José Mojica Marins is a Brazilian film-maker, actor, composer, screenwriter, and television and media personality. Marins is most famous for his alter ego, Coffin Joe (translated from Zé do Caixão). Although Marins is known primarily as a horror film director, his earlier works were westerns, dramas and adventure films.
Marins was born in São Paulo in Brazil on Friday 13th 1936, at a farm in the Vila Mariana, to Antônio and Carmem Marins. His father was born in Brazil but journeyed to Spain where, for a time, he became a bullfighter. On returning to Brazil, he met his future wife who made a living travelling around Brazil singing and dancing at various events. His parents tired of the endless travelling necessitated by the lifestyle and they elected to run a cinema owned by his father’s cousin. In a retrospectively unlikely parallel to the events of the film, Cinema Paradiso, Marins junior spent much of his childhood watching films at his parents place of employment, soaking up all genres of film – on the occasion a film would be deemed unsuitable for his innocent eyes, he would sneak into the projection booth and watch from there. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, it was common for cinemas in Brazil to have days dedicated to screenings solely for women or men, the subjects for the latter, inevitably, occasionally drifting towards below the waist – Marins recalled with horror once sneaking in to a men-only event to be assailed by images from a documentary warning about the dangers of sexual diseases.
At the age of 8, José was given his first camera, a pre-Super 8 model, by his parents, sealing his fate to be involved in the world of cinema for the rest of his life. Marins was afforded the luxury of being able to show his early efforts to the local community on the big screen of his parents’ cinema, great for the young filmmaker, less so for the audience which included priests and nuns who were alarmed at the child’s already alarming imagery and disregard for convention and decorum.
The adult José made his earliest efforts in Cinemascope, the first being a western, banned by priests in many cities for being too rude, as it showed a distant shot of nude women bathing in a waterfall. Despite this modest set-back, the film still achieved wide distribution around Brazil.
In a final attempt at mainstream acceptance, he approached an influential priest for advice, and agreed to make a film in which religion was seen as a healing and welcoming force. The result, 1963’s Meu Destino em Tuas Mãos, was an abject failure – so ended Marin’s attempts at appeasing the Church and diluting his own vision. It was such a vision that led to his appropriation of a disused synagogue to turn into a temple for film, both studio and school for actors and film-makers.
In 1963, Marins was scheduled to make a film called Generation Curse, examining the activities of disaffected youths. Three days before filming, Marins had a dream, or more accurately, nightmare, where he became the victim of a black-clad figure who led him through cobwebbed caves until they reached a grave which had Marins’ name and dates and both birth and death. So vivid was the dream, that the following morning he instructed his secretary to take down the details he recalled. He contacted the other contributors to the planned film and announced that there was a change of plan – the film was now to be a horror film featuring the character who had so filled him with dread. The co-backers of the film were not impressed and abandoned the project, leaving Marins to to finance the film himself, a decision which involved both he and his father selling most of their possessions.
Lacking an actor to play the evil tormentor of the film, Marins had little option but to put himself forward – his existing beard and two long finger nails were supplemented by a further eight fake nails (later to be replaced by his own). His costume was entirely black, a top hat inspired by the logo on a cigarette packet, a black suit and cape completing the desired look. This then was Zé do Caixão or Coffin Joe, destined to become one of horror’s most distinctive characters and the star of many classic films (and several less so!). Although rarely mentioned in the films, Coffin Joe’s true name is Josefel Zanatas. Marins gives an explanation for the name in an interview for Portal Brasileiro de Cinema:
“I was thinking a name: Josefel: “fel” (“gall”) for being bitter — and also Zanatas as a last name, because backward reads Satanaz”.
His central belief is that (self) imposed superstitious beliefs tend to prevent individual development, inhibit positive social change. Those who do not accept his central belief are considered to be weak, lack power, and limited in their ability to rationalise objectively. Those who share with him similar beliefs are considered to have power and intelligence above the ‘normal’ person.
The eventual film, regarded as Brazil’s first horror, was entitled, At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul, a creation still as chilling and inventive over fifty years later. Though working on a small set, the film encompasses several impressive scenes, all featuring the truly evil undertaker, Coffin Joe, scourge of priests, families, children and society as a whole as he stalks an unnamed town for a ‘superior’ woman to sire an appropriately majestic son. Both this film and the follow-up, 1967’s This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, proved highly inflammatory, the censors severely reprimanding Marins for scenes such as eye-gouging, snake and tarantula attacks, sexualised imagery and most especially, mockery of organised religion.
These, combined with Marins’ studio, writhing the the aforementioned creatures and his general appearance, raised suspicion amongst the Brazilian dictatorship government that the director was a threat to National pride and public behaviour. He was arrested and briefly imprisoned, a hero to his fans upon release but left penniless and with the Brazilian film industry fearful of working with such a notorious director and actor.
Marins became known for his peculiar castings for actors. He would challenge them to lay in coffins filled with scorpions and tarantulas to see how they would react – if they passed this test, he would push them even further, tying them up and covering them with honey, only to let ants pour upon them like a medieval torture. One actress told the director of the problems she was having at home, her husband’s regular beatings visible on her body. He filmed a scene involving an actor with only one eye – in his empty eye socket, he placed some crumbled gorgonzola cheese and wriggling worms, the actress instructed to lick the charming gunk from the cavity… remarkably she obliged and showed the footage to her husband. The abuse ceased. In fact, this was not the first time the director had employed someone who was missing a body part, the absent ‘item’ allowing for entirely believable scenes of limb removal and similar morbid trickery.
Marins was forced to abandon his own scripts and become a director for hire, whether the project was a low-budget westerns, science fiction or traditional Brazilian comedy/drama. As the 1970’s wore on, he drifted into making softcore movies, sometimes under the pseudonym J. Avelar.
Even when these opportunities eluded him, he worked as a master of ceremonies at parties and dances, often in his now distinctive Coffin Joe persona and regalia. Coffin Joe as a Brazilian phenomenon rests somewhat with the concept of the character, although existing in familiar horror surroundings of misty graveyards, his appearance and raison d’etre were unique, challenging the status quo of Brazilian society and ideals. Coffin Joe represents evil itself, evidenced throughout grotesquely sadistic acts but is not afraid to show that the behaviour of those he finds abhorrent are not above reproach themselves. It was not until the early 1990’s that Marins found true success beyond his home country, the bootlegged videos of his releases finally gaining official releases.
The appeal of an already fully-formed horror icon with his own carefully scripted back-story (Marins had concocted a whole Coffin Joe mythology, complete with details of his parents and ideology) was great, America becoming the first to feast upon his back catalogue of depravity, though in truth, Europe had always had an underground fraternity of fans watching his films on the festival circuit. Marins was invited to film conventions worldwide, the exotic Brazilian and his bizarre appearance thrilling a brand new, welcoming audience. Marins found that rock musicians in particular found an affinity with his work; Faith No More/Fantomas singer, Mike Patton being ‘instrumental’ in releasing his films on DVD. He has been referenced in song by bands as diverse as 60’s psych/tropicalia pioneers, Os Mutantes, Brazilian metal heroes, Sepultura and death metal band, Necrophagia.
Marins’ fingernails had over the years grown to outlandish lengths, at their longest over a yard long. These weren’t permanently attached but glued on when filming or making public appearances. It was only in 2008 that the director was able to conclude his original concept of Coffin Joe’s search for a bride, the eventual film being Embodiment of Evil, the $2 million budget being 100 times that of the previous two films. It’s not a completely satisfying end to the character but still has some antics with a pig and some 3000 cockroaches.
When not making films, Marins has also regularly appeared on Brazilian television, hosting a monthly interview program O Estranho Mundo de José Mojica Marins (“The Strange World of José Mojica Marins”) on the Brazilian television station Canal Brasil, in which he discusses Brazilian media and culture with other contemporary figures, such as actors and musicians. From 1967 to 1988, Marins hosted the program Além, Muito Além do Além (“Beyond, Much Beyond the Beyond”) on TV Bandeirantes, in character as Coffin Joe, presenting short horror tales written by author and screenwriter Rubens Luchetti. Some scripts were later adapted as Coffin Joe comic books. The show’s tapes were reused and currently there are no known intact recordings of this program. Off-screen, Marins has been married seven times and is said to be father to no fewer than 23 children.
Daz Lawrence, Horrorpedia
At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1963)
This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967)
The Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968)
Awakening of the Beast (1970)
The End of Man (1970)
The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe (1974)
The Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures (1976)
Hellish Flesh (1977)
Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind (1978)
Embodiment of Evil (2008) (Encarnação do Demônio)