Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – O Estranho Mundo de Zé do Caixão (Strange World of Coffin Joe) (1968)

My notes on O Estranho Mundo de Zé do Caixão (Strange World of Coffin Joe)

Having created a national bogeyman for Brazil in his first features (À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma/At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul and Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver/This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse), José Mojica Marins found himself with two-thirds of a trilogy, then spent seemingly the rest of his career delivering films which weren’t quite the capper to the series (all the way down to Encarnação do Demônio/Embodiment of Evil). In this omnibus movie, he appears as alter ego Zé do Caixão only in a prologue where the character rants over clouds about the meaningless of identity (‘who am I? It doesn’t matter’) and terror before the film segues into three separate short stories which don’t have the benefit of Rod Serling-like individual introductions (later, Marins made a TV show under the same title). The episodes are in different styles, but all display Marinsian obsessions – the groping, general abuse and mutilation of women foremost, though it’s possible that some of this is merely the director’s stab at being commercial after his first films were so far out that they didn’t click as straight-up exploitation.

‘O Fabricante de Bonecas’ (‘The Doll Maker’) is the most EC-like horror story. An old, bearded dollmaker (Jayme Cortez) and his four beautiful daughters (Vany Miller, Veronica Krimann, Paula Ramos, Esmeralda Ruschel) turn out supposedly realistic dolls (they look like mass-produced plastic) which are famous for their eyes. Four louts (Luis Sergio Person, Mario Lima, Rosalvo Cacador, Toni Cardi) invade the dollmaker’s shop after hours hoping to bully him out of his treasure, but when he seems to drop dead of a heart attack while being threatened they decide to rape the daughters instead. After much fumbling and struggling and some nudity, the daughters happen to mention how beautiful the eyes of their attackers are, and come over all creepy and vampirish (are they dolls?). The cackling dollmaker shows up, and the thugs’ eyes end up in dolls while their heads lie around. It’s almost a typical horror anecdote, with exaggeratedly horrid people getting their come-uppance when they pick on innocents who have supernatural resources – and the shift whereby seeming victims turn out to be EVIL is pretty much par for the genre course, though it also plays to Marins’s professed cynicism about the non-existence of morality. An entirely interior story, it has a weird touch about a ‘beast’ supposedly making a noise outside the shop, which registers on the soundtrack as an electronic instrument of some sort (the score is a strange melange throughout).

‘Tara’ is a dialogue-free tale of a beautiful girl (Iris Bruzzi) who becomes another sort of doll when she drops dead during her wedding. She is the love object of a hunchbacked balloon seller (George Michael Serkesis) who has painted-on five o’clock shadow and moons about exaggeratedly pining for her as she swans about the streets, and rescues her corpse for more groping, fondling and general necrophile romance as inappropriate snatches of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘Danny Boy’ are ladled on the score. As nec-roms go (cf: Living Doll, Nekromantik, etc), it’s straightforward but hard to take seriously thanks to the clown-look protagonist and the overwhelming feeling of either bathetic earnestness or wildly inept attempts at humour.

‘Ideologia’ (‘Ideology’) is the longest segment, and might well have been a draft for a possible Zé do Caixão feature. Marins appears in the scarcely altered persona of ‘Professor Oãxiac Odéz’, adding a guru-ish hairdo to his usual black beard/untrimmed nails/cruel cackle style. On a TV debate show (as featured also in the next not-the-last-part-of-the-trilogy film, O Ritual dos Sádicos/The Awakening of the Beast), journalist Alfredo (Oswaldo De Souza) mildly rebukes the Professor for his theories that love doesn’t exist and all human behaviour is instinctual (slightly a come-down from Zé’s militant atheism, but an excuse for much the same misbehaviour). The journo and his pretty, characterless wife (women usually are dolls for Marins) Dilma (Nidi Reis) unwisely accept an invitation to dinner at the Professor’s house, which is decorated like the set for a kiddie horror show with spiderwebs and candy skulls, where he tries to prove his theories first by exposing them to spectacles which evoke the grand guignol styles of The Wizard of Gore, Pink Flamingoes and Salo (all made later), and then by caging them separately and denying the wife food and water so that after seven days she’s willing to drink her husband’s blood.

‘Ideologia’ is a thin frame for a series of set-pieces: a near-naked man has multiple needles run (for real) through skin-folds, a martyr-like victim crucified upside-down is gobbled at by degenerate cannibals, a pretty blonde is variously abused by chained geeks (who were also once good people who despised Odéz’ theories) and finally gets acid sloshed in her face and over her body, and the whole company (Odéz has a posse of slave-like minions) dine on the guests in the cannibal feast fade-out. The straight staging of the atrocities is upsetting and provocative, but the shallow ‘philosophy’ tends to drone on and on, and the pompous, bullying Odéz has less rebel stature than the more flamboyantly outsiderish Zé do Caixão. It’s as crudely made as earlier Marins tales, though slickness wouldn’t really help and – aside from ‘Tara’, which would like to be poignant but isn’t – does what it sets out to do in a manner that, say, Dr Terror’s Gallery of Horrors doesn’t. At the least, this provided shock footage suitable for reuse in several subsequent Marins movies.


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