Wednesday, 10 February 2010
Me n' Coffin Joe, Part # 3:
This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967)
Three years after the success of “At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul”, Ze Do Caixao returned to Brazil’s screens in a film that bears all the defining marks of a sequel, essentially revisiting the themes and structure of it’s predecessor, but with more violence, more sleaze, a longer running time and even more ranting, but losing the self-contained charm of the earlier film in the process, replacing it with the first full manifestation of the kind of wildly excessive, oneiric sadism that Jose Marins would make his trademark in the coming years.
Rather than being dispatched for good by the combined forces of supernatural justice at the end of “At Midnight..”, it seems that Coffin Joe was merely… uh, badly burned or something, and “This Night..” begins with him returning to his home town fully recovered after a spell in hospital, and absolved of his crimes by a rather shoddy looking court on the basis of a lack of evidence. And unfortunately for the human race, it seems Joe hasn’t learned a damn thing from his ordeals, as he’s immediately up to his old tricks, harping on endlessly about the sanctity of his bloodline and the foolishness of religious belief and so on. Some bloody use that turned out to be, sigh the wandering ghosts somewhere in the background.
Stretching the shaky continuity further, business at the undertakers must have been booming in Joe’s absence, as his funeral parlor now finds itself equipped with a standard issue hunchback assistant named Bruno (his school play level make-up job somehow makes the poor guy look more repulsive than professional effects ever would have done), and also with a new complex of underground torture dungeons. Convenient!
Marins’ production values seem to have taken a corresponding leap forward too, at least if we can judge by such yardsticks as more sets, more expansive framing, more actors, more special effects, etc. I was disappointed to note though that the claustrophobic, gothic atmospherics that so livened up “At Midnight..” have been misplaced along the way, ironically falling victim to the arrival of more professional lighting, and the decision to shoot most of the external scenes on location. Gone are the restrictive corridors of forest and swathes of shadow that Marins conjured up on his chicken shack soundstage, and instead we get, well… realistic daytime footage of the same fairly boring looking place in Brazil, much of the time.
Sadly, many of the interior sets follow suit. That said, Joe’s dungeon/laboratory/whatever set up is lovably goofy - real mad scientist 101, straight of an Al Adamson or Ted V. Mikels flick, with weird, seemingly gas-powered machinery, the good ol’ strap-down gurney and parrots (?!) flying around for some reason. Quite what the machinery is for is anyone’s guess, although Joe does proclaim “not sadism – science!” at one point in the film, so maybe he’s got something on the backburner a bit more methodical than just throwing snakes at ladies and hoping for the best. Anyway, with this notable exception, most of the other interiors just have a lot of brick and white walls standing in for the delightfully cluttered compositions of the earlier film, unfortunately. Ho hum.
“At Midnight..” also features a whole ton of padding and subplots which were absent from the one-track-mind narrative of the first film – in fact the damn thing’s jam-packed with wild and wooly antics involving local politics, a kind-hearted wrestler, fixed poker games, tavern brawls and all manner of scheming and duplicity which I won’t try and run down for you in this review or we’ll be here all day.
One of the film’s most surprising scenes comes early on, when Joe saves a young boy from being run down by a careless soldier on a motorbike. Given his batshit philosophies and general disdain for humanity, one would assume that Joe only seeks a child of his own for purely utilitarian ends, to act as a miniature continuation of himself. But here, as he plays with the kid at the side of the road and curses the cyclist for his lack of attention, we start to realise that Joe just really digs kids, and hates the way that social and religious forces compel them to grow up into adults that he deems weak and ignorant. This one brief scene, in which Joe is framed as the protective force standing between the children and the hapless, accident-prone grown ups, is (to my knowledge) the only moment in Jose Marins’ entire filmography in which the director’s alter-ego is made to seem even remotely sympathetic. That it is never elaborated upon or followed up as the film proceeds full steam ahead in the direction of seedy, misanthropic carnage, simply makes it all the more curious.
Anyway, fathering a son is still Coffin Joe’s foremost objective in life, only now he seems to be framing this desire in even more deranged and fascistic terms, declaring that his first born will be the leader of a new race of supermen, free from human weakness. Ever the man of action, Joe decides that the first step is to find a mother befitting of his high standards, and as such he immediately sets about kidnapping the town’s six most desirable women. This quickly accomplished, he deposits them in a purpose-built ladies’ dormitory that he seems to have stashed away in his tardis-like lair, and prepares to instigate the first of film’s two extended sequences of horrifying shenanigans, as he subjects his potential brides to a series of ‘ordeals’ to determine which of them is most worthy of his seed.
Admittedly, women weren’t given a great deal to do in the first Coffin Joe film prior to becoming victims, but it soon becomes clear in “This Night..” that the level of Jose Marins’ misogyny, or, at best, his lack of empathy toward the opposite sex, was absolutely staggering when he was making these films. Kidnapped by a freak, these six able-bodied women just sit there impassively in their nightgowns, failing to display any emotion or resistance whatsoever, as their captor rants away, explaining in his characteristically roundabout fashion that he basically intends to kill five of them, and to rape the lucky survivor.
Upping the ante on the spider-based murder of his wife from the first film, Joe waits until the girls are soundly asleep (cos hey, what else are they gonna do after the man’s left the room?), and unleashes a box full of tarantulas upon them in a queasy sequence that goes on far, far longer than is strictly necessary (“necessary” being a pretty redundant term with Marins at the controls), cutting between close-ups of giant spiders crawling across the bodies of writhing, terrified girls and Joe’s staring eyes and belly-laughing chops, his pet creatures clearly presented as a direct extension of his body, and of the camera’s gaze. Somewhere, there’s a psychoanalyst hitting the big red button under his/her desk, and we haven’t even got to the snakes yet.
Ah yes, the snakes. When Joe deems one of the girls worthy of survival because she wasn’t too bothered by the spiders, she gets to watch as her companions are locked in a narrow underground chamber and left to the mercy of a bunch of venomous vipers and boa constrictors. Shots of the snake attack are intercut with equally icky footage of Coffin Joe trying to force himself upon the surviving lady. When she breaks down and admits that she is less than enthused by this whole turn of events, Joe decides she is not free from ‘weakness’ after all and thus can never be the mother of his child. Oh well, ya win some, ya lose some.
What I found most bizarre in this sequence though is what happens when Joe shrugs off his disappointment and tells her she is free to go. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll report all this to the authorities?”, she asks. No, Joe tells her, for I can tell that you have fallen hopelessly in love with me and will henceforth do my bidding. And she does.
What the EEEnfernoo is going on here? I thought I was at least getting used to the fuzzy logic with which Jose Marins conducts his movies, but once again his cracked-in-the-head approach to human behaviour has left me speechless.
Later in the film, Coffin Joe meets another girl, the daughter of a wealthy local dignitary, and things become even more confoundingly ridiculous when she immediately attaches herself to Joe and begins parroting his patriarchal, survival-of-the-strong philosophies back to him without even being prompted and doesn’t seem to mind when he slaps her around, causing our man to take a drag on his pipe and look on contentedly, as if to say “well, I knew the gal for me would come along eventually”.
Rarely in any sphere of creative endeavor – even the most bone-headed of superhero comics or fan fiction – have I encountered such a complete inability on the part of a male writer to conceive of women as independent, decision-making beings.
Not that I’d wish to really launch a defense of Mojica Marins, whose filmmaking ethics are clearly about as questionable as the Shell answer-man, but what I think we have to realise when dealing with Marins’ movies is that once they’ve got their initial plot set-ups and exposition out of the way and allowed him to get his horror on, all semblance of human characterisation and real world cause & effect are totally outta the window. In some quarters, Marins is often compared to Bunuel and Jean Cocteau, and, whilst that’s a comparison we should be wary of taking too far, “This Night..”s relentless concentration on personal dream logic and unforgettably intense imagery certainly speaks of such.
To put it bluntly, when Coffin Joe is ‘in the zone’, all other characters in the film are reduced to little more than bodies that do what they’re told. All through the film, things either happen comically slowly or appear sped up with no apparent logic, people say things that make almost no sense whatsoever, and a discordant mixture of music cues and random noises blare away with little relation to the action onscreen. Basically, the whole thing is freaked out on a level that only the very strangest of global filmmakers are able to compete with, and if things end up being almost unbelievably offensive too, well hey, that’s all just grist to the big WTF mill as far as Mr Marins is concerned. For every viewer left un-appalled by one of his films, Ze Do Caixao must shed a tear of failure.
What he is essentially going for here is Hitchcockian “shock cinema” on a cruelly primitive level. He doesn’t give a damn whether or not the audience expect these girls (or any of the characters other than Coffin Joe for that matter) to be recognisable, sympathetic humans – hell, he’d probably have used mannequins instead, except they don’t scream or wriggle so well. The reaction he’s going for is simply to make us squirm in our seats and go ICK ICK ICK, GIANT HAIRY SPIDERS! and AAARGH, SNAKES! and OH MY GOD THAT’S HORRIBLE, and JESUS CHRIST, I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THAT IN MY LIFE BEFORE! And it is his overwhelming success in obtaining these reactions where so many other horror directors have failed that continues to make his work so unique, regardless of the fact that on a personal level he seems to dwell somewhere on the slippery slope between “socially maladjusted” and “out of his freakin’ mind”.
This can all be clearly seen in the sequence that viewers will remember most vividly from this film – Coffin Joe’s descent into Technicolor hell! Although in some ways a mere warm up for the utter mind-flaying Marins would inflect on the world a few years later in “Awakening Of The Beast” (which recycles the B&W to colour gimmick), “This Night..”s vision of hell is in some ways even more brutally extraordinary.
Put it this way: think about every film you’ve seen over the years that has portrayed a visit to hell. It’s usually pretty metaphorical, right? In the name of sanity and good taste, filmmakers will usually find some smart or abstracted means by which to portray the infernal regions, be it the bureaucratic hell of ‘The Screwtape Letters’, the hallucinatory hell-on-earth of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, the dopey S&M fantasies of ‘Hellraiser’ or the desert wasteland of Fulci’s ‘The Beyond’. Even the towering ode to literalism that is ‘Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey’ has the decency to present hell as a kind of stylized labyrinth in which we’re pursued by childhood fears.
But as we have surely gathered by now, sanity and good taste are not virtues held in high esteem by Jose Mojica Marins. If he’s going to take us to hell, he’s going to round up all the colour film stock, polystyrene, greasepaint and out of work actors his remaining budget can muster and take us to motherfucking HELL. And so, when Coffin Joe discovers that one of the women he murdered was pregnant, this sets him off on a predictably severe existential crisis which, combined with another one of those pesky peasant curses, sees him literally dragged through the ground, emerging in a garishly lit underground realm in which the legions of the semi-naked damned writhe in agony, being stabbed with pitchforks by red-skinned, loin-cloth clad demons!
Satan, also played by Marins (hey, why not?), sits upon his bloody throne, laughing uproariously as he zaps unfortunate sinners with lightning bolts, causing severed limbs to fly across the screen in a vision straight from the mind of a rabid eight year old boy. Rivers of stage-blood run through channels crudely hacked into the sets; naked women are bloodily crucified as boa constrictors crawl around their necks; floors and walls that looks like regurgitated pizza throb and moan with the torments of the damned; disconnected heads and body parts wave frantically through gaps in the ceiling. And meanwhile, cult film fans the world over proceed to foam at the mouth, fall off their chairs or manifest other suitably extreme reactions in sheer disbelief that their was some deranged guy with no money in the middle of Brazil actually MAKING THIS CRAP HAPPEN, AND FILMING IT.
It is a strange kind of joy to try to explain, that exquisite “I can’t believe I am actually seeing this” feeling. It’s not big, and it’s not clever, but it’s a form of joy all the same, and probably the reason I keep firing up movies like this when I could be doing something sensible.
Overall, I’m starting to get the impression that the cinema of Jose Marins is rather like being trapped inside the seething, sweaty mind of some leather overcoat-clad, catholic guilt-wracked teenager – you know, the kind you probably knew some variation of in school/college who quotes bowdlerised Nietzsche and seems to have a very high opinion of himself, but is cripplingly terrified/fascinated by the perpetually distant opposite sex.
It is not a place I can really recommend spending time, but on the other hand it does lead us into a hallucinogenic cavalcade of truly horrific horrors, realised with the kind of lingering intensity that makes you suspect Marins never got over his teenage disappointment that when you go to see a movie called, say, ‘Pit of Bloody Horror’, you rarely get to see eighty minutes-worth of pits full of bloody horror, and decided it was his personal destiny to make amends for this failure, in the name of prurient, emotionally-stunted horror fans everywhere. And so, for those of us with a hardy constitution and at least a certain fondness for the prurient, emotionally-stunted horror fan that lurks within us all (ok, some of us more than others), films like “This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse” are irresistible, providing further proof, as if it were needed, that being out of one’s freakin’ mind can often convey just as many advantages upon an intrepid filmmaker as it can problems.