We all wait with anticipation or ire at the release of each new major studio horror film. We shamble out to theatres in hordes (or, more realistically to the nearest VOD option and then our couch) to check out the latest and lauded art-house styled flicks that rear their heads up from the mire of horror movies a few times a year, proving to the world at large that we aren’t just a bunch of murder obsessed weirdos. Some of us are murder obsessed weirdos with a sense of style! This year I’m going to do a series of articles (goals ARE important after all) that poke into the seedier corners of horror that don’t get explored as often as I feel they should and shed some light on the creatures that live there. Hopefully during that process I might bring some appreciation to older series’ that have fallen to the wayside on the journey to the space horror currently exists in. I figured we should kick this off with a series I’ve felt have gone criminally under-viewed by modern horror audiences for years – The Coffin Joe Trilogy.
Zé do Caixão aka Coffin Joe for those that don’t speak Portuguese, is a character sprung from the mind of Brazilian filmmaker Jose Mojica Marins that serves as an undertaker in a small unnamed town while also serving as grim a Nietzschen philosopher when the time comes, which it does, frequently. When not questioning the purpose and existence of the big G-man upstairs, Zé do Caixão spends the bulk of his movies chasing down the perfect female with which to father his child and fulfill the “continuity of the blood” that he’s always on about. I should point out that Coffin Joe’s definition of a perfect female is less focused on the physical and more about intellectual superiority, though that still doesn’t soften the blow too much. I mean, reading that in 2019 is kinda “yikes”, but these movies did start in 1963 so safe to say thoughts about a lot of things were a tad bit different back then. Let’s also not forget the big point that Coffin Joe is the bad guy of these films, despite his lovable god-hating rhetoric and our love as a community of elevating evil characters to icon status while ignoring their ill motivations (*cough* Freddy *cough*), so the bad guy doing Bad Guy Stuff™ isn’t a completely absurd concept but still maybe not the motivator 2019 watchers are expecting out of their villain. Speaking of Joe being the villain, he’s got the typical villain aesthetic down – all black everything, tightly-manicured facial hair, a ballin’ top hat and some long ass finger nails that don’t serve any real purpose other than creeping everyone the hell out. He also loves to break the fourth wall and address the audience from time to time, so what I’m trying to get across here is that we’ve really got a real forward thinker on our hands here. The addresses to the audience also give it the feel of a play at times, which I find just adds to the DIY/indie charm of these films.
The first film “At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul”, released all the way back in 1963, was Brazil’s first horror movie and introduced the world to the nihilistic and lineage obsessed funeral director and also ensured Marin’s would not be able to trim his fingernails for decades to come. After discovering that his current wife is unable to bear him children and thus grant him his desire for ”continuity of the blood” and immortality through familial lines, he discretely murders her via poisonous spider, starting the series’ constantly unsettling use of live spiders and other will-100%-kill-you-if-you-fuck-with-them animal appearances that become a trademark of the series. Once this nasty bit of business is out of the way, Coffin Joe starts pushing up on his friends fiance, doubling down on that whole scumbag persona while moving his plan along. Here’s where things take an even grimmer turn and when Joe doesn’t get what he wants, he takes it. Forcefully. Yikes again. Like I said, bad guy doing Bad Guy Stuff™ over here. Thankfully, Coffin Joe isn’t just able to act terribly without repercussions, as she curses Joe stating that she will kill herself and return as a spirit to drag him back to Hell herself. Talk about a metal as fuck revenge plan. Turns out, she wasn’t lying and hangs herself the next day, which leads pretty much everyone to start suspecting that this creepy funeral director is up to something a but untowards. Murder, eyeball gouging and ghosts eventually lead our black hearted anti-hero to the tomb of the woman he spurred on to suicide and his ultimate fate – a death scene that checks a few of the boxes for Italian death scene style appreciation. “At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul” is obviously amateurish, even for its time, and highlights technological disparities between the movies being produced in Brazil versus elsewhere but I feel this DIY feeling only helps to add to the originality and freshness of the ideas being presented. The title cards that are obviously hand-made (complete with glitter glue!), the obviously constructed out of scraps forest, that foam skull the “gypsy” wields all serve as constant reminders that we are watching the vision of a small but focused group of people dedicated to making this movie happen.
The sequel to “At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul”, the equally long winded but ready for grindhouse marquee’s titled “This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse” followed a short four years later and revealed that Coffin Joe was in fact, not dead and ready to continue his pursuit of lineage. For a bunch of people who had only just introduced horror to their country, they sure got sequelitis figured out quickly, didn’t they? Anyways, turns out Coffin Joe didn’t die like we all thought in the last movie and was just temporarily blinded (again, horror tropes gonna trope where ever you happen to be in the world), a condition that he’s since recovered from once the sequel begins. Because the Sixties was apparently a time when you could be linked to half a dozen suspicious murders and suicides and be absolved of any guilt, Coffin Joe is back on his bullshit trying to find the “perfect” woman with which to have his child with. This time around, the ante is officially upped and Coffin Joe decides to put his potential future wives (six this time) through a series of trials meant to test their worthiness for bearing his child. Only one woman survives and the others are put to death by poisonous snake, continuing the tradition started in the first of the use of deadly local fauna as method of death. Unsurprisingly, this does not get the surviving lady in the mood to do the nasty with Zé do Caixão, so he lets her go telling her that he know she won’t report what happened to the police. Yikes time three. This is all very familiar. Following some more incidents involving local ladies and untoward behaviour, Coffin Joe finds out that one of the women he put to death was pregnant. Turns out killing a child is a big no no for Joe and he is wracked with nightmares of a trip to Hell, rendered here in full color against the black and white of the rest of the film to make the scene seem more otherworldly. Admittedly the movie peaks once we visit Technicolor Hell (I mean, how could it not?), and as a result the third act of the film is largely forgettable. The most notable thing about it is expected Coffin Joe’s death scene, this time taking place in a fetid pond that he sinks into after being shot by a mob. Suitably, skeletons rise to the surface as our villain sinks below the surface, presumably towards Hell but there might be a stop at an esthetician to tidy up those nails on the way down. Gotta look good for Old Scratch right?
It would be many a decade before the saga of Coffin Joe was completed officially with “Embodiment of Evil” being released in 2008, but during that time Coffin Joe became something of a cultural icon akin to Freddy Krueger was in North America. He never went away, he just became less of a monster and more of guide as he appeared in anthology films such as “Awakening of the Beast” or in disconnected stand alones such as ”The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe” and “The Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasure” .Sometimes he doesn’t even show up and his name is just used to get asses in seats like with “The Strange World of Coffin Joe” that goes so far as to feature him prominently on the poster.
The final film in the official trilogy “Embodiment of Evil” finds our pal Coffin Joe alive and well, despite the fact that we watched him sink into a pond, shot in chest at the end of “At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul” and ready to be released from prison for his crimes. As not to disappoint he’s back up to his old tricks aka finding the perfect woman to have a child with pretty much the moment he steps foot outside the prison gates. The memorable Hell sequence from the previous film is expanded upon at one point in this outing, as Coffin Joe visits what appears to be a purgatory maze filled with tortured souls harming themselves and each other(who upon closer inspection are clearly local punks and body mod weirdos) against a landscape so colourful it might make your eyes bleed. He also fully slices off a woman’s butt cheek in this one so that’s something to write home about for sure. Marin really went to town with the final instalment of the trilogy, giving us not only an expanded purgatory maze but also scattering bizarre imagery throughout that likely weren’t feasible back when the original movies were filmed. While it doesn’t pack the nihilistic punch that the previous films did this is more than a worthy conclusion to the decades long tale of Zé do Caixão.
Hopefully I’ve at least sparked your interest in Coffin Joe enough to search out the films for the first time if you’ve never seen them or to revisit them if you have. They can be troublesome to come by physically, but there are a couple DVD sets that have been released over the years, most recently from Synapse Films.
You can find Scott on twitter thinking up ways to avoid deadly spiders and snakes.
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