The Strange World of Coffin Joe [subtitled]

The Strange World of Coffin Joe

There’s a recent documentary about Coffin Joe with a very similar name, but The Strange World of Coffin Joe is an actual Coffin Joe movie from 1968.

This was my second exposure to Brazilian camp horror movie legend Coffin Joe (José Mojica Marins), the first being Awakening of the Beast.

Awakening of the Beast is horribly amateurish, and difficult to sustain interest in since the story is so convoluted and incoherent, yet is also in the top 10% or 20% of films I’ve written about so far in terms of how well it stuck in my memory, how often I’ve mentioned it to others since seeing it, etc. Mostly because it’s “so bad it’s good,” and because it has such a classic bizarre character at its center, it’s one of those movies I’m glad I saw (out of proportion to the modest amount I enjoyed it while I was actually watching it).

The Strange World of Coffin Joe is like Awakening of the Beast in some respects and different in some.

Similarities include that they both have very low production values; they both are horror movies with suggestions of offbeat, fetishistic sex, violence, and scantily clad women; and they both feature Coffin Joe as a Satanic figure spouting some sort of Nietzschean or nihilist philosophy.

As far as differences, The Strange World of Coffin Joe is a Night Gallery-style triptych of short horror tales; Awakening of the Beast is all one story. Coffin Joe appears only in the third of three stories of The Strange World of Coffin Joe and is not identified as also being Marins himself; Coffin Joe is central to the entirety of Awakening of the Beast, which has a bizarre, self-referential Escher-like narrative structure like a Charles Kaufman movie, where Marins plays both himself and Coffin Joe. The three stories in The Strange World of Coffin Joe can be hard to follow here and there but in the end mostly make sense; Awakening of the Beast will never be accused of making sense.

The Strange World of Coffin Joe opens with Coffin Joe bombastically pontificating about nothing (this is the end but is the end not truly the beginning? there is only nothing but nothing then must be everything, etc., etc.)—the kind of laugh out loud nonsense you might come across in an insane asylum or in a popular spiritual self-help book in the Metaphysics section of a mainstream bookstore.

Then we’re into the action, and it’s as delightfully awful as anticipated—black and white, terrible sound, “actors” they apparently picked up off the street, etc.

I especially enjoyed the fact that they got a non-English speaking person to write the English subtitles: “The professor are expecting us,” “Servants, take our honored guests to its respective rooms,” “The supper, master. It was cooked the way you told to,” “And the instinct has win!”

The first story is about a dollmaker and his ominously realistic looking dolls. I have to give them credit for somehow avoiding the obvious with this one. I mean, any horror story with that set-up invariably develops in the direction of the dolls having formerly been people now trapped in these doll bodies, or the dolls coming to life, or some similar variant. But the secret of this story turns out not to be that usual cliché, or at least only loosely related to it.

Not that this story of rapists getting their comeuppance is remotely believable, even accepting its basic premise as a given, but it’s not as bad as it could be. It’s like a very low budget Night Gallery segment.

The second story is the hardest to follow. It has no dialogue. As best I can make out, a scruffy balloon vendor becomes obsessed with a pretty girl and follows her around. He sees her get stabbed and killed at her wedding by apparently a jealous rival girl. He breaks into the funeral home and caresses and fondles the corpse, to the tune of something that sounds vaguely like “Auld Lang Syne.”

The third story is by far the longest. This is the one with Coffin Joe, though he’s not in full Coffin Joe getup, just the monstrously long fingernails.

He’s a “professor” on a talk show, asserting his controversial theory that love does not exist. After the show, he promises proof to one of the skeptical interviewers, if he’ll come to his house with his wife for dinner.

At Coffin Joe’s house, the man and his wife are taken captive. They are tied up and forced to watch little skits on a makeshift stage, involving such things as cannibalism, flagellation, and a midget throwing acid in a girl’s face (the bottle of liquid is helpfully labeled “ACID” in big letters so we’ll know). This is intended to prove what people will do when reduced to their essential nature.

Then they are locked up in separate cages, given no food or water, and occasionally tortured to get them to betray each other (thus proving love doesn’t exist). Basically like the torture scenes in 1984, in other words.

Overall, The Strange World of Coffin Joe is significantly less confusing and slightly less bizarre than Awakening of the Beast, while being somewhat more watchable and entertaining as a movie.

It all depends on how you prefer your Coffin Joe.

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