Looking back at the creator of Brazil’s iconic horror movie villain.
Brazilian actor José Mojica Marins, who died yesterday, is Brazil’s most famous horror star – not, admittedly, an especially gran achievement in itself given the lack of rivals. But Marins, as his creation Coffin Joe – actual name Zé do Caixão – became an icon of international horror cinema with a pair of films in the early Sixties, and then made appearances in some seven other films, numerous TV shows and across popular culture.
A sinister, if dapper undertaker with a top hat, cape, beard and long fingernails, Coffin Joe was an immediately iconic character – the very height of sinister sophistication, as he plotted against his wife and best friend, while lusting after said friend’s fiancee in At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, the 1964 debut of the character. Coffin Joe was an interesting twist on the mad doctor and arrogant aristocrat trope, a man who believed in his own intellectual superiority and was invariably brought down by his plans to breed with the ‘perfect woman’, but the character proved so popular in Brazil that he quickly transcended the original two films in the series (This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse being a direct sequel to the first movie) to become a pop-culture figure that could appear in various guises in increasingly weird, gory and erotic movies, be it as the host introducing short stories in The Strange World of Coffin Joe, the owner of a haunted house in The Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures or a figure haunting his own creator in The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe. From 1967 to 1988, Marins hosted Além, Muito Além do Além (Beyond, Far Beyond the Beyond) as Coffin Joe, introducing short horror stories, and more bizarrely, he would also host a show – again in character – in which he interviewed various film and music stars. Imagine a chat show in which Christopher Lee was interviewing leading stars of the day as Dracula, and you can see how weird this is.
Coffin Joe would also appear in comic books, and was very much a household name and national treasure in Brazil, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that he began to make an impact internationally – the films had only had the most sporadic releases outside South America, and the oddly parochial horror press in Britain and America made little mention of his existence. Coverage in the influential Aurum Encyclopedia of Horror, the burgeoning fanzine scene and the growing grey market for obscure VHS titles in the USA finally brought his films to wider attention – fans determined to see the weirdest films out there eagerly sought out the Coffin Joe titles, spurred on by wild titles like Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind – I mean, who wouldn’t want to see that?
Coffin Joe was finally given the international recognition that he deserved, with the films finally emerging in new, restored versions for an audience that had previously only been able to enjoy them in compromised, quasi-legal versions. In 2008, the original films saw a direct sequel in Embodiment of Evil, bringing Coffin Joe back for a new generation.
It’s fair to say that Coffin Joe dominated Marins’ career, though there is no suggestion that he resented it. And while the character is still something of a niche one – unknown outside Brazil to all but the most adventurous horror fans – he remains one of the most unusual and entertaining characters that the genre has birthed. Long live Zé do Caixão!