The Saga of Coffin Joe: Part I

Most horror fans probably haven’t heard of Coffin Joe, a character created by Brazilian filmmaker & horror pioneer José Mojica Marins, largely because not a lot of films from South America tend to get distribution wide, and if they do materialize in territories such as Region 1 land, they have to struggle to get digital and physical shelf exposure.

It also doesn’t help that the original label (Fantoma) which carried two of the three proper Coffin Joe films, went under, and extant DVDs from Brazil and Europe use poor if not mediocre source materials.

The first film, for example, At Night I’ll Take Your Soul (1964), is available in what can best be described as Bullshit Stereo 2.0, and it’s a disaster. The only source for the original scratchy but intelligible mono mix are the out-of-print Fantoma and still-in-print Australian versions. It’s a classic case, not unlike Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace (1964), where there still isn’t a decent transfer made from the best elements available to the broadest spectrum of the home video market.

Note awesome artwork by Rue Morgue's Gary Pullin.

The second film, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967), sounds even worse in Bullshit 2.0, and it’s maddening that the most accessible and value-added set of Marins’ work from Anchor Bay U.K. features these terrible transfers.

Most likely the reason the 9 film, 5 disc box set is selling for under 10 Pounds Sterling on is due to a rejection of the set by the franchise’s key fan base.

The blame lies in the hands of the owners who authorized bad transfers, not the labels who licensed them because they simply wanted to get the movies back in circulation.

There’s a reason to complain, because scenes from the first two Coffin Joe films were intercut in select montages in the third and final installment of the trilogy, Embodiment of Evil (2008), and the clips look gorgeous. If the success of Part III can happen over the Blu-ray platform, then perhaps it’ll poke the owners to do what’s right, and not only release new HD transfers of the films, but add the generous extras from the 2002 Brazilian box set, each featuring multi-lingual translations.

Make one set available for all markets so Marins’ body of work gets the recognition it deserves.

So who is Coffin Joe?

He’s an arrogant, sadistic undertaker who abuses townspeople with absolute impunity. He’s funny, rabidly anti-religious, and thumbs his nose at the spirits of the people he killed or maimed. He also wants to be a daddy, and when resuscitated for the second film, the character was reshaped into a hellion determined to father a son who will begin a reign of terror (when he’s all grown-up, of course).

Joe’s also a sexist pig, so you have to wonder what the sonofabitch would do if the doctors handed him a baby daughter. He tests the women snatches from streets as potential mothers using a mass of tarantulas, snakes, facial disfigurement, and atrocious bedside manners.

The reason the character is so fascinating lies in the glee with which he accomplishes outrageous cruelties, and Marins’ directing style, which harkens back to the Universal monster movies of the forties and fifties, but adds a visual flair reminiscent of Mario Bava, surreal episodes recalling Alejandro Jodorowsky, and graphic violence found in some of Fernando Arrabal’s most vicious work.

Coffin Joe isn’t for all tastes, but the first film remains the best because it’s a complete portrait of a monster who gets his comeuppance… and like a classic Universal Frankenstein sequel, comes back in spite of seriously physical trauma.

I’ve reviewed the first two films, At Night I’ll Take Your Soul [M] and This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse [M], and compare the 2007 Anchor Bay and 2001 Fantoma editions, including extras.

In Part II of this series, I’ll examine the subsequent films in which Marins’ malicious character appeared in lesser (and sometimes impressionistic) roles.

"For you, I think you need some snuggle time in my porcine sleepsack!'

Also uploaded is a review of Embodiment of Evil [M], in which the character is released from prison after 40 years, and falls straight into his old groove, using more modern methods of physical trauma.

It’s a mixed bag only because it will divide fans wanting the classical aspects from the original films, and those delighted that the gore – some real – is up to flesh-tearing contemporary standards.

Synapse’s Blu-ray + DVD combo edition looks and sounds great.

Coming soon: tales of the Greek immigration experience, as dramatized in Elia Kazan’s masterwork America America (1963), and William Kyriakis and Radley Metzger’s Dark Odyssey (1961).

Seriously. There’s a strong thematic connection between the two films, and I’ll prove it.

Mark R. Hasan, Editor


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