Coffin Joe of Brazil
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"What is life? It is the beginning of death.
What is death? It is the end of life.
What is existence? It is the continuity of blood.
What is blood? It is the reason to exist."
— José Mojica Marins as Coffin Joe in At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964)
I bet you've heard of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Leatherface, and Ghostface. Pinhead, Hannibal Lecter, the Wolfman, Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, the Creature (from the Black Lagoon)—I could keep going for a while, but you get it. These are all iconic villains from horror films, and I'd be surprised if you haven't heard of every single one of them.
But have you ever heard of Coffin Joe? He's a horror movie villain, unlike the others I mentioned above. If you're not from Brazil, the chances of you knowing Coffin Joe are slim, even though he starred in numerous films and made appearances in many other media for nearly half a century.
Who Is Coffin Joe?
Years before Night of the Living Dead, over a decade before the Golden Age of slashers began to take off, a Brazilian filmmaker named José Mojica Marins invented the character of Coffin Joe for a 1964 film titled At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul—the first ever Brazilian-produced horror film. Before horror superstars like Freddy or Chucky were even conceived, José Mojica Marins created Coffin Joe and made such controversial and shocking films at the time that a few were banned in his own country.
The low-budget, on-screen kills put some modern movies to shame and make those one-liner quips certain horror villains use seem like an after-school special. The character Marins created for it, Coffin Joe, might superficially resemble what many of us picture for Jack the Ripper—based on Coffin Joe's choice of clothing.
But using his appearance as a guide, we'd end up in the wrong place. It's difficult to capture the essence of Coffin Joe in a simple description because he's not a typical horror villain. He doesn't wear a mask, isn't from another dimension, doesn't have supernatural powers; he's not inspired by nor derived from myth or legend. So, what makes him so villainous?
Coffin Joe is a sacrilegious, nihilistic atheist with Nietzschian beliefs, and he's a complete dick. I'm pretty sure that qualifies as its own subgenre. Also, unlike many other horror villains, his motivations for what he does are apparent: he wants to find the perfect woman to impregnate and have a son to carry his evil bloodline so that his son can save humanity from its own stupidity.
The Nails of Coffin Joe
Before creating the Coffin Joe character, José Mojica Marins supposedly kept his thumbnails long as a hobby—right...hobby. Anyway...the beginning of work on his first film as Coffin Joe, the makeup artist noticed his long thumbnails and suggested Marins put fake nails on the rest of his fingers. Happy with the look of the Coffin Joe character, Marins later decided to grow his own nails long, eventually to a length of 25 centimeters (nearly 10 inches). He's known to have cut them short only twice after that—once in 1982 for a televised ceremony and then again in 1998 for another ceremony at a Sepultura concert. Three fingernails from the Sepultura concert ceremony were given to friends, one was kept for display at the Coffin Joe Museum in São Paulo, and the last was auctioned off for a children's charity.
In the second movie featuring Coffin Joe, This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (1967), the character gets dragged into hell, and the black and white film switches to color. Watching it is a surreal experience, particularly if you keep in mind that this was the 1960s. Coffin Joe appeared in quite a few films and even had a time as a horror host. You can read more about his appearances on camera here.
A Little About José Mojica Marins
Marins' interest in filmmaking began at an early age; his father ran a local cinema, and the family lived above it. He devoured comic books and films and even created his own puppet theater; evidently, Marins liked to dress up in costume and walk around the neighborhood. There's a story about him when he was nine years old when he volunteered to direct the school play Little Red Robin Hood. The lead actress in the play could not scream the way Marins wanted when Little Red Robin Hood met the wolf, so he threw a gecko into her hair to get a realistic sound from her.
When he turned twelve, he got a camera and began making movies at home, quickly learning the process of filmmaking on his own. He kept at it and opened a film school in the 1950s, teaching acting and filmmaking to raise money to invest in his productions. In 1958, he released a western film titled Adventurer's Fate, but it didn't get the attention he'd hoped for. According to some, by 1963, he was so disillusioned with his film career that he contemplated suicide. He had a nightmare where he was dragged by a man dressed in all black to a grave and realized that the tombstone had his own name carved into it. The man in black tossed him into the earth—and it was then that he realized the man in black was himself. Upon waking, Marins created the character Coffin Joe based on his dream version of himself dressed in all black.
As far as Marins' character of Coffin Joe, what sets him apart and makes the character so scary is that a character like this could (and probably does) exist in real life, in our real world: an intelligent, highly-motivated, brutal murderer. Marins died in 2020 but left a powerful legacy of work behind. I'd encourage you to check out some of the films and really dive deep into the links below to discover more about not only Coffin Joe but also José Mojica Marins.
Relevant & Related
- The entire first film, At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, is up on YouTube and Archive.org for free.
- There's a genuinely fascinating documentary where you can learn the challenges Marins had in making Brazil's first horror film, censorship and how his work was banned in his own country, tricks to make a six-foot patch of trees look like a forest, and how he took a bunch of amphetamine to make the first movie. There's a lot more here, and it's worth a watch. Fair warning, though, it does explore a bit of his work in genres other than horror, and exploring those will take you down a rabbit hole of bizarre and might leave you scratching your head wondering why some of his horror films were banned, but some of his other work wasn't. Coffin Joe: The Strange World of José Mojica Marins (documentary)
- Raymond Castile created a horror satire dedicated to Coffin Joe called The Blind Date of Coffin Joe.
- In 1996, the band White Zombie met Coffin Joe, and the whole thing was filmed and is now up on YouTube. Interestingly, the song "I, Zombie" on White Zombie's Astro-Creep: 2000 album uses samples from the 1970 film Awakening of the Beast by José Mojica Marins. Spoiler-free: the movie is about a psychiatrist performing LSD-fueled experiments that explore the link between illicit drugs and depravity.
- A thoughtful analysis of the meanings behind the Coffin Joe films by filmmaker Joe Peeler: Coffin Joe.
- Coffin Joe appeared on the Jon Stewart show in 1994, where he buried Jon Stewart alive.
- American death metal band Necrophagia has a song titled "Parasite Eve" from the album The Divine Art of Torture. It features José Mojica Marins as Coffin Joe. Check out Necrophagia - Parasite Eve.
- Read even more about Coffin Joe over at Under the Shadow of Coffin Joe by Wilker Duarte at horrorobsessive.com.
- One of Coffin Joe's monikers is "Brazil's National Bogeyman." If you want to read about the bogeymen around the world, you'll want to look at my article: Bogeyman: Myth or More?