How can you not like a character named “Coffin Joe”?
Awakening of the Beast is a cult, campy Brazilian movie from 1969. In some ways it’s crudely amateurish (I’m guessing the budget for the whole film was about $1.47), but it’s certainly inventive in its own strange way, not only in its bizarre content, but in the way its self-referential structure loops back on itself.
This was the third Coffin Joe movie. He is played by the filmmaker himself Jose Mojica Marins. He is a bearded, top-hatted, very long fingernailed, Svengali-eyed Satan figure.
I’m going to try to summarize the film, but a lot of it’s seemingly incoherent, out of chronological order, etc. Really it’s almost better to ignore the structure entirely and just appreciate the movie as a series of bizarre vignettes rather than trying to make sense of it.
A Brazilian psychiatrist recruits four recreational drug users of different ages, genders, and social classes for an experiment. He takes them to various live shows and clubs and movies, all having to do with debauchery, violence, horror, whatever. He asks them which they believe hits hardest emotionally, which one they think is the most vivid, most difficult to get out of their mind. They unanimously agree it was the Coffin Joe movie they saw. They have different opinions about the quality of the work as “art,” but they agree it was the most intense.
So he says that he wants them then to focus on the character of Coffin Joe as he administers LSD to them, and to report any hallucinations, any bizarre thoughts they have.
They do, and we see what they’re imagining (interspersed with shots of them speaking into the psychiatrist’s tape recorder microphone). Or maybe in some cases we’re seeing what they’re doing under the influence of the drugs, but I think it’s all their fantasies.
Most of what they’re experiencing seems to be happening in a Hell-like environment, presided over by Coffin Joe. In so-cheesy-they’re-funny special effects, Coffin Joe appears and disappears, makes them appear and disappear, and spontaneously creates fire. He and his minions slap them, push them around and bully them, tie them to the ground and walk across their semi-naked bodies, etc. They experience having power over other lost souls themselves, having them worship at their feet, and so on.
There are whips and a generally fetishistic air to it all. Coffin Joe makes bombastic pronouncements of a vaguely Nietzschean “you’re now above good and evil” type, calls for an extreme sexist order where men are superior and can do as they please with women, and in general shows that one of the horrors of Hell to dread could well be listening to his endless metaphysical harangues.
The psychiatrist writes a book about his findings, and then appears on the world’s most poorly lit talk show with a host and I think three other guests, joined midway by filmmaker Marins playing himself, for a panel discussion. It’s not so dark that you can’t see their faces well enough to identify them, so it’s not for anonymity, but they’re all kind of in shadows and shot at weird angles.
The psychiatrist tells about his experiment and also the deleterious effects of recreational drugs on society in general. A large part of the movie consists of what he identifies as the most egregious things people do under the influence of these drugs. It’s almost like the panel of guests is being shown these clips with us, though in reality it’s mostly stuff that no one would have had a camera to film, so it may be he is just telling them about these incidents we’re seeing.
In any case, the other panelists insist that he’s misinterpreting the data, that this is not attributable to drugs, that these are sick people doing terrible things due to their mental illnesses. (Marins mostly keeps his own counsel, smiling knowingly.) The psychiatrist piles on more examples.
The vignettes we’re seeing start with people sticking needles in themselves, snorting powder up their nose, etc. Then they become mostly sex-related, though it’s not a pornographic movie that can have actual sex, so the scenes are a combination of suggested sex and various fetishes. Most of the fetishes seem to involve women’s underwear. Women are talked into giving up their panties to appreciative guys who wave them around like a trophy, women dance for men in bra and panties, men gleefully wash panties by hand, etc.
I particularly liked the Brazilian hippies playing guitar and bongos and talking the previously innocent young girl they got up to their pad into taking drugs and getting up on a table and dancing in go go dancer fashion for them. (After which they take turns sticking their head under her skirt—trying to take off her panties with their teeth or something—and eventually kill her.)
There’s also a woman who applies for a maid job and is pressured into becoming a porn actress and is eventually raped. And various others.
Ultimately the psychiatrist announces it was all a trick to make a different point. Actually he never gave his experimental subjects LSD but a placebo, and they had their wild hallucinogenic trips through the power of suggestion. The implication is that the fantasizing they did, and the debauchery and crime and such that drug users in society do, doesn’t stem from the drug use itself (so he’s actually arguing pretty much what the other panelists have been saying all along), but because they think the drug use compels them to do the things they’ve always wanted to do at some level anyway, and relieves them of the responsibility of doing these things.
After the show, the psychiatrist and Marins chat amiably as they leave the studio together, and it is suggested that maybe Marins really is Coffin Joe rather than Coffin Joe being his fictional creation, and that maybe it’s neither drugs nor some psychological phenomenon that explains why people do weird or evil things, but his hypnotic effect on the people he chooses to target—a demon possession type thing.
Again, I’m describing it in a way that’s surely more organized and coherent than the movie really is—because I think logically, and in paraphrasing something I invariably impose some kind of logical structure on it—but that’s the gist of it.
In almost all respects it’s a genuinely awful movie. But certainly one can make a case for appreciating it on the level of camp. What kept running through my mind is I’m sure I could use a lot of clips from this—totally out of context—to insert in movies of mine for humor purposes. It’s bizarre stuff—wildly exaggerated, often atrociously acted, with a soundtrack of eerie music and wails from damned souls.
Only people really, really into this kind of cult stuff will want to sit through the whole hour and forty minutes of this film. But I would think a somewhat wider range of people could get a kick out of watching a random fifteen to thirty minutes of it. It’s so strange, I think it’s worth seeing at least some of it like that.
I’m glad at some level that I watched it, that I can now claim to be familiar with Coffin Joe.
Think of it as Reefer Madness meets Plan 9 From Outer Space. You’ll probably know from that description alone if this is the kind of cringe-worthy bad movie you just can’t miss.