Embodiment of Evil: Coffin Joe Returns after 40 Years
Jose Mojica Marins created Ze do Caixao (Jose of the Grave), known to English speakers as Coffin Joe, in 1963 with At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. This bizarre figure, a darkly fascinating mix of Dracula, demon, and Nietzschean superman who became kind of horror folk hero in his native Brazil, appeared in a number of films through 1979 but was the protagonist of only two films: Midnight and This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967).
Embodiment of Evil (2008) is Marins’ belated conclusion of what is being called the “Coffin Joe Trilogy,” following the mad killer as he’s freed from the psych ward of a high security prison after serving 40 years. Now he’s also the dark priest of a Manson-like cult and, aided by hunchback assistant Bruno (Rui Resende), he picks up where he left off, looking for a perfect woman to bear his child. Taking up residence ostensibly in a favela on the outskirts of Rio (which looks more like an inner-city slum than the honeycombed hills of shacks and stairs of the crime-infested favelas seen in City of God), the film at first looks like he’s going to go all Walking Tall as he stands up to both the gangsters and the corrupt cops of his new home. But soon enough he’s back to spreading his terror and torture to anyone in his orbit. Coffin Joe is indeed an equal opportunity predator.
Imagine Aleister Crowley by way of the Marquis de Sade with a theatrical flamboyance, a voracious blasphemer in a Catholic culture who torments and tortures women (both willing and unwilling) ostensibly to test their worthiness to bear his spawn but probably more because he’s just a sick SOB. He sews one woman up in a corpse of a pig, feeds another a raw steak sliced off her own naked flank which she devours eagerly (that may just be a drug-induced hallucination, but then you could say that about the whole film) and sews their eyes and mouths shut. And those are the members of his cabal. His enemies he hangs from flesh-piercing hooks and skins alive.
The original Coffin Joe films were a triumph of shock value and lurid imagery. He offered a blaspheming anti-hero in a Catholic country and he directed with primitive, primal ferocity and, later, psychedelic delirium. Embodiment of Evil is more like surreal Coffin Joe torture porn, with sadism, cannibalism, crucifixion, necrophilia and a 70-something old man with twisted fingernails and a wild-man beard inspiring women to take off their clothes and beg him for sex. Sort of like Hugh Hefner as a demonic cult leader.
Marins was over 70 years old when he directed and starred in Embodiment and he’s no longer the fierce screen presence nor the creatively unleashed primitive mythmaker behind the camera. Once a force of pure id in carny clothes, he’s now more of an elder statesman walking though the part, though he still rouses himself to toss his head back and cackle to the heavens over his villainy like the old days.
I prefer his 1969 meta-horror Awakening Of The Beast, a New Wave/Cinema Novo influenced, banned-in-Brazil look into youth culture, drugs, sex, and the iconographic power of Coffin Joe (who by then was the star of a comic book series and had pop songs written about him, one of which is used in the movie). Marins stars as both himself and his cinematic alter-ego Coffin Joe, here a Freddy Krueger-like dream figure who dominates the acid-laced visions of four subjects of an LSD experiment. Shot on donated film and starring fellow directors and Brazilian stars donating their time, it’s perverse and hilarious and demented, with a hallucinogenic drug scene in hyper-color that would make Dario Argento jealous and an ingenious self-reflexivity.
Embodiment of Evil doesn’t have that crazed style or cinematic energy but it is oddly fascinating, and not simply for the sadistic spectacle. As Joe resumes his campaign of terror and torture, he’s haunted by the ghosts of his past, specters who seem to have escaped from the black and white film clips of the first two films interspersed throughout: monochrome phantoms in a color world. It’s the most creative idea Marins has for this new production and it toys with the theme that Coffin Joe could possibly feel guilt and regret for his actions (which would make his continued crimes against humanity a challenge to what’s left of his own humanity) or has finally attracted the attention of the God he willfully affronts with his every action. It makes his fight to the death with a morally dubious but righteously vengeful warrior priest, who is armed with a crucifix that transforms into a deadly spear, all the more interesting. Coffin Joe is both the demon assaulted by the Christian warrior, and the dark messiah crucified by the corrupt forces of repression and conformity.
Synapse releases the film in a Blu-ray+DVD Combo Pack with a fresh transfer (from a print sporting a 20th Century Fox logo, which was a partner in the production but apparently passed on releasing this gleefully blasphemous production stateside) and it is a lovingly-produced edition; the clarity of the Blu-ray is superb. It is in Portuguese with English subtitles, with Dolby Digital 5.1 on the DVD and DTS-HD MA 5.1 on the Blu-ray.