Fail, fail, fail, fail, succeed

José Mojica Marins

File this under “transcendentally weird cinema” – my first (and subsequent viewings) of the film I am about to discuss gave me the stunned “WTF?” reaction I treasure so dearly. After you’ve been around a while, it gets harder and harder to experience this reaction, if only because you’ve seen and heard so much already. This is probably why I’ve grown to love foreign cinema so much – I get to see stories told through the lens of another culture, and I can’t always tell where things are going. This allows me to watch these films (almost) as though I was a child, which is the absolute best way to experience art. I first saw “This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse” around ten years ago when I stumbled on it during a Halloween movie marathon on PBS of all places…

Where do I even begin? First of all, this is a black and white low budget horror film made in Brazil in 1967. José Mojica Marins is the auteur who wrote, directed, and starred in this masterpiece. The language was the first thing that threw me – when I initially saw it, I didn’t recognize it was Portuguese. This alone made the whole thing seem unique and other worldly – I really had no frame of reference for understanding what was going on, and I couldn’t tell what country it was made in. It turns out that José’s previous film “At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul” (1963) was marketed as Brazil’s first horror film, but I digress…

The movie is really low budget, but quite effective at building a mood. What exactly is that mood? Well, let’s see… Marins plays a character called Zé do Caixão, which roughly translates to Coffin Joe (!) in English. He is an undertaker who wears a black cape with a top hat and has really long fingernails, who is constantly shouting long metaphysical diatribes about how there is no god and how most men are pathetic, inferior creatures. Atheism is a core part of his ethos, so respect to a poor Brazilian filmmaker who decided to build a horror franchise around this concept. He carries himself almost as if he were superhuman, and even though he is not a large man, all of the simple villagers are afraid of him. He has a hunchback assistant who doesn’t seem quite human, and his quest is to find the “perfect” woman to have his son, which will make him immortal. As you might imagine, finding this woman is not easy, so a few get killed in the process.

There are no sets to speak of, so the outdoor scenes are actually filmed in the village. We get to see Coffin Joe walking along a dirt road lined with shacks in full regalia in broad daylight, filmed in grainy black and white 16 mm. It’s so surreal that it is hard to describe, almost like you are watching Nosferatu take an afternoon stroll in a small Brazilian village… This is probably a good time to ponder José’s influences – clearly he had seen the Universal horror films, and probably Nosferatu. But his vision is so completely unique that it’s really difficult to pin down what his touchstones were. The character of Coffin Joe seems like it’s straight out of a graphic novel, except they didn’t yet exist. It seems to be marketed to the Brazilian equivalent of drive-ins, but I really have no idea what kind of distribution this film had or where it was shown. And who makes a low budget Brazilian horror film in 1967 about philosophy, atheism, and surrealism – and then markets it to the poor working class? José Mojica Marins, that’s who!

But I’ve saved the best for last – nothing can prepare you for the surrealistic color sequence in hell that happens three quarters of the way through this fever dream. It really has to be seen to be believed – when I saw it the first time I watched it wide-eyed and slack-jawed, like I was seeing something for which I truly had no frame of reference, and my brain was desperately trying to rewire itself to integrate this new reality.

To say that this isn’t going to be for everyone is probably a bit of an understatement. But if you have any interest in the wild and fascinating history of international horror cinema or outsider art, you owe it to yourself to watch this with an open mind. This is a great example of an artist who is completely committed to realizing his personal vision. What a great inspiration. Bravo and well done, Mr. Marins!