[Fantasia 2020 Retrospective] Paying Tribute To The Boogeyman of Brazil José Mojica Marins

Earlier this year, in February, the horror community lost an icon. Filmmaker José Mojica Marins, known for his macabre character Coffin Joe (Zé do Caixão in Portuguese) passed away at the age of 83. Back in the 1960s, Marins had aspired to be the Vincent Price of Brazil, and he went on to spawn a long filmography, as well as comic books and TV shows. Mojica’s work was revered around the world, but in his own country, he was targeted and stifled by the government, and never gained the fame and recognition he deserved. It’s thanks to a new generation of horror fanatics that he was able to travel the world in his later years, attending film festivals. He had been invited to Fantasia twice in the past, so the curators of Fantasia thought it would be appropriate to pay tribute to his memory during its 2020 virtual edition.

If you’re not familiar with Coffin Joe, here’s a quick introduction. Coffin Joe works as an undertaker, dressed in a top hat and a black cape. The freakiest part about him is his long fingernails, which Marins grew himself, keeping them long for 40 years, to the point where they would curl. Coffin Joe is a nihilist, and often mocks religious customs. Yet, he is obsessed with carrying on his legacy through procreation. To achieve this, he kidnaps women, tortures them and attempts to impregnate them. Today, Mojica’s movies might be considered campy, but back in the day, his work really disturbed people. The government censors were disgusted by Coffin Joe’s sadism, which was ironic because the military dictatorship they represented was notorious for kidnapping and torturing its own civilians. Marins had planned on making a trilogy as Coffin Joe, but he was prevented from making a third installment, until almost fifty years later.

 

“The government censors were disgusted by Coffin Joe’s sadism, which was ironic because the military dictatorship they represented was notorious for kidnapping and torturing its own civilians.”

 

My discovery of Coffin Joe happened a bit over ten years ago, when I was a budding horror fiend. I had come across an interview with Mojica in Vice Magazine, around the time Embodiment of Evil (2008) was released. In the article, Mojica talked about subjecting his actors to “courage tests,” which involved covering them with live spiders or snakes, burying them alive, or waving an unloaded gun in their face, just to see if they were brave enough to be part of his film. Several weeks later, I was at a friend’s house, watching back-to-back movies on the Scream channel (now known as Dusk). My friend had passed out cold, but I decided to stay up a bit longer, and that’s when I caught a showing of This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967), the second installment in the Coffin Joe trilogy. I remembered being particularly entranced by the scene of Coffin Joe being dragged down to Hell. It becomes this Wizard of Oz moment, switching from black-and-white to giallo technicolor. His character stuck with me, and one Halloween, I even dressed up as Coffin Joe, sticking out like a sore long-nailed thumb at a punk show.

For its Retro section, Fantasia curated three of Marins’ films: At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964); the first of the Coffin Joe series, The Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968); a horror anthology with Coffin Joe as the Cryptkeeper, and The End of Man (1971); an avant-garde film with Mojica in the lead role. Marins also makes a brief appearance in Ivan, The terrible, a documentary about Brazilian Z-grade filmmaker Ivan Cardosa, who was a friend of Mojica’s. In the doc, Mojica is seen casually wearing his cape and top hat out in the streets of São Paulo.

 

 

It’s funny because even when Mojica appears in a role that isn’t Coffin Joe, he’s still very much the same character, throughout his films. He keeps his beard, unibrow and his long fingernails. In the final story from The Strange World of Coffin Joe, Marins plays a professor studying the merits of sadomasochism. He tortures his subjects in similar ways to how Coffin Joe would torment his potential wives. The End of Man is one of Marins’ first movies completely in color. In it, Mojica plays Finis Hominis, a mysterious man who washes up on the shores of a village, naked. He captures the curiosity of the community, who soon see him as a messiah figure. Although he wore brightly colored clothing in the film, Mojica still had these long philosophical monologues, similar to Coffin Joe’s, minus the dreariness.

To truly pay tribute to the horror legend, Fantasia’s Mitch Davis hosted a talk with Dennison Ramalho, director of The Nightshifter. Ramalho talked about meeting Mojica, and how they came together to make the long-awaited third Coffin Joe movie Embodiment of Evil. In the mid-90s, Marins was visited by the Ramones, the Cramps and Rob Zombie, and his spoken word appeared in Sepultura albums, yet, as Ramalho recounted, they had to jump through many hoops to secure funding for his final feature. Ramalho shared behind-the-scenes pictures, posters and comic books during the live-streamed chat. Near the end of the talk, Ramalho became teary-eyed, remembering seeing his friend in his declining health. He shared videos of Marins’ funeral, prompting tears from Davis as well.

 

“José Mojica Marins put Brazil on the map for the global horror community […] But once again, Brazilian cinema is in danger of being crushed by yet another authoritarian government”

 

José Mojica Marins put Brazil on the map for the global horror community. Without him, the Fantaspoa Film Festival might not exist, nor would modern horror films like The Nightshifter, The Cannibal Club or Skull: the Mask. But once again, Brazilian cinema is in danger of being crushed by yet another authoritarian government who views all forms of art as subversive, and therefore, a threat to their power. When asked if the character of Coffin Joe could live on despite Marins’ passing, Ramalho shook his head, saying Coffin Joe wouldn’t work in today’s ethical age. Plus, he’s not like Freddy Kruger or Jason Voorhees. No other person could portray Coffin Joe. “Mojica holds a very unique place in the history of cinema. I have never heard about a character and a creator who were so intertwined,” Ramalho explained, “This legacy shouldn’t be tampered with.

Are you a Coffin Joe fan? Has he dragged your soul to hell? Let us on Twitter, in the official Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club, and be sure to check out all of our Fantasia 2020 coverage HERE

 



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