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Coffin Joe: Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind

There are many magnificent mavericks in the history of cinema, but there is only one José Mojica Marins. When this eccentric enthusiast from Brazil conceived his country’s first designated horror movie, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, in 1964, he not only captured the imagination of the people and provoked the wrath of the censors — Marins also created a hallucinatory, highly personal world that has remained one of the few sui generis zones of filmmaking. The hub of this deranged yet compelling cosmos is a character who instantly became a controversial national hero and, a few decades later, an international icon of psychotronic movie cults: Zé do Caixão (rechristened “Coffin Joe” for export), a blasphemous gravedigger capable of any crime in the name of his goal — to find a woman worthy of conceiving his superior son — yet also some kind of warped rebel in hyperbolic defiance of the hypocritical powers that be. Capitalizing on the success of his creation to the point of convergence, Marins adapted Zé’s distinctive look — black cape, top hat and trademark long fingernails — and used the macabre moniker to brand popular comic anthologies, perfume, a Volkswagen, even to mount a 1982 political campaign! No less weird and fascinating is the autodidactic arte povera style he developed in proximity to emerging Brazilian filmmakers like Glauber Rocha — an eclectic, expressionist mix of outrageous plots and transgressive images thriving more on Nietzschean philosophy and Artaudian theater of cruelty than on ubiquitous shock value.

Cinefamily’s monthlong tribute to this unique figure offers a helpful introduction via the amusing documentary Damned: The Strange World of José Mojica Marins(2001), showing on an October 16 triple bill with The Strange World of Coffin Joe(1968), whose episodes are the filmic equivalent of the Zé horror comics, and Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures(1976), a trash extravaganza from Marins’ more difficult second period of diminishing funds and returns (climaxing, as chronicled in Damned, with less auspicious genre pioneering in the animal-sex department). Part of Marins’ problem was a censorship ban of Zé movies after the gravedigger’s second succès de scandale, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967), though Marins retaliated with Awakening of the Beast(1970), a metamasterpiece that ingeniously riffs on the calculated confusion of Marins and his screen persona, while postulating that he alone rules the country’s subconscious — proved by LSD experiments! Awakening screens on October 23 with another psychedelic treat, Finis Hominis (End of Man, 1971), which ironically inverts the Coffin Joe character, as Marins plays a silent, messianic savior. But Marins’ eerily poetic voice is back loud and clear from the incantatory opening lines of his unexpected, still-trenchant comeback, Embodiment of Evil (2008), a 40-years-late finish to the Coffin Joe trilogy. Returning from four decades of prison, Zé regroups to the slums and conducts unspeakable experiments on female candidates while battling corrupt cops and vengeful priests. Appropriately, this triumphant resurrection of frenzied midnight-movie surrealism screens on an October 30 double bill with the crazy censored-outtakes orgy Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind(1978). Both movies deliver on their titular promises. In spades. (Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre; Fridays at 8 p.m., through Oct. 30. cinefamily.org)


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