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The Brazilian Issue

Coffin Joe’s Subterranean Secrets

Though he’s responsible for gems like 24 Hours of Explicit Sex and its sequel, 48 Hours of Hallucinatory Sex, the true lunacy started with a nightmare featuring a faceless undertaker that he transformed into his alter ego, Coffin Joe.

May 2 2009, 12:00am


Legendary Director José Mojica
Marins Won’t Really Kill You

Interview By Christiano Abrahao
Photos and Stills Courtesy of Jose Mojica Marins
Portrait By Santiago Fernandez-Stelley
Translated By Peter Azen, Daniella Diniz, and Gisela Gueiros

José Mojica Marins began making movies at the age of ten and he hasn’t let up for 70 years. Though he’s responsible for gems like 24 Hours of Explicit Sex and its sequel, 48 Hours of Hallucinatory Sex, the true lunacy started with a nightmare featuring a faceless undertaker that he transformed into his alter ego, Coffin Joe. Possessed by the concept, Marins sold everything he owned to make the first movie of the Joe series, À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma [At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul], which is considered to be Brazil’s first horror film. When he couldn’t find anyone willing to play the depraved role, he dug around the studio for a cape and top hat, went to the best place in town for fake nails, and got to undertakering.

Since then Marins has been on a quest to find beautiful women who have no problem being in close quarters with rats, snakes, and other repulsive creatures—and perhaps in the process to nab a gal worthy of carrying his peculiar seed. Marins often appears in public as Coffin Joe, but we were able to persuade him to shed his usual garb and discuss his work over a few drinks at his local bar.

Still from Encarnação do Demônio [The Embodiment of Evil] (2008)
Vice: Do you come here a lot?

José Mojica Marins:
I live just around the corner, so when I come out of the apartment to go somewhere, I come by to drink a margarita or a Bloody Mary.

Now that you’re here, I can’t tell if I’m honored or sad that you’re not wearing the Coffin Joe outfit. Do you generally wear it for interviews?

In the past I did, but only if a company was paying me to do it. There was a certain period in the 60s, shortly after the character was created, when I couldn’t even wear black because when I left my house people would make the sign of the cross and groups would gather around me. If I hadn’t had bodyguards with me, I would have been beaten up. They mixed up the creation with the creator and thought that I had signed a pact with the devil. It was a terrible period.

Did the government hassle you at all?

The military dictatorship of Brazil started around the time of the release of my first film. They would persecute me for over 20 years. Because of it I’ve been arrested, censored, and the priests and critics have always been all over me. I thank God that great filmmakers like Glauber Rocha, Rogério Sganzerla, and Jô Soares always supported me.

Your once-lengthy fingernails seem to be a few feet shorter now.

I was a prisoner of my nails for 44 years. At one point, they reached three feet. I got rid of them in the beginning of the 2000s. Since 2005, I’ve been cutting them and using fake ones.

Coffin Joe in Brazil's first horror film, À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma [At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul] (1964). Right: Stills from Encarnação do Demônio [Embodiment of Evil] (2008). Click to Enlarge
Why did you, the director, end up playing the Coffin Joe character?

I became Coffin Joe because no one else wanted to do it. I looked for this actor that I liked named Milton Ribeiro. He had this great low voice, but he thought it would be ridiculous just like everybody else. I already had the money for the film and I couldn’t even think of not making it, so I became the character

I’ve always been impressed with your casting of females, which cumulatively amounts to the best collection of gorgeous women in Brazilian filmmaking. What’s your secret?

Once I found this girl with a fantastic face, but her breasts weren’t nice and neither was her butt. So I shot her in a way that I could use someone else’s breasts and butt. I built the perfect woman on-screen, and you wouldn’t notice because of the way I cut it. After the tape was released, every single man went crazy for her. But when they got her laid, they’d notice that she wasn’t like she was in the movie. “It’s your problem,” I’d tell them. “I’m not going to tell anyone that I used someone else’s tits and another girl’s ass.” And this was back when it would take guys up to a year to get laid. It would be a big disappointment.

Is it true you made actors submit to “bravery tests”?

Yes. It was quite involved. First I would select ten beautiful women for each role. Then I would start weeding them out with my bravery tests. I don’t care much about acting, as I know that I can direct her while shooting. For instance, I had this one actress pretend to go through birthing pains and shriek loudly. She told me, “Mr. José, I’ve never had a child. I can’t do it.” So I got a pair of pliers and put them on her finger. I started to turn her finger, and she screamed and screamed. When she couldn’t scream anymore, I told her, “This is the pain of birth,” and I filmed that. Sometimes I had to use reality. If the woman couldn’t laugh, I used to tickle her and use a tight shot so it looked natural.

You also love to employ spiders.

When I started filming Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver [This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse], I told the actresses, “Look, I’ve got this guy buying spiders in São Paulo, and in the film you’ll be laid down in lingerie and the spiders will crawl on top of you.” All of them agreed to this, but they had yet to see the spiders and all of them quit when I brought them in. So I lost all the money I had spent so far. It was all for nothing. I had to search for new ladies, and that’s when my screen tests started to become famous: I made women hang upside down, buried them in cemeteries, and had them act in scenes with scorpions, snakes, and spiders. You can only appear on my tape if you are brave.

Still from Encarnação do Demônio
That sounds like fun for everyone but your cast.

The French media published an article reporting that I nearly sued one of their magazines—I think it was Cahiers du cinéma—because they claimed that the actors died in my movies and that I had killed them. But I only did all these tests to see if an actor was going to make it.

People have often said you are involved with the occult.

There was a period when it was rumored that I was a hypnotist and used black magic, but it was all because of the way I used to speak to people. I worked with the subconscious and would do background checks on the people I worked with. I would talk about their lives and they thought I could read their minds, that I used a supernatural force. They would say, “My God, he guesses right about my entire life.” But it was all because of the background research.

Do you have a name for your method of directing?

My style of directing was given a name by Rogério Sganzerla, the director of O Bandido da Luz Vermelha [The Red Light Bandit] and a Brazilian intellectual. He, along with director Jairo Ferreira, called it “invention cinema.” It’s like what we call marginal cinema—but even more marginal.

Left: Still from Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver [This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse] (1967). Right: Stills from Encarnação do Demônio. Click to Enlarge
How so?

I always try to shoot scenes that look like they cost a lot of money, but in reality they were filmed as cheaply as possible. I was once in a festival in France, and an American wanted to know how I did this one scene with spiders. He thought it was CGI. He refused to believe we just bought a bunch of real ones. This is an advantage I have: I take brave people and make them do real things that look like effects are involved.

Did it ever get out of hand on one of your sets?

Many times I’ve had to scream—to use the power of the voice, which was one of Hitler’s four powers. It was necessary to put everyone in their place, meaning that I ended up getting them more frightened by acting as an angry man who was threatening to kill them.

Kill them?

I had a gun and would say things like, “Don’t think that I won’t shoot a bullet into each one of you. Let’s stop with this fakeness—spiders can’t harm anyone! If you stay calm, they won’t bite you.” But the actors only became calm later, after they realized that the gun had no bullets in it.
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