I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Strange Magick of Coffin Joe

by A Wolfe
March 16, 2016

When Something Weird released José Mojica Marins’ catalogue of psychedelic “Mouth of Garbage” Brazilian horror flicks, US audiences fell in love with Coffin Joe, the so-bad-he’s-good undertaker character Marins plays in almost all of his films. Even in the UK, the goth-pop band The Horrors has a member who’s renamed himself Coffin Joe in honor of Marins’ character, who didn’t get his Anglicized name until the 90s, when Europeans got into bizarro cinema.

Marins grew up a weirdo, getting kicked out of Catholic school at 13 after making a horror film where priests are eaten by aliens. By the time he was 18, he was making a feature film when THREE of his actresses died, albeit not from the filming, but it still made Marins seem like the most ominous man in horror cinema. In the case of this gem, The Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures, Marins’ street cred in the goth world goes through the roof, because most of the film was actually directed by Marcelo Ramos Motta, a Thelemetic writer/scholar who co-wrote a number of Aleister Crowley’s magick and occult books.

Motta and Marins belonged to a handful of Brazilian underground artists, most of whom you’ll see in all of Marins’ films, because his budgets never went above $20,000. His box office appeal, however, was unanimously huge across the country. After his first two successful films, and with fans waiting for more Coffin Joe antics, Marins was broke and still couldn’t find an investor to give him a dime. Censors—specifically religious ones—had sliced and diced his previous movies so much that fear of his being banned from theaters altogether ran high. So while Marins’ work is clearly on the exploitation side of the low-budget spectrum, critics’ and fans’ assessment that he’s the Brazilian Roger Corman still seems to sell him short. The way he pushed boundaries and worked the censors and still had to fight for investors even with critical acclaim, the trajectory of his career in the early years feels much closer to an Alfred Hitchcock than it is to a Corman. However, Marins is at it again, making films with budgets in the millions, very much like a Corman-comeback.

The final film in the last Coffin Joe trilogy, Embodiment of Evil, saw its release in 2008, a full forty years after the last installment, which had led us to believe that perhaps Coffin Joe was dead. Not so! In fact, Marins’ producer went on a worldwide search to find an actor to play a young Coffin Joe to fill in the storyline with a flashback. An American, Raymond Castile, won the role and flew down to Brazil to meet the master, who’d been growing out his tremendous fingernails to get back into character. Marins was notorious for the long fingernails, which were actually his own, often cut off and preserved, then glued on during filming—maybe Castile got to actually wear Marins’ real nails in his scene. But it’s this blur between fantasy and reality, between Marins and Coffin Joe, that seems to have led to his languishing on the fringes of cinema, out of the spotlight.

In Brazil, after Marins’ first films came out, the government took over the movie theaters, forcing them to play predominantly Brazilian films, yet their censoring was still out of control. Box office numbers dwindled, then died, and Marins was one of many promising filmmakers who was forced to go into other, more lucrative areas (PORN) to make a living. He couldn’t disassociate himself with Coffin Joe. He couldn’t make films without people seeing him as Coffin Joe, and with the censors on his back, making anything was impossible.

Now, granted, a big piece of his perceived downfall was also probably because of his multiple mistresses, marriages, and children that drained his resources dry. But even if that hadn’t have been the case, Marins’ movies would still have been a hard sell to the religious government. Catholics usually don’t take so kindly to sex-crazed undertaker figures proclaiming, “There is no God,” while eating pork on a no-meat holiday, before cannibalizing a married couple whom he just spent a whole movie coercing into eating one another. It’s just not their thing. For a fuller history on Coffin Joe/Marins, pick up Fear Without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe on FAB Press.

A Wolfe is a writer and director in Los Angeles. awolfeswolfworld.wordpress.com