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Brazil's Zé do Caixão, a.k.a. "Coffin Joe" was one of the more extreme horror discoveries revealed to most of us in the pages of the first Phil Hardy Encyclopedia of Horror, which came out in 1985 or so. We sheltered Yankee film fans had no idea that World Cinema had produced such a bounty of transgressive horrors, back when we thought that the nastiest a movie could get was Vincent Price cackling over a pendulum blade. In short order we learned about unrestrained and extreme horror filmmakers from Mexico, Japan and Brazil, all places with completely different ideas of what might constitute adult entertainment.
Good ol' Zé is a home-grown horror figure from São Paulo, a horrid boogeyman in top hat and cape who waxes sadistic over his evil thoughts while twiddling his four- and five-inch Mandarin fingernails. If he just kept his mouth shut Coffin Joe might pass as a local TV station's matinee movie horror host, but his non-stop rants break every taboo on the books. A self-acknowledged raving maniac, Joe has set himself up as a murderer and torturer unencumbered by boo-schwah morality. He claims repeatedly to be a force of chaotic anarchy beyond Good or Evil, an unrestrained ego out to prove that, because God, hope and spiritual power are myths, the most cruel and horrible person is by default the only honest man. The two original Zé do Caixão movies are 1964's At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul and 1967's This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse. In them the madman pursues a horrible quest for the right woman to bear his son and carry on his unique heritage of horror. Joe ends up killing all the women and several of their male friends via gruesome tortures unthinkable in American films of the time: gouging eyes, burning, flaying alive, etc.
Exotic and quixotic, the Coffin Joe movies seemed to have arrived from another cultural dimension -- they're in slimy B&W, like a soap opera filmed in Hell. We're accustomed to "Z" quality pictures where cardboard sets and dull acting create an otherworldly mood. Some Monogram and PRC efforts induce similar feelings of alienation, as if the actors were trapped in The Twilight Zone and forced to act out stories with neither plot nor purpose. The old Zé do Caixão pictures add to that aesthetic nonstop lectures on the glory of torture and transgression that would shock the average U.S. church lady into paralysis. Everything vile and evil that good Protestants keep hidden is laid right out in the open: nudity, blasphemy, carnal carnage, carnival carnal carnage.
It's actually a relief to learn that the star, writer and director of these pictures is not a cinematic Rough Beast slouching through the back streets of São Paulo. José Mojica Marins is just another exploitation filmmaker; he's maintained a steady output of local productions across five decades. American screens had no place for him back in the 1960s and only now have our own torture-chic horror films become strong enough to entice an American studio to invest in the maniac from the land of Carioca. In 2006 20th Fox helped bankroll Embodiment of Evil, a direct sequel to the old Zé do Caixão pictures. The studio stopped short of a U.S. theatrical release, however, perhaps because torture movies are on the wane. One could easily predict bad press and boycotts in the Bible Belt, when Coffin Joe professes that his terrible glory is greater than God's, but less than Satan's. In Kansas City or St. Louis, those are fighting words.
The story is a regular carousel of gruesome delights. Released from prison after forty years, Zé do Caixão (or Coffin Joe) is greeted by his hunchbacked servant Bruno (Rui Rezende). The faithful Bruno has dutifully preserved Zé's torture instruments and his throne of skulls in a hidden dungeon. Bruno also presents Zé with a new quartet of leather-garbed acolytes -- maniacs all -- who live only to serve their master's twisted philosophy and help him carry out his abominable activities. Zé then kidnaps and "tests" women for the honor of bearing his child, inaugurating an unending series of eye gougings, scalpings and other abominations. Some are real, and some are just tests, as when Zé apparently cuts off one woman's buttock and then bids her to eat it, raw.
Intruding on the revels are Zé's own vivid nightmares, in which the victims of his earlier misadventures return to terrorize him -- in 1960s- appropriate B&W. In another creepy illusion, a magical Mistificador takes Coffin Joe on a tour of Hell, a fleshy tunnel of blood leading to a desert where demons crucify sinners and rip them to shreds with their teeth. Also, a vindictive Army Captain (Valadão) and a wacko priest (Milhem Cortaz) join forces to track down Zé and put an end to his reign of terror.
Director Marins delivers a solid, obsessive job behind the camera -- we're not distracted by Dumb Director Tricks or obnoxious stylistics. The gruesome truth is that the show is very well made. Marins' conclusion was apparently affected by events out of his control. In the last scenes the Captain is suddenly replaced by his brother, another uniformed revenger. We're informed that this is because actor Jece Valadão, passed away in the middle of the shooting schedule.
Embodiment of Evil is not for civilians -- casual horror fans that might have
Zé do Caixão's twisted philosophy in Embodiment of Evil hasn't changed -- it makes little or no sense. He says he's a "third force" outside of Good and Evil, but he also denies that God or the Devil exists. Then he turns around and compares himself favorably to those entities, suggesting that he believes that they do exist. If he's a true rebel against the system of morality, why does he express himself in traditionally Evil (for the lack of a better qualifier) ways? A rampant ego prompts Coffin Joe to prove his superiority by breaking taboos. That's old-fashioned Evil Villain behavior, topped in this case by a poisonous hatred of women that surely goes deeper than the fictional character. Don't look to this Brazilian for any radical wisdom, as it's all sick puppy stuff indeed. Of course, public opinion these days indicates that people will believe anything. Coffin Joe does have a, shall we say, persuasive personality.
The critics in the Hardy Encyclopedia frequently suggested that transgressive film horror is a reaction to political and social repression. It's pretty obvious that jokers like H.G. Lewis and José Mojica Marins thrived by feeding frustrated sadistic imaginations. In the U.S. we once had a fairly puritanical culture, one that's gaining steam for a resurgence. Several of the horrors of Embodiment of Evil can't help but remind us of political repression in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, where secret governments had a tradition of using torture against political opponents. Fifty years later, I don't think any of this still applies to Embodiment of Evil, because torture horror fantasies are now part of the mainstream, and no longer underground fare. The cultural taboos have vanished: the merely curious as well as closet-case misanthropes can order up a full diet of simulated torture cinema any time they want. Also, the improved visuals and convincing gore puts Embodiment of Evil on a different level than the papier-mâché gore of the '60s. Fans will be impressed by how real things look; in today's horror, photo-real gore has become a mini-industry. I know more than one accomplished makeup artist who yearns to exercise their talent in some direction, any direction other than gross-out simulated carnage. A naked woman cut in half, with tarantulas crawling out of her innards? Step right up, Embodiment of Evil has it all.
That's the review -- if the rough stuff is your glass of tea, this is for you. The rest of you beware, or also remember to keep some fun comedy handy to cheer yourself up afterwards. Yes, Savant's just one of those sensitive types that doesn't get it. Although I'm happy to report that Embodiment of Evil delivers the gore-gore goods, there's also something to be said for being discriminating in one's tastes. Personally, the movie reminds me of those pharmaceutical ads that include disclaimers about common side effects, jolly words like "stop taking Hoxyplaxitrophin if you experience suicidal thoughts". Embodiment of Evil could use a disclaimer or two of its own.
Synapse Films' Blu-ray / DVD Combo of Embodiment of Evil is a good encoding of this film reportedly shot on HD video ... dark scenes have little detail but the show overall has an attractive look, with colorful art direction and expressive lighting. As they say, flesh tones are good -- on the female victims' quivering torsos, their bloodied faces, and their exposed innards! The excellent visual effects include slick titles and an impressive prologue, a creepy pan across a pulsating, viscous mass of freshly-vivisected organs (how'm I doin'?) to what might be Coffin Joe's throbbing pre-foetus. The movie obsessively associates women with bloody organs and filthy muck, indicating that somebody has a serious problem with female sexuality and reproduction. The audio is excellent as well, and Joe's subtitled Portuguese dialogue is creepy in itself ... if you want to hear happy Brazilians, go watch Black Orpheus.
The Synapse people give us a trailer and two featurettes. A Making-of-Piece has plenty of behind the scenes footage from the sets, and input from energetic filmmakers urging us to accept Coffin Joe as the most important horror character since Jack the Ripper. The other video extra is from the Fantasia film festival in Montreal. Screenwriter Dennison Ramalho fires up the preview audience by strutting onstage in a leather strait-jacket and appealing to their cumulative bloodlust. We should learn to direct this energy to solving the Health Care crisis -- run Coffin Joe for public office, or something.
I've only gone to a couple of fan conventions, but in 1993 I accompanied Jim Ursini to a convention in an L.A. suburb to see what Barbara Steele looked like in person. There in a corner was José Mojica Marins himself, fresh from the Tropic of Capricorn and testing the commercial waters for his rediscovered-on-VHS boogeyman Coffin Joe. Marins looked small, meek and somewhat lost, as there isn't much of an overlap between American horror fans and speakers of Portuguese. But he's kept his Too Nasty for Prime Time image going for this colorful comeback -- he was 57 then and is 75 now.
Note: most of the images available on the web for this title are too icky for use here at DVD Savant ... so don't be fooled into thinking the samples above are typical.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Embodiment of Evil Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.