Brazil’s Master of Horror: Celebrating José Mojica Marins and the Legacy of Coffin Joe

From Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous cameos to Stephen King literally writing himself into the Dark Tower series, it’s not uncommon for creators to insert themselves into their art. Of course, there’s a difference between simply appearing in your work and becoming the main attraction, and that’s why José Mojica Marins stands out as one of the most daring genre filmmakers of all time. Spawning a multi-media franchise from a tiny b-picture filmed in the heart of 1960s Brazil, Mojica’s subversive storytelling earned him worldwide notoriety during a time when most horror movies still hesitated to show blood on celluloid.

While this month marks a year since this Master of Horror left us mortals behind, the legacy of Coffin Joe lives on. That’s why I’d like to take a moment to appreciate Brazil’s greatest contribution to genre cinema.

Mojica became a household name with 1964’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, but his passion for film began much earlier. Born on a Friday the 13th to parents who owned a local movie theater, this young man seemed destined to pursue a career in genre filmmaking. Having already produced a handful of low-budget drama films, the idea to make Brazil’s first ever horror movie came to him after a vivid nightmare where a dark figure dragged Mojica to his grave, showing him the date of his inescapable death.

This disturbing incident inspired the creation of Coffin Joe (also known as Josefel Zanatas), an intimidating amalgamation of Nietzschean nihilism and Brazilian social anxieties. With his vampiric demeanor and shocking speeches, this unholy undertaker has been terrifying audiences for decades, forever searching for an heir to carry on his legacy.

Ironically, Mojica never intended to be the face of his creation, only donning the iconic top-hat and claws once the original lead actor abandoned the project, objecting to the character’s exaggerated features. This was probably for the best, as Mojica’s theatrical presence and odd appearance complement his peculiar direction. The unnaturally long fingernails evoke the monstrous qualities of Nosferatu, while the classy outfit suggests the aristocratic villainy of an Edgar Allan Poe story, all coming together in a chilling performance that is now remembered alongside classic characters like Frankenstein and Norman Bates.

“What is life? It is the beginning of death.”

While Joe would become an unstoppable force of evil in the sequels and spin-offs, evolving into something of a proto-slasher villain, his first appearance was a lot less extravagant than the gothic tales that inspired it. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is unique in its exploitation-y thrills and overall weirdness, commenting on faith and morality while drenching itself in a decadent aesthetic. The crude technical aspects end up enhancing the film’s gritty qualities, even if this had more to do with the low budget than Mojica’s artistic intent. Even so, the film feels decades ahead of its time, marrying avante garde editing, unconventional photography and existential monologues with moments of truly visceral terror.

Casually eating meat on a Good Friday might not seem all that horrific by today’s standards, but to the deeply religious audiences of 1960s Brazil, this defiant bit of blasphemy was far more offensive than the perverse sexual imagery and horrific death scenes. In fact, the production of Joe’s debut film was only made possible by the disbanding of Brazil’s censorship board, though it would ultimately return to torment Mojica with the rise of a military dictatorship.

Thankfully, this wasn’t enough to stop Joe’s reign of terror, as a sequel was soon produced to challenge increasingly conservative audiences. This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse retcons the original film’s brutal finale in order to continue Joe’s search for a bride worthy of his evil seed. This time, however, the character was traumatized by his psychedelic near-death experience, resulting in a much more sadistic protagonist. Despite the increased violence and nudity, military censors curiously only objected to Joe’s final act of religious defiance, resulting in reshoots that implied Mojica’s monster had spontaneously converted to Christianity right before death.

Future projects would obviously undo that little detail, but it would be a while before we’d see a true finale to what we now know as the Coffin Joe trilogy. After the sequel, Mojica kept the character alive through a series of cameos and spin-offs, resulting in experimental projects like The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe, where Mojica himself is tormented by his creation (preceding Wes Craven’s New Nightmare by 20 years!), and a TV show where Joe became a bona fide horror host, presenting scary movies to a brand new audience.

Yes, those are real spiders!

In 2008, Mojica gave us a proper conclusion to the trilogy with Embodiment of Evil, a much darker and crueler picture that still celebrates the filmmaker’s B-movie stylings. While the sillier elements aren’t quite as endearing in high-definition as they were in the cheap black-&-white film stock of his earlier projects, Embodiment is still a triumph, offering biting social commentary while also allowing Joe one last gorey romp. Featuring numerous references to Brazil’s sordid military history, Mojica’s final film was also his most personal, with Joe’s predatory nature being overshadowed by São Paulo’s authoritarian military police force.

It’s no surprise that Mojica tapped into a well of typically Brazilian fears and anxieties when crafting these morbid fables, but many local critics originally rejected his schlocky style. Fortunately, Mojica’s work reached a much larger audience once his films found success in international festivals. Soon after the global release of the first film, Coffin Joe enthusiasts spread across the globe, with Mojica receiving awards from all over Europe and North America.

Over time, many have compared Mojica to other famous filmmakers, with some claiming that he’s the Brazilian equivalent to John Waters while others liken him to an edgier Ed Wood. Some of these comparisons are fair, but many fans confuse Mojica’s affinity for unorthodox stories and campy theatricality with a genuine lack of talent, which simply isn’t true. The more exaggerated bits of his movies always feel intentional, and the goofy nature of some scenes actually enhance the inevitable moments of terror.

It takes real passion to produce something as shocking as the Coffin Joe films in a country with a long history of punishing dissenting artists, so Mojica’s refusal to compromise his vision in spite of constant backlash remains downright inspiring. Even up to his last feature, most of Mojica’s productions seem to exist in a hellish hyper-reality where terrible things can happen to innocent people and characters communicate through (obviously-dubbed) villainous monologues.

“If you end up in hell, give my address to the devil.”

Of course, crafting deeply sacrilegious works of art comes at a cost, and some colleagues tell crazy stories about Mojica’s unusual approach to directing. The filmmaker allegedly threatened his original crew with a gun in order to ensure their cooperation when lighting a particularly difficult scene, and some even claim that he would stay in character for far too long, scaring folks on set. Mojica’s questionable treatment of female characters was also a bit much even back in the day, though many critics now argue that the director intended to expose violence against women, not glorify it.

It’s not my place to condone or condemn these unfortunate incidents, but this was clearly another time and space, and Mojica’s dedication to his craft obviously paid off in the end. His efficient camerawork, brisk pacing and penchant for controversial subject matter may not be for everyone, but there’s no denying the impact he had on several generations of filmmakers and horror fans.

These days, Coffin Joe exists in the Brazilian public consciousness as a bogeyman from a bygone age, but he’s far from forgotten. Over the years, his likeness has shown up in bizarre merchandising (I actually tried some official Coffin Joe Cachaça, poured from a bottle signed by the man himself), and local filmmakers still celebrate his priceless contributions to national cinema. Mojica’s daughter is also hard at work preserving her father’s legacy, following in his footsteps with her own villainous persona as Liz Vamp. Outside Brazil, Mojica boasts a fanbase featuring giants like Tim Burton, with frequent re-releases and preservation efforts making it much easier to get a hold of his films in international markets than in his homeland.

Ultimately, Coffin Joe is much more than “Brazil’s Freddy Krueger”, representing a filmmaker’s sincere desire to express himself while also holding up a sinister mirror to a hypocritical society. José Mojica Marins may have set out to make a simple scary movie, but he ultimately became the living embodiment of everything a scary movie can and should be. Even as horror evolves and new limits are broken, Mojica’s particular brand of profanity will live on, and I think that’s an appropriate send-off for a character obsessed with preserving his legacy.

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