In 1964, José Mojica Marins created the first Brazilian horror film with At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (À Meia Noite Leverai sua Alma). In doing so, he simultaneously created one of the greatest horror film icons, Zé do Caixão (the familiar of “José of the Coffins; or, in the English equivalent, Coffin Joe).
Joe (the character’s full name is Josefel Zanatas, the last name containing Satan in reverse), played by Marins, is an undertaker in a small Brazilian town. He’s openly dismissive of religion (shown eating lamb and laughing at the faithful on Good Friday), contemptuous of weakness (he sees all of his other villagers as weak; when he injures a man in a bar fight who dares to stand up to him, though, he pays for his hospital bills), possesses claw-like fingernails and an obsession with continuing his bloodline with the perfect woman. When his wife is unable to bear him a child, he kills her and seeks a more suitable mate. Those who do not meet his standards (which is pretty much everyone who dares cross his path) die.
This plotline is carried through all three of the films in the “Coffin Joe Trilogy” — the aforementioned first film, 1967’s This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver) and 2008’s Embodiment of Evil (Encarnação do Demônio). None of these films are for the faint of heart: their minuscule budgets are overcome by mind-bendingly surreal imagery and extreme violence. But they became such a sensation that Coffin Joe (and director Marins) became ever-present figures in Brazilian popular culture, showing up in comic books, TV programs, toy stores and in music from artists as diverse as Os Mutantes and Sepultura.
Besides the films in the trilogy, though, Coffin Joe makes appearances in other entries in José Mojica Marins’ filmography. 1970’s Awakening of the Beast shows Coffin Joe in a hallucinatory realm (and makes reference to the character’s pop culture status). 1974’s The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe posits Marins vs. his creation as Joe is used as an avatar of Satan himself. 1978’s Hallucinations in a Deranged Mind is a clip movie, showing scenes deleted or censored from other Coffin Joe movies, depicted as one man’s nightmares. More questionable are two other movies of Marins’. 1976’s Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures features a nameless hotelier who rises from a coffin and resembles Joe. More convincingly close to Coffin Joe is Professor Oãxiac Odéz (Zé do Caixão) in The Strange World of Coffin Joe. This anthology contains the short Theory, in which the professor kidnaps and tortures a rival professor and his wife in order to demonstrate that savage animal instinct is stronger than rational thought and emotion.
Many of Marins’ films are hard to get hold of, but if you can, immerse yourself in these brutally inventive and diabolical works.