Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Zé do Caixão trilogy by Fantoma, review

Three movies from the Brazillian horror Meistro Jose Mojica Marins, out on DVD by Fantoma, unfortunately going out of print late in January. "At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul", "This Night I'll Possess your Corpse", and "Awakening of the Beast".

Zé do Caixão is the name of the character that director Marins plays in the films, whose name translates out into "Joe of the Coffins", sometimes less poetically rendered as "Coffin Joe".

Of the three films "At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul" is very, very, good, "This Night I'll Possess your Corpse" is not so good, and "Awakening of the Beast" is good for a very different reason than "At Midnight".

The first two films are part of the same series, the third of which has yet to be made, while "Awakening of the Beast" is typical of later Zé films in that he plays a less direct role and Marins appears as himself in part of it, as the person who invented Zé do Caixão.

Zé is an undertaker, hence his association with coffins, in a small Brazilian town. In "Midnight" it's revealed that he scorns religion, both Christianity and darker ones included, believes in nothing, and is very psychotic. He murders his wife because she's infertile, because he believes that without an afterlife kids are the only continuity a person can have, then tries to assault his best friend's wife to be, who he likes instead of his own, then kills her fiance, then kills a doctor that gets suspicious, all the while terrorizing the town through his willingness to attack anyone who doesn't like the fact that he's killed all these people. The difference between this and a thousand other horror films is that Zé's motivation and reasoning are portrayed as being plausible, if twisted, in the same way as Norman Bates' thinking is understandable yet disturbed.

In fact "Psycho" was a movie that came to mind a few times while watching "Midnight". Despite the list of killings, the pace of the movie is pretty slow, with a lot of character development. Zé doesn't randomly kill people and he doesn't make a show of it, concealing what he's doing until the end of the film. He actually has a personality, and is shown to be the kind of bully who terrorizes a place while daring the people to do something about it. And when they try to do something about it he does very bad things to them despite being somewhat small in terms of muscles, which intimidates them even more. Less a horror film than a psychological thriller until the end, it's well written and well shot. For being made in 1964 it's really ahead of its time, and most definitely leaps out of the category of Brazilian cult film and into the horror canon in its own right.

Which you can't say about its sequel "This night I'll Possess your Corpse". Instead of the formula that Marins used before, "Possess" falls into the category of cheesy horror movie. Still in the same small town after the climax of "Midnight", Zé now has a deformed, humpbacked assistant named Raul, and is still pursuing his dream of passing on his bloodline, through criminal means. But something happens, and that something is that he finds a woman that meets his criteria who willingly likes him and shares his philosophy. Enter the curse of declining dramatic tension. While Marins tries to make up for the lack of plot and character development through the use of animals like spiders and snakes and a really good color sequence taking place in Hell, it still can't save the film from occupying a lower level of cinema than that of "Midnight".

"Awakening of the Beast" is altogether different. The premise is that a psychiatric researcher is doing a project to determine if drug use, particularly LSD use, leads to other kinds of criminal behavior. Marins is called in during a discussion between the researcher and a critical colleague for purposes that until the end are not specified. The film consists of accounts derived from news paper articles of crazy and sometimes sadistic things that people have done under the influence of drugs followed by the stories of the trips that the researcher induced in his four subjects. Then there's the unifying factor, which includes Marins, and which I'm not going to disclose, which is revealed at the end.

The drug accounts from the paper are funny, bizarre, sometimes twisted, and generally out of the tradition of "Reefer Madness" type films. They all seem to have related sexual fetishism in them as well, which is funny and weirdly entertaining. The trips are rendered very very interestingly. Very fantastic and colorful, to the point where it's hard to describe them, but they feature a staircase lined with people that a character walks down, a giant spider with a woman's head, strange demons in masks surrounding one of the trippers, a Brazillian Indian leading white and black people in slave collars and chains through a warehouse filled with statues and statue parts, and more. What makes it really good is that in all four of the trips Zé appears and discourses at great length on his philosophy, which has become more metaphysical since the previous films. Often called an "Evil Philosopher" because of statements like these, they're not cheesy, at least not in this one, but thoughtful in a kind of creepy way. His statement on art and psychology is the one that I most enjoyed.

Not a horror film in the usual sense so much as a trip into weirdness and the bizarre, "Awakening of the Beast" comes recommended.

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