Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

O Estranho Mundo de Zé do Caixão (1968)

... aka: Strange World of Coffin Joe, The
... aka: Strange World of Zé do Caixão, The

Directed by:
José Mojica Marins

For 1968, this trio of gritty black-and-white terror tales is startlingly sick and, to its credit, age hasn't lessened its ability to shock and surprise one bit. Things begin with a close shot of Marins' eyes superimposed over grainy shots of an overcast sky as he narrates. In the first tale, "O Fabricante de Bonecas" ("The Dollmaker" in the subs) an elderly, bearded dollmaker shows up at a bar to drop off one of his hand-crafted creations. Four men overhear a conversation about how much money the old guy makes and how he has four sexy daughters back at home. The punks then decide to rob him and have a little fun while they're at it. While the daughters are getting ready for bed, the men crash in, knock the old guy old when he refuses money, bust into the girls' shared bedroom and plot to rape each of them. But then each girl makes comments about how beautiful the men's eyes are... just like customers are always commenting on how life-like the eyes are in the dolls they make. Hmmm... There's nudity and gore, but it's predictable and much shorter than the other two tales. Just filler, really.

Next up is "Tara" (aka "Obsession") a twisted, completely dialogue-free story that seems to be partially influenced by the filmography of Lon Chaney. A hunchbacked balloon vendor (played by producer George Michel Serkeis) silently stalks attractive young Tara (Íris Bruzzi) over a long period of time. He watches her strip from a window down below before she gets into the bath and follows her shopping. She drops a box containing a pair of shoes but he's unable to catch her to give them back. He watches from afar as she meets a new man, and later is viewing her wedding from across the street when suddenly a scorned woman stabs Tara to death right as she's leaving the church! He's not permitted into the funeral, but sneaks into the mausoleum after hours, opens her coffin and begins getting frisky with the corpse. The lack of dialogue, the grainy b/w photography and odd sound effects (church bells, wind) turn this a disturbing little short. The necro scenes are much more damaged that the rest of the film, which indicates that they were removed from the theatrical release print and had to be restored at a later junction; possibly just for this DVD release. I couldn't imagine this stuff being allowed in most countries back in the 60s!

The extremely depraved "Ideologia" ("Ideology") - which makes today's "torture porn" look like a Hallmark Channel presentation by comparison - is our last tale. Prof. Oãxic Odéz (played by the director, dressed in all black and a weird wig) debates his controversial "love doesn't actually exist" philosophy on a TV talk show. One of the hosts, Alfredo (Oswaldo De Souza), gives him a hard time about it, so the professor asks him to come to his home so he can prove his theory. HE also asks that Alfredo bring along his wife Wilma (Nidi Reis). The two show up, are held against their will by their host, his Lurch-like butler (Nivaldo de Lima) and some others who subscribe to the professor's philosophy and are forced to view a warped burlesque show featuring all kind of depraved, sexually violent acts. These include a couple making love while being scrubbed bloody with a steel brush, a man actually having pins driven through his flesh and people crawl around like dogs while being whipped. And that's only the beginning! We also get a man being stretched out on a rack who is cannibalized, a woman who's stripped and has her face melted off with acid before being dragged offstage by her hair and more!

Eventually, Alfredo is chained up in a glass room and Wilma is chained up and placed in a cage to put their relationship to the test. Will love win out, or will instinct to survive? The two are refused food and water for days and start to go a little mad while their host comes in and gives them a bible sermon every day! At the end, the professor and his cohorts enjoy a cannibal feast of heads, hands and feet as "Hallelujah" plays on the soundtrack. Unreal!


Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver (1967)

...aka: This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse
...aka: Tonight I Will Eat Your Corpse

Directed by:
José Mojica Marins

After a brief recap of the conclusion of AT MIDNIGHT I'LL TAKE YOUR SOUL (1964), there's a wild, ingeniously-edited flurry of opening credits announcing the cast and crew, which features snippets of scenes we're about to see accompanied by distorted screams and moans, as well as new scenes showing that Zé do Caixão has not only been absolved of his crimes due to lack of evidence but also gets surgery to restore his vision. Now he's ready to relocate and begin again in his search for the "superior woman" to bear his child; maintaining his belief that the only way to achieve immortality is through blood and heredity since there's no afterlife. Zé arrives in a new village (hilariously, everyone there runs inside and hides when they hear he's coming), opens up his own funeral parlor, buys a mansion on the outskirts of the village and hires a facially-deformed hunchback named Bruno (Nivaldo de Lima) to assit him. The two immediately abduct six attractive young women, all of whom are rumored to be atheist and might be sufficient to bear a child to Zé's satisfaction. He keeps them prisoner in a hidden room in his home (all dressed in see-through negligees) and unleashes a horde of tarnatulas on them as they sleep to see who holds up the best under pressure. Pouty-lipped heiress Marcia (Tina Wohlers) manages to maintain her cool the best, so Zé decides to do away with the other five. One is strangled by the hunchback and has her face melted with acid, and the other four are led into a secret room, where a secret panel opens and dozens of snakes slither out!

Unfortunately, Zé discovers that Marcia has fallen for him and since he views love as a weakness he decides to dismiss her; letting her live because he knows she won't go to the cops and he can use her to help implicate another guy - bald muscleman Truncador (William Morgan) - in the killings. A colonel's (Roque Rodrigues) lovely daughter, Laura (Nadia Freitas), arrives in town just in time to catch Zé's eye. And to his delight, she's a bit of a sadist herself. Her family naturally disapprove of the union, but that's OK. Zé and his hunchback make their point by killing the brother by dropping a huge rock on his head. Laura eventually finds herself with child, but things start to unravel for our despicable mortician when he realizes that one of his original victims - Jandira (Tania Mendonça) - was pregnant at the time of her death. Despite his hatred for most adults, Zé never wants harm to come to a child, because they're fine until adults manage to ruin them later on.

Guilt over Jandira's death leads to a nightmarish vision of hell, and the film suddenly changes from black-and-white to full color for about five minutes. Hell, as seen here, is a bright, gaudy mix of fire and ice. Red-painted men run around sticking people with pitchforks, whipping them and driving nails into their foreheads. Some people hang on upside down crosses with snakes wrapped around them. Steam and ice pour from holes. Walls bleed. Blood drips from the ceiling. Heads and body parts jut out from everywhere. Zé also gets to visit briefly with Satan (who's also played by Marins). When he awakens, everything's back to b/w for the finish, which wraps up with Ze being chased by a torch-carrying mob of villagers through a swamp and finally being forced into accepting the fact that there is a God.

Though this wears out its welcome a bit toward the end and goes on about ten minutes too long, there's loads of interesting and incredibly bizarre stuff going on here to easily hold one's interest. It's better made than the previous entry (the budget seems a bit higher), the dialogue is well-written, interesting and sometimes blackly humorous and Marins (whose voice apparently is dubbed in all of these films) has great presence - and some amazing fingernails - in the lead.

Clips from the film were later recycled in the partial compilation HALUCINATIONS OF A DERANGED MIND (1978) and COFFIN JOE'S VISIONS OF TERROR (1994). Marins would even return as Coffin Joe in a direct sequel 40 years later (!) It - titled either DEVIL'S REINCARNATION or EMBODIMENT OF EVIL - apparently uses footage from both an abandoned 1981 attempt to revive the character along with new footage shot in 2006.


À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma (1964)

...aka: At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul

Directed by:
José Mojica Marins

The very first outing for Brazilian horror king Marins (who self-financed the project by selling his home and car!) has a nastier edge than most of what was coming out during the same time period, though when you widdle away the excess you'll find the framework of a classic morality tale. Bearded, black-clad, caped and tophat sporting mortician Zé de Caixão (aka "Coffin Joe;" played by the director) is a cruel, sadistic piece of work who seems to get much joy out of terrorizing and bullying others. An atheist, Zé scoffs at local religious customs (eating lamb while others fast) and believes he's intellectually superior to the superstitious, simple-minded townspeople. Zé also takes what he wants. If anyone resists, he quickly becomes violent. At a local pub, Zé gropes a young female barmaid in front of her father, cuts off a guys fingers with a broken bottle when he doesn't want to fork over money he lost in a card game, whips another guy and, in the most startling bit, removes a jagged crown of thorns from a Jesus statue and slams it into a guys face!

Conceiving a son seems of utmost important to Zé, but his wife Lenita (Valéria Vasquez) has yet to bear any children. Fed up with her infertility (or perhaps his own), Ze decides to just get rid of his old lady by giving her some ether, tying her down to a bed and letting a huge spider bite her until she dies. Ze then sets his sights on his best friend Antonio's (Nivaldo Lima) girlfriend Terezinha (Magda Mei, who co-scripted with the director). One evening while they're alone, Ze knocks Antonio out, beats his head off the side of a bathtub and drowns him. When he goes after an unwilling Terezinha, he slaps her around and then rapes her. She ends up killing herself and when a doctor (Ilídio Martins Simões) threatens to expose him, Zé uses his long, sharpened fingernails to poke out his eyeballs, then coats him with liquor and sets him on fire! Karma finally catches up to Zé during the Day of the Dead while he's out near a graveyard... walking alone... at midnight.

Despite the extremely low budget, mixed technical work (including some wobbly graveyard and catacomb sets right out of Plan 9 from Outer Space) and mostly bad acting, the film is worth seeing for the invigoratingly violent and nasty scenes, a few eye-raising sacriligious moments and some interesting surrealistic moments toward the end. There's a zombie surrounded by a glow of glitter, a floating ghost woman, maggot-covered corpses, loads of candles and a funeral "Procession of the Dead" seen in negative where Ze sees his own funeral taking place. Shot in black-and-white in a fittingly crude way that often recalls silent cinema.


Magic (1978)

Directed by:
Richard Attenborough

Looking over the talented cast and crew, one is likely to expect more than what this major studio film is actually able to deliver in the end. It's the good old "Is he/she actually insane or is the dummy / doll / mannequin actually living" scenario (which had already basically been perfected in the great Michael Redgrave segment of the 1945 British anthology DEAD OF NIGHT) played out here with disappointingly predictable results. Anthony Hopkins (who'd just appeared in the likewise disappointing AUDREY ROSE) is able to rise above the material as timid, socially awkward magician Corky Withers, a man crippled with insecurity who's only really able to come out of his shell and achieve a level of professional success through his ventriloquist's dummy Fats (voiced - unnervingly so - by Hopkins). While on the verge of achieving fame on the talk show circuit thanks in part to his no-nonsense agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith), a push-pull effect begins between the outgoing Fats and the introspective magician controlling him; the doll being a outlet for Corky's schizophrenic personality to simultaneously surface and spiral out of control without really being detected by the masses.
Right when his career is beginning to take off, Corky retreats to a secluded area in upstate New York in an ill-fated attempt to get away from the pressures of show business (and avoid his agent's insistence on him taking a medical exam to secure a job). There, he gets back in touch with Peggy (Ann-Margret), the attractive, popular girl who never really gave him the time of day during his youth but still managed to make an impression on him. Peggy ended up settling for a quiet life - owning some rental cabins in the middle of nowhere with her temperamental husband Duke (Ed Lauter) - and is looking for a way out. She and Corky become lovers, but the relationship is obviously doomed right from the start. There's just a touch of violence and a couple of murders, though director Attenborough aggressively refuses to turn the film into an obvious shock show; consistently downplaying suspense and terror through anti-climax. What's left is a predictable story of mental illness using the obvious metaphors and a bland, doomed love story traveling down a well-worn path.

It was based on a novel by William Goldman (who adapted his own work here), has a Jerry Goldsmith score, an effectively gloomy look thanks to cinematographer Victor J. Kemper and is well-budgeted and professionally made. There are some effective creepy moments, the doll design - fashioned to look somewhat like the leading actor - is excellent and most of the cast (particularly Hopkins and Meredith) acquit themselves well. Regardless, the level of subdued familiarity - and the obviousness of the entire premise - will be a turn off to certain viewers.

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