The Strange World of Coffin Joe
I guess it was inevitable during this travelogue of foreign movies that I’d come across one I didn’t like. Understand, I’m trying to find more than just straight dramas. I’ve also been looking for films in other genres, so when I discovered this Brazilian horror anthology, I knew I had to include it, even if there are better classic Brazilian films out there. But we can learn from the crappy movies too, right?
Jose Mojica Marins died back in February. He was the director and star of the film and creator of the “Coffin Joe” character, who appeared in ten films, three TV shows and various other pop culture detritus and is as big in Brazil as Jason and Freddy are to Americans. JMM played Coffin Joe in the majority of the films.
Coffin Joe’s first appearance was in the 1964 film At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, which JMM also co-wrote and starred in. It’s a heartwarming tale of an undertaker looking for the “perfect woman” to bear the perfect child (shades of Rosemary’s Baby), but rather than take out an ad on Match.com, he does things like kidnap his best friend’s wife and pick up chicks on holidays. It was the beginning of Brazilian horror cinema. Here’s a piece from 2017 on modern Brazilian horror.
The Strange World of Coffin Joe is an anthology hosted by Coffin Joe; he appears in the beginning spouting some pseudo-mystical gobbledygook meant to sound scary. There are three stories: one about a doll maker and his daughters who are terrorized by some hoodlums; one about a seller of balloons who stalks some random girl; and one about some wacko professor (played by JMM) who tortures a couple to prove his theories about the true nature of love.
Since it’s an anthology, comparisons spring to mind immediately of Creepshow, Trilogy of Terror, Tales From the Crypt, Twilight Zone The Movie, etc., all of which came later, of course, and had much bigger budgets. The third story is perhaps the “best,” in that it’s the goriest: a Grand Guignol of Biblical allusions, cannibalism and sadism. For 1968, I suppose this particular story is way out there, as disturbing as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left, The Exorcist and other early gore-fests, and y’know, kudos to JMM for pushing the boundaries...
...but I didn’t see why I should care about any of it. The first story was laughably predictable (though I’ll concede it may not have been that way in 1968) and the second was dull and dragged on too long. The women in all three stories were passive and flat in character, the editing was choppy, the acting amateurish and the stories were less than compelling.
I don’t know if Strange World is characteristic of the Coffin Joe films in general, but I suspect it is. A low budget is no excuse for a bad story—George Romero did so much with so little. Still, JMM clearly is an important figure in Brazilian cinema, so he must’ve done something right.
UPDATE 5.25.20: As you might expect, Le has thoughts on this: “Although I’m not very familiar with his work, I can say Coffin Joe is the equivalent of Ed Wood. He did trash films, but did what he loved (no wonder he took nearly 40 years to finish his trilogy, due to censorship and budget issues) and he also embraced the trash persona, appearing in costume in several events.”