Saturday, 2 January 2010

Me n' Coffin Joe, Part # 1:
Awakening Of The Beast (1970)

So, what did you all do this xmas? I watched Jose Mojica Marins’ “Awakening of the Beast”. In fairness, I also made time for “The Third Man”, “The Last Picture Show”, Corman’s “Tales of Terror”, “The League of Gentlemen” and “The Trouble With Harry” over the holiday period, all under more convivial circumstances than midnight on my laptop, but it is “Awakening..” that concerns us here.

Given the comparative rarity of weird/obscure cinema on DVD release in the UK, I was surprised and delighted to notice recently that some blessed souls (Anchor Bay in collaboration with Rue Morgue magazine if you must know) have seen fit to release a box set of no less than NINE of Marins’ movies, available for less than twenty quid at your local high street retailer. Nine! Man, I didn’t know he’d even MADE nine movies! So, needless to say, ‘The Coffin Joe Collection’ = my xmas list = under the tree. Thanks mum!

My introduction to the world of Coffin Joe came via a late night thread Channel 4 ran a few years back, dedicated to ‘The World’s Strangest Films’ or some such. And, god bless ‘em, they actually made pretty good on that boast. I should clarify that this was back in the good old days when C4 liked to play up their ‘edgy’ reputation by running a range of original programming in the early hours that seemed to be specifically tailored to the stoner/drunken student crowd, leading to such ever-green favourites as that video clips show with those two Welsh guys playing bits of review copies they’d been sent and that show where cute girls would review video games. I’d imagine this golden age came to an abrupt end when some more commercially savvy cat muscled into a production meeting with the sad truth that the young and inebriated crowd these shows were aimed at do not discriminate in their viewing AT ALL, and will just as happily watch sit-com repeats or CCTV footage of other losers sitting around. So: R.I.P. 90% of TV programming that someone like me could actually sit through, gone in one fell swoop.

But anyway, this was the era that gave us the ‘World’s Strangest Films’ season, and like I said, they done delivered! I particularly remember coming in late one night from a gig in London and sitting around with my student housemates of the time, flabbergasted as we turned on the box and ran headfirst into zero budget Pilipino horror classic ‘The Killing of Satan’. Between the crazy, camera trick kung-fu scenes, the cage full of naked girls and the sight of the Halloween costume & foam pitchfork clad Satan demonstrating his evil by doling out Chinese burns and kicking a fat man down a hill, I laughed so much I was actually dry-heaving by the end.

So, needless to say, I was ready and waiting a week later with my own little TV, drinking some coffee with dinner to see me through to whatever-the-hell-time the next feature presentation began – “Awakening of the Beast”. Now I was, I suppose, vaguely aware of Jose Marins, aka Ze Do Caixao, aka Coffin Joe, at this point. I mean: Brazilian stage actor wears a top hat and a cape, grows a beard and gnarly long finger nails, creates the ‘Coffin Joe’ character and directs/stars in a series of low budget horror films – this is a concept I can dig. I was expecting, I suppose, some kinda cut price, South American Vincent Price / William Castle rama-lama.

What I got, “Awakening of the Beast”, absolutely blindsided me. As a clean-living young man, I was more or less sober when it flickered across the screen, but I honestly thought someone had spiked my coffee with something. To this day, I’ve assumed that I must have exaggerated things in my memory over the years, and that this film can’t POSSIBLY be as fucked up as I remember it being.

So naturally it was first out of the Coffin Joe box at midnight Christmas day, just to check. And the word is: duck kid, it’s even more fucked up than you remember.

It should be noted that most of Marins’ other films, if not exactly ‘normal’, do at least sound like recognisable narrative horror films. “Awakening..” on the other hand bears no real comparison to any other motion picture ever made. It is, I suppose, one part surreal mondo/sexploitation flick, one part an 8 ½-style self-referential exploration of the director’s work, and one part psychedelic descent into hell.

I should have known something was up right from the opening credits, which are scrawled in marker pen on top of pages ripped from a horror comic (an official Coffin Joe comic book, it turns out if you look closely), and are accompanied not by a musical score, but by a thundering skree of distorted, echoing animal noises and screams. Intercut with this are shots of a young woman preparing to inject heroin into her foot. After the credits have concluded, we see close-ups of pornography tacked to the walls of a small, bare room, and panning out, we’re shown five furtive, be-suited men who sit on all-fours, watching the woman shoot up. While she proceeds to strip for them, they pass around a parcel and tear off the wrapping, to reveal a chamber-pot, upon which the woman squats, preparing to defecate.

Cut to a darkened room, where some serious men seem to be engaged in a discussion. One of them says something like, “Why, I would have expected such a disgusting fantasy from the mind of Ze Do Caixao, but not from a respected psychologist!”. What can I say when those are the FACTS, the respected psychologist responds, if you need further evidence, check this one out…

In the next sequence, we see a schoolgirl (she has a picture of the Beatles stuck on her school book) being picked up off the street by some love-bead swingin’ Sunset Strip hippies. They take her back to their apartment, where a whole bunch of hip Tropicalia type cats are busy smoking joints, playing rock n’ roll songs and generally acting crazy. They hypnotise the girl (by giving her a joint and repeatedly clicking their fingers in her face), and proceed to sexually assault her in a strange, highly stylised fashion. This unsavoury scene reaches its conclusion when a hairy, priest-type character wielding a long wooden staff that looks like it’s been torn straight off a tree turns up. He announces something about doing what the lord hath commanded him, and he takes his branch and… dear god, I don’t even want to tell you what happens next – imagine the worst, and give thanks that at least it’s only implied off-screen.

Taken alone, this absurd and disturbing sequence makes for a perfect demonstration of the essential, incommunicable *strangeness* of Jose Marins’ direction in this film. Even if we are to accept that he has some reason for throwing us into this unhappy scenario, completely devoid of context or explanation, the execution of the whole thing is still just utterly off the wall. On one level, these scenes have both the same appearance and tone as an American ‘roughie’ sexploitation flick from earlier in the ‘60s, but then… why does the first shot we see of the hippie pad feature a guy balanced halfway up the wall playing a strange assemblage of drums? Why do the hippies circle around the girl with their index fingers extended, humming ‘Colonel Bogey’? Why do people keep jumping in and out of the window? Why the priest guy? – I suspect there are no answers, other than that Marins is just one of those directors, like Lynch or Wojcieck Has or John Boorman, who couldn’t do ‘normal’ if you put a gun to his head.

Assuming you don’t give up on the film at this point like a reasonable human being, it continues in this general vein for quite a while, cutting between increasingly surreal (although not quite so unpleasant) vignettes of sex/drug related ‘decadence’, and brief visits to the darkened room, where the highly respected psychologist and his friends continue to smoke up a storm whilst saying things like “such scenes are happening all the time in this world of violence!” and “this is concrete proof of the insidious nature of drugs and how they stimulate depravity and corruption!”.

By the time we’ve seen an angry man kicking three young girls in the ass after they offer him their underwear, some junkies shooting up whilst listening to a Coffin Joe radio broadcast, and a particularly curious scene in which a well-to-do lady watches a black servant ravage her daughter as her horse suggestively pokes its head through the doorway alongside her, one starts to get a sinking feeling, suspecting that the film is just going to go on like this indefinitely.

Thankfully though that’s not the case, and eventually the parade of lunatic titillation comes to a close, as we return to the psychologist’s discussion panel and notice for the first time that none other than Coffin Joe himself is present! Well, sort of. “I left Ze Do Caixao at the graveyard, gentlemen”, he clarifies, “you are speaking to Jose Mojica Marins”. Marins proceeds to state that he is fairly ambivalent about the psychologist’s ravings about the imminent collapse of civilised society, and doesn’t really understand why his presence has been requested by the group.

This prompts a rather elaborate flashback explanation from the psychologist, in the course of which we get to witness clips from a ‘TV court’ style Brazilian TV show in which Marins was put on ‘trial’ by some critics who reviled his horror movies and comics. When called upon to defend himself, Marins boasts that he is a self-taught artist who’s never had any help from anyone, and that he’s merely giving the people what they want to see. He then gets quite angry and begins ranting about the difficulties of making a film in South America and the expense of importing film stock, etc. Inexplicably, the TV jury acquit him.

Anyway, long story short (skipping over even more gratuitous mondo weirdo sequences featuring footage of an expressionistic avant garde stageplay and a wild looking Brazilian psychedelic band who do a variation of 'Milk Cow Blues' with lyrics like “in the tar mountain / we sing songs of emotion” and “Marmalade Mermaid / reproduce without thinking / smoking to the mounts of Korea”, accompanied by a wild light show, an air raid siren and naked frugging teenagers), the psychologist explains that after seeing the TV show he decided, for some reason I can’t quite fathom, to assemble four ‘drug addicts’ from different social backgrounds, and have them take acid as they stare at a Coffin Joe film poster.

At this point, the film lurches unexpectedly from black & white to lurid, blazing techicolor, as the experimental subjects’ joint acid trip unfolds before our eyes. This trip sequence goes on for about twenty five minutes and is utterly indescribable – one of the most intensely overpowering and uncomfortable car crashes of psychotronic imagery I’ve ever seen. Set to the accompaniment of deafening bursts of distortion and tormented screams, eye-straining oversaturated light and primitive trick photography, Marins here demonstrates a love of sadism and excess to rival that of Jodorowsky or Ken Russell, as our trippers descend to a sort of exploitation movie vision of hell where Ze Do Caixao lauds it over his victims like the devil tormenting the damned.

Where else in cinema have you seen a man in leather boots striding across a steaming chasm on a bridge built entirely from naked human flesh? Or a massed heap of women in their underwear being frenziedly whipped by a guy who looks like Leatherface? – well, ok, I’m prepared to believe there’s some other nutcase out there somewhere filming stuff like that, but when Marins comes to his piece de resistance, I’m betting your answer changes to NOWHERE. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: a line of actors, filmed from behind, at waist height, with demonic faces painted on their asses, stalking toward the camera, with other people waving their hands in between their buttocks to create the impression of an advancing rank of terrifying ass creatures.

So ingenious, so effective, so… utterly insane, it’s really one for the history books.

Assuming you have an hardy constitution and are somehow not already thoroughly disturbed by all this alarming imagery, Marins next drags us permanently across the invisible boundaries of weirdo cinema good taste into the realm of the genuinely upsetting, as Ze Do Caixao confronts the young female among the acid trippers and, in a violent explosion of cheap stop-motion photography, proceeds to tear off her clothes, cover her in magically inflicted wounds and scratch her all over with his sharpened fingernails, repeatedly slapping her across the face in a horrible parody of domestic violence.

Rather shaken by all this, I could scarcely believe what the sub-titles were telling me as Ze mounts a sort of infernal lectern and begins ranting furiously at the audience, proclaiming stuff like “From the beginnings to the end of the centuries, man is the ruler of everything, and woman is his instrument, she is a willing slave before the power of man!”

I mean, my god… how are we supposed to respond to this? I suppose anyone who has actually been paying enough attention to follow the structure of this film, such as it is, can appreciate that the acid trippers are each seeing Ze Do Caixao as a nightmare creature expressing their worst fears and impulses, but what kind of misguided thinking led Marins to throw footage of himself making statements like this into a film where he has earlier been seen – out of character, but in the same costume – talking in a fairly reasonable, sympathetic fashion about himself and his work? You could ask “what was he THINKING?”, only that’s a question that’s been demanded by just about every shot from the opening credits onward. Ze Do Caixao proclaims plenty of other stuff in this sequence too, most of it hopelessly garbled, bombastic nonsense.

After the acid trip finally concludes, the psychologist’s companions accuse him of unethical research practices, until he reveals that he didn’t actually dose his subjects with LSD at all – “merely distilled water” – and produces lab reports (?!?) to prove it. Meaning…. well, what exactly? That these drug-addled individuals have such depraved imaginings hidden in their sub-conscious that the power of suggestion alone can send them off into hellish hallucinations? That Ze Do Caixao is such a powerful figure that merely staring at a picture of him can bring on such reveries? “My message is not to destroy all drugs, but to moderate their use, and to increase vigilance upon those who traffic in them”, the psychologist concludes reasonably enough, making you wonder what in the hell he’s been trying to prove by subjecting us all the outrages of the preceding ninety minutes.

The camera pans back, and the lights go up, revealing that this darkened discussion panel was in fact another TV show, which has just finished, and the participants go their separate ways. Outside the TV studio, the psychologist shakes hands with Marins and thanks him for his time. When he asks what the director has planned for the future, Marins says, oh, this and that, and brandishes a script he has apparently been scribbling down during the filming – “Awakening of the Beast” – ah, ha ha ha.

The film comes to a chillingly ambiguous conclusion as Marins stands alone and watches, in long shot, a car pulling up, and the driver hassling a young girl walking down the street until she gets in and drives off with him – a direct echo of the hippie rape sequence at the start of the film. We cut back to Marins’ face – he gives a “huh, those crazy kids” grin direct to camera, yells “cut!”, and…. FIN.

Aside from anything else, one has to admire Jose Marins’ sheer bravado in making such a daring and unconventional film to try to explore the controversy that his horror movie persona and apparent association with the drug culture had seemingly caused in Brazil. It’s just regrettable that his deeply confused and unstable approach to the material leads to a film that, whilst an unforgettable experience for connoisseurs of celluloid dementia, also resembles ninety five minutes spent inside the mind of a psychopath, making Marins seem like more of a danger to society than any number of gothic horror flicks.


JRSM said...

Those ass creatures... you have burned my mind, sir.

Hans A. said...

Hey Ben, I've just given an award to your blog. I hope you check it out: