In the 1950s José Mojica Marins made amateur films with friends and neighbours. In the 1960s he became a sensation in his native Brazil with his creation Coffin Joe, a horror character so strong and rooted in the country’s mystical fabric that he entered for good into its richly populated and religiously syncretic folkloric iconography. In the 1970s and 1980s the military government forced Coffin Joe’s creator underground and he had to make ends meet with porn films. But in the 1990s, thanks to video technology and a solid following the USA, Marins resurrected from the ostracism he had been confined to and became what he deserved to be: a cult film director. In this two-part feature, Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell exhume the career of one of cinema’s greatest eccentrics.

For such a disreputable genre the horror film has been the home of a few auteurs. One of the most distinctive and outré is undoubtedly Brazilian director José Mojica Marins, whose vivid images and astonishing use of cinema far exceeds the expectations of his limited budgets. Marins is known for one creation in particular: Zé do Caixão, known in the English-speaking world as Coffin Joe. A caped, top-hatted sadist and torturer who is paradoxically a defender of the young, old and public morals, Zé do Caixão is the ultimate ‘monster’, a seemingly unstoppable invocation of the ego run riot in a society of convention. Zé is played by Marins himself, utterly self-confident, dominating the screen. To the outside world Marins, the consummate showman, is almost indistinguishable from his most famous creation – terrifying audiences with autosuggestion routines and proclaiming damnation while gesticulating with his serpentine, impossibly long fingernails.

Zé do Caixão is a truly eccentric horror creation – elongated fingernails curling around his pipe or pocket-sized music box (used to calm frightened children and hypnotise victims) he is an odd-looking character, a cross between the Schrek in Nosferatu or Chaney in London After Midnight.

Marins was born to cinema. For most of his youth he lived in or adjacent to a cinema. This led to him producing his own films on 8mm and 16mm which he would hawk to paying customers, sometimes providing the running commentaries to the films or adding sound effects on the fly. Having progressed from short films to features Marins decided to make a horror film based in part on a nightmare in which he saw his own grave. At Midnight I’ll Steal Your Soul (À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma) (1964) introduced the world to Zé do Caixão. Rather than tentatively launch the horror film to the market Marins dived straight in with shocking imagery – eyes are gouged out of their sockets, women are tortured and bodies desecrated. Even more shockingly Zé displays a total disregard for Catholicism – openly eating meat on Good Friday, mocking priests and denouncing God. Coffin Joe is depicted as a man unencumbered by morality or social convention. If the basic trappings of the horror film are familiar (the monster wants a bride, the faceless town hordes are menaced, order is restored at the close) At Midnight I’ll Steal Your Soul exceeds expectations in the way it portrays them. This is no period or literary tale like Frankenstein or Dracula but a contemporary, lurid and visceral type of horror. Zé do Caixão doesn’t exist in another time or country but here and now. As such, Zé works as a figure of political subversion by challenging social mores and the role of citizens in relationship to their government and church.

At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul was a huge success, playing for over a year to packed houses. Zé do Caixão proved such a memorable and popular creation that a sequel was inevitable. Marins set about expanding his unique universe to produce This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver) (1967) . In the tradition of horror franchises the denouement of the ‘monster’ in the previous film was not a problem – resurrecting popular creations always proves to be both irresistible and lucrative.

Zé is a figure of fear to the townsfolk primarily because he does not feel confined by any sense of moral or social constraint – he is as ‘superior’ as he thinks he is precisely because he has unilaterally decided to flaunt society’s rigidity and expectations. The greatest fear is that of divine retribution either in this life or, more usually accepted, in the afterlife.

The strength of Zé do Caixão lies in his own rationality and his unassailable position in the community. Rather than merely being a creature of brute strength, psychosis or misguided vengeance, Zé espouses a rationalised (if twisted) ideology to justify his position. His quest is for a "superior woman" to be his bride so that he can create the perfect being – the progeny of the superman. His goal is to be realised by terrorising scantily clad women with tarantulas or poisonous snakes – all too real on screen. Zé is a figure of fear to the townsfolk primarily because he does not feel confined by any sense of moral or social constraint – he is as ‘superior’ as he thinks he is precisely because he has unilaterally decided to flaunt society’s rigidity and expectations. The greatest fear is that of divine retribution either in this life or, more usually accepted, in the afterlife.

Zé’s hubris and blasphemy means he not only lacks the restraining hand of religious orthodoxy he openly defies it. His orgies of violence are unprovoked and therefore make his position untenable, so his transgressions must inevitably be punished. This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse is filled to the brim with breathtaking images and flights of imagination. In the film’s most celebrated sequence Zé do Caixão’s first stirrings of faith and doubt bring on an astonishing hallucination. Dragged from his slumbering bride by an almost impossibly thin black demon, he’s taken to the graveyard where disembodied hands burst forth from their graves and pull him to Hell. In stark contrast to the monochrome life on earth, Hell is a garish landscape of piercing primary colour, jarring the senses into overload. Successions of screaming naked bodies are flogged, beaten and cajoled by imps. Body parts twitch from the walls, bleeding torrents of blood and drowned by the moans of the damned. These are vignettes worthy of Bruegel or Bosch.

Zé do Caixão is a truly eccentric horror creation – elongated fingernails curling around his pipe or pocket-sized music box (used to calm frightened children and hypnotise victims) he is an odd-looking character, a cross between the Schrek in Nosferatu or Chaney in London After Midnight. He doesn’t limit his monologues to the standard gruesome descriptions of the hero’s imminent demise or declarations of world dominance but pontificates on his own interpretations of the Nietzschean superman, both in relation to his own ego and esoteric ways. What is unusual is that while the most interesting character in the monster film is normally the monster (or at a push the monster’s creator) there is normally some foil with which the audience can identify as a point of reference, be it the ‘final woman’ or the fearless hunter hero. No such luxury is afforded here – the townspeople may be recognisable, if caricatured, but they are as bland and faceless as Zé do Caixão declares them to be. The only real audience identification can lie with Zé and as such his demise is not necessarily one that the audience wants, any more than it wants a real Zé to inhabit its town. It is this dichotomy that is Zé’s strength as a character.

Zé’s hubris and blasphemy means he not only lacks the restraining hand of religious orthodoxy he openly defies it. His orgies of violence are unprovoked and therefore make his position untenable, so his transgressions must inevitably be punished.

What is perhaps strangest of all is how Zé do Caixão’s invention of himself as the "superman" creates a villain at once steeped in the accepted iconography of the horror monster (graveyards at midnight, fog, dungeons, dangerous creatures and that inevitable companion – the hunchback assistant) and also one that is, at times, heroic. Early on in This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse he saves a youngster from being run over by an irresponsible youth on a motorcycle. His philosophy explains that children are perfect (presumably because they are free of moral bounds and conflict) and that adulthood taints their affinity with nature – religion is evil as it blinkers people’s outlooks and free will. Indeed despite the opening indications of horror it is some while before Zé do Caixão has been established as a truly evil character. His assertions that the townspeople hate him merely because he is different (he is most certainly that!) have some credence, but he does genuinely protect the innocent – even if only to justify his own questionable philosophies.

As a judge and a mirror to society Zé do Caixão has few equals. Horror films are often seen as mirroring the fears or political concerns of their age, of being allegorical in a way that conventional films cannot. The political power that a horror film as mass entertainment wields is a double-edged sword. On one hand it provides a forum for condemnation or criticism that circumvents some forms of censorship; normally the censorship of horror films concentrates on removing or toning down visceral elements while generally leaving the metaphorical criticisms intact. On the other hand the almost universal condemnation of the genre itself as juvenile leaves the nagging doubt that any political radicalism might not be noticed. In This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse the message seems to be that group fear and apathy allow the strong to dominate the weak – that subjugation is a direct result of weakness. Upon its release the film was another roaring success, but there was a cost. Marins himself saw little of the financial gains of his endeavours and to some extent his vision had been compromised by the state censors. It was a taste of things to come.

(To be continued next week)