard at this very moment...
Now that’s scary.
Mike Vraney passed away in 2014.