Sunday, July 26, 2009
Fantasia Film Fest Review: Embodiment of Evil
Embodiment of Evil (2008) aka Encarnação do Demônio
Directed by José Mojica Marins
Written by José Mojica Marins and Dennison Ramalho
I was at the Canadian Premiere of Embodiment of Evil during Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival. The introduction alone was worth the price of admission as the co-screenwriter Dennison Ramalho, dressed in a leather straight-jacket, introduced the director and star, Coffin Joe himself, José Mojica Marins, who was wheeled onstage by three gorgeous, fetish-wearing goths in a shroud covered container that was unveiled to be an open coffin.
Embodiment of Evil is the third in the Coffin Joe trilogy, the first two films being À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma (1964)... aka At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul and Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver (1967)... aka This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse.
Zé do Caixão, the Coffin Joe character is a combination of showy horror host, comic-book magician (specifically Mandrake the Magician) and depraved, sadistic serial torturer and murderer. A gravedigger, he wears a top hat, black cloak and has supernaturally long fingernails. A fierce atheist who denies the existence of both Heaven and Hell, Coffin Joe is obsessed by his search of the perfect woman with whom he can mate and continue his bloodline, preserving his eternal blood in a son. Joe's definition of a perfect woman is one that, like him, has no fear. To identify her, Joe uses the most diabolical tortures possible and those who fail his tests die in the most hideous and painful manner possible.
Fantasia programmed the two previous Coffin Joe films back in 1999 and brought José Mojica Marins from Brazil to present them. While by no means the only people who can take credit, the Fantasia team must share the blame for reintroducing the world to Zé do Caixão.
I am not a fan of torture in horror films. What makes the Coffin Joe films palatable to me is the barely veiled metaphor of Coffin Joe trying to free Brazil from its imprisonment - chained by fear of violence from the military dictatorship and superstitious fear of the Roman Catholic Church. Nothing that Coffin Joe did or could do could ever be as evil or perverse as the way that the Junta and the church conspired to enslave Brazil and Brazilians. Coffin Joe is like a Pied Piper for freedom, offering a path filled with pain and for many, death, but promising at the end of the road a freedom that neither government nor church can take away.
Embodiment of Evil begins with Coffin Joe being released from an insane asylum where he has been confined for the last 40 years after his crimes in the first two films. (Amusingly, his hunchback assistant Bruno has been waiting for him for all these years.)
Coffin Joe exits to a world both completely different from the one that he left and eternally the same. There is very much a sense that Coffin Joe is a man from a time that has past while simultaneously a prophet whose time has come.
Coffin Joe's quest is both easier and more difficult than it was in the past. Easier because he now has disciples, the children and grand-children of those who heard his message in the sixties. And a new generation of women unshackled by fear gives Coffin Joe an embarrassment of choice to be his perfect woman.
His quest is more difficult because the barriers of fear and superstition still exist. The metaphor still works: fear of a violent military has been replaced by the fear of a corrupt and violent police. The superstitious fear of the church remains although its grip has weakened. The biggest change is that everyone is haunted by the sins of the past. The new Brazil is built on the bones and blood of the old Brazil and everyone (including Coffin Joe) is haunted by the ghosts of that past.
For Joe, this is a revolting development. As a man whose entire life is built on a denial of the existence of a life after death, ghosts are an abomination. Coffin Joe works even better as a metaphor for the new Brazil, futilely denying its' bloody past, like Lady Macbeth trying desperately to wash away the bloody spot.
Embodiment of Evil, like all the films in the Coffin Joe trilogy, is not a film for the squeamish. The images of pain and torture are all the more horrific since many of them are real. (Apparently for many in the Brazilian fetish community, being tortured by Coffin Joe is a badge of honour.) What can't be denied is that his vision is a unique vision of horror that speaks to those who will listen as clearly today as it did in the sixties.