The Strange Oeuvre of Coffin Joe, Part 1


Update 1/30/15 - 2/12/17: It's update time, boys and girls!  Synapse has just released their Coffin Joe Trilogy 3-DVD set.  How are the transfers?  What are the extras?  Is there anything new?  Should we replace our previous editions?  Let's have a look!  Oh, and I have also updated Part 2, but most of the pertinent new Synapse stuff is covered here in part 1.

Collecting José Mojica Marins movies can be almost as weird and confusing as the films themselves. You'll find yourself encountering unreleased films, double-dips, alternate aspect ratios and untranslated imports. It's as frustrating as it is fun. Marins is a Brazillian exploitation director best known for his iconic horror character Zé do Caixão, or Coffin Joe to us English speakers. His work practically defines the concept "not for everyone," but if you're of the right mindset, there's a lot to be appreciated in his ambitious films, especially the Coffin Joe titles. When you get past those, you're really putting on your "I Am a Curiosity Seeker" hat.

His films are primarily available in three main DVD collections (though there's more, and we'll get to them, too). The Coffin Joe Trilogy from Fantoma came out first in 2002, after their success and notoriety via a series of VHS tapes from Something Weird. The titles were all sold separately or available together in a pretty wicked awesome coffin-shaped boxed set. Each DVD also came with a cool, reprint of a Coffin Joe comic book, and you got a bonus fourth if you got the coffin set. It's now long out of print, but was reissued in Australia in 2011 with the same transfers and extras, minus only the coffin box and comic books.

Soon after, Marins released a huge boxed set of elaborate special editions through Cinemagia in Brazil called Coleção Zé do Caixão. A lot of it was untranslated, including most of the extras (we'll get into all those specifics, don't worry), but the films were, and it included several more titles than the original trilogy. Then, in 2009, in conjunction with the release of his Marins' comeback film, Anchor Bay released another boxed set in the UK called The Coffin Joe Collection, which included most of the same titles, but also had a few exclusives.

And now in 2017, we have Synapse's The Coffin Joe Trilogy, which features the original two Coffin Joe films, plus his 2008 comeback, Embodiment of Evil, as opposed to the Fantoma set, which included Awakening Of the Beast as its third entry.  It also has more extras that the Fantoma set, much of which comes from the Cinemagia box.  Though fan hopes that they'd add subtitles to all the wonderful features there that lacked subtitles are mostly dashed; Synapse did at least do a little something.  But more on all the specifics as we come to them.
At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul is the debut of Coffin Joe from 1963, the first of the trilogy. Here we're introduced to the evil undertaker (played by Marins himself) who keeps a small village under his thumb and is determined to find the perfect mate to give him a heir. He defies God by eating lamb on Good Friday and screaming monologues at the sky, treats people terribly, kidnaps potential concubines and even murders those who oppose him. It's a weird and original story, and Joe is a fantastic character. Opposed to those great elements are a low budget and non-professional filmmaking techniques as Brazil really didn't have a film industry. The flaws will drive most people far away from these films, but those remaining will have a huge grin on their face. This is something wild.
Fantoma first, Cinemagia second, Anchor Bay third and Synapse fourth.
The original Fantoma set boasted of their 1.66:1 widescreen transfer from the 35mm negative and supervised by Marins himself. Unfortunately, the discs are non-anamorphic, but I guess with 1.66 you can just about get away with that; but they're still going to look window-boxed on your widescreen TVs. I'm sure they look heaps better than the old video tapes, but they still look soft and dirty and sound hissy. I imagine the condition of the original elements have a lot to do with that. Anyway, the Cinemagia transfer looks almost identical, but a bit brighter and softer. And as we can see the Anchor Bay set is very different, being both unmatted at about 1.25:1, and... yellow.  The Synapse is fullscreen but at a more traditional 1.33:1 and without the yellow tinting.  It has deeper blacks, like the Fantoma (as opposed to the faded Cinemagia), and it also seems to have been a bit cleaned up - note the absence of most of the dust and dirt in the sky - but possibly at the cost of smoothing some grain.  That may be why Syanpse opted to make these DVD only, where the grain doesn't really bear out no matter what you do, anyway.
Fantoma first, Cinemagia second, Anchor Bay third and Synapse fourth.
Marins supervised the matted, widescreen sets, and used them for his own box, so it seems likely that the letterboxed is his preferred AR. But there's at least some curiosity value in the full frame viewing. And who knows?  Maybe matting it was revisionist.  It's also important to point out that the subtitles are removable on the Fantoma, Cinemagia and Synapse sets, but burned into the print on the AB set.
Extras-wise, the Fantoma disc has an insightful ten minute interview with Marins as its main feature. It's also got trailers for all three films in the set, the comic book (which is a seriously high quality, 35 page reproduction of an original Coffin Joe story - don't underestimate these bad boys), and an insert with notes from his biographer. Anchor Bay has... nothing.

And the Cinemagia disc? Oh man. Well, it starts with a really cool claymation Coffin Joe intro, that appears on all the Cine discs. Then the film opens with a tragically unsubtitled introduction by Marins in character as Coffin Joe. Other untranslated extras include an audio commentary, audio from two Coffin Joe records, a silent short film called Bloody Kingdom (with commentary by Marins) and clips of two other short films, interviews with the editor, composer, two DPs, and the screenwriter, a new (2002) Coffin Joe scene that ties into a scene from this movie, a new interview with Marins, a featurette called Who's Afraid of Coffin Joe where people seem to be asked on the street about their Coffin Joe memories, a short featurette on his website and multiple trailers. There's also the complete, infamous footage of his eye surgery, which has no audio, so English speakers can "enjoy" this feature as much as anybody else, as well as several stills galleries.

With all of that said, again, Synapse isn't giving us the definitive boxed set we all hoped they would with all those wonderful extras translated.  But they have given us a pretty sweet package.  First of all, they do have that cool claymation opening.  And next, it has the interview from the Fantoma disc.  Then, it includes the newer interview with Marins from the Brazilian set, finally translated!  It also includes the film intro from that set - finally translated!  It features that new scene - finally translated!  And it features the Bloody Kingdom short with the commentary, you guessed it - finally translated!  And finally, it includes two trailers for the film.  So it's pretty awesome... just try to block all the other, wonderful extras from the Brazillian set, like the interviews with the editor, composer and DPs, that got left behind.
This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (1966) is a the direct sequel to At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, and Coffin Joe is back to up the ante. I hope I'm not giving too much away when I say that this is the film where Coffin Joe goes to Hell! I mean, literally, we see him walking around there and interacting; and those scenes are in full color, too. Holy shit, it's amazing! And no, that's not the ending. That just happens midway through; because Joe gets out to wreak more havoc on his quest to sire an heir and defeat God. And this time he has a hunchback assistant, too.
Fantoma first, Cinemagia second, Anchor Bay third and Synapse fourth.
The first thing you'll notice is that This Night looks much better preserved than At Midnight. Probably partially because the negatives were kept in better condition, and partially because he had better equipment and more money this time around. Still, the differences between the transfers in At Midnight still seem to hold true here. The Cinemagia disc is still softer (possibly a compression issue with all the extras), though maybe not any brighter this time. AB is still yellow, full-frame (though a closer to normal 1.31:1 this time) and the subs are still burnt in.  And as with At Midnight, Synapse basically looks like a 1.33:1 version of the Fantoma set, which was at least the best of the bunch.
Fantoma first, Cinemagia second, Anchor Bay third and Synapse fourth.
Even the color scenes look a little off on the AB disc, with the blacks looking blue. Worse, though, is the fact that Anchor Bay also has this crappy interlacing issue going on, which is probably the result of a poor NTSC to PAL transfer. Fantoma and Synapse clearly have the superior transfers (in this rare color section, we see the colors are a little more natural on the Synapse version), with Cinemagia a reasonably close second, while Anchor Bay's are a mess.  I had originally written they were at least interesting if you were really keen to see the open matte footage, but now thanks to Synapse, there's a better way to do that.
The feature comparison is pretty unchanged, too. Once again, Fantoma has a Marins interview, plus the trailers, comic (they're all different) and another insert. And Anchor Bay has nothing again.

Cinemagia continues to blow the others away, except for the fact that they're untranslated. It starts out with a new Coffin Joe intro the film. There's another audio commentary. There's two more vintage recordings. There's six interviews, a featurette of Marins giving a tour of his museum, outtakes from a Coffin Joe commercial for Cinema Trash, a special effects make-up demonstration from some Marins project called Bruno (I think), a screaming test with a couple of actresses, another interview with Marins, a bunch of trailers, a website interview which might be the same as the last one and another episode of Who's Afraid of Coffin Joe. For us English speakers, well, there's a bunch of stills galleries... oh and an almost 30 minute documentary called The Universe of Mojica Marins! It has subtitles and it's pretty neat. It's a vintage doc about Coffin Joe from 1978 - if you've got the set and skipping the extras because they're not in English, go back and watch this.

And once again, Synapse comes in with a nice set of extras, but still leaving so much awesome Cinemagia stuff behind.  But we do get the Fantoma interview.  And we get one of the few already translated extras from the Brazilian box, the Universe documentary.  But newly translated from the Brazilian box are the new interview with Marins, the museum tour, and the introduction.  All those other interviews and stuff are not carried over, though we do also get the trailer and a photo gallery.
Now, Fantoma calls their set The Coffin Joe Trilogy and the third film they include is Awakening of the Beast (1969). But it's really just an unrelated, totally wacked out Marins film that, like many of his movies, has a hint of the Coffin Joe character in it. Marins himself has often said the trilogy was unfinished, and it was only in the late 2000s, when he made Embodiment of Evil (well after the Fantoma set had already come out), that he finally finished it. If you've been enjoying the Coffin Joe horror films so far, prepare for a huge shift and possibly a major disappointment. But if you can get past the fact that this isn't Coffin Joe 3, or even a horror movie at all, it's still pretty good, or at least interesting.

This is a very 60s film, showing the shocking things people might do while on LSD. Lots of dancing to bad music, sleazy sex... mostly those two things. Basically the film is a series of vignettes. Characters come, have their shocking LSD-induced moment, and then disappear, all being narrated by a couple of doctors talking about the effects of LSD. What would've been shocking in the 60s is tame now, making this pretty plodding and dull if you ask me. But the film picks up in the third act when Marins starts to get involved, playing himself. He experiments on some people, showing them his comics and movies (we even watch a clip of This Night), and talks about his work having strong psychological effects on people. It sounds like BS until he injects them with LSD and they hallucinate a crazy, full color sequence of Coffin Joe menacing them. It's trippy, imaginative, and a total blast. Coffin Joe walks across a bridge made of screaming humans, butts talk. Honestly, now that I've seen this film all the way through the first time, I tend to just skip to this part. It's got a great ending, too, which always makes me smile. The first half is just so rough to get through. So, I really don't think it has the broader appeal of the other Coffin Joe movies at all. But it is the most released of his films, not only included in all three sets, but as an individual release by Mondo Macabro. That's right, this next comparison is going to be a four-way.
Fantoma on top, Cinemagia next, Anchor Bay third and Mondo Macabro on the bottom.
Things get different here, and not just because we've added an extra disc into the mix. Anchor Bay, you'll notice, isn't full-screen and yellow... well, faintly more yellowish than most of the others, but not like before. Its subtitles are still burnt in, though.
Fantoma on top, Cinemagia next, Anchor Bay third and Mondo Macabro on the bottom.
Cinemagia still looks very similar to Fantoma but a bit fuzzier. And Mondo Macabro actually looks the softest and fuzziest of all. Online sources sometimes cite MM as being fullscreen (example: filmaf), but they're framed exactly the same at 1.66:1. They're all actually pretty close, with Anchor Bay rivaling Cinemagia. But Fantoma still looks the clearest, while Mondo Macabro looks almost VHS sourced.
Mondo Macabro gets back into the race in the extras department, though. They've got a nice, little documentary called The Nightmares of Coffin Joe, which runs about 26 minutes and interviews not only Marins, but some of his collaborators, who we normally never get to hear from (they're on the Cinemagia set, sure, but not translated). If you're a big enough Coffin Joe fan, and starved for material like we all are, Nightmares is worth the price of admission alone. It's why I've got. Fantoma, meanwhile, comes slow but steady with another Marins interview, comic book, insert and set of trailers. And Anchor Bay - wait for it... has nothing.

And what has Cinemagia got for us this time? Another untranslated intro, commentary, pair of recordings, a 15 minute doc film on Joe called Fogo-Fatuo, five interviews, some kind of visit to the national archives about Marin's films, a weird orientation where Marins yells at what looks like college students and they squirm in their seats (hey, don't look at me), another Marins interview, another episode of Who's Afraid, more trailers, more stills galleries, and that website thing again (I don't know, maybe they are different on every disc). Nothing in English; move along.
Marins from the Fantoma interviews, say goodbye to these
So that gets us through the "Coffin Joe Trilogy" (really two-thirds and a bonus Marins film), but there's still plenty more to go. But what will we do now that we no longer have the consistently superior Fantoma (and in some cases, Synapse) transfers to cling to? Well, this post has started getting unwieldy in length and we've still got a long way to go, so to find out, stay tuned for Part 2...

1 comment:

  1. Excellent write-up -- looking forward to part #2!

    I remember Pete Tombs telling me the Brazilian licensor could only provide them with an NTSC master; once converted to PAL, it definitely looks weaker than the rest. The documentary on there is actually an episode of Mondo Macabro's UK TV series.

    Synapse currently have the first two Coffin Joe titles and are planning DVD releases of them eventually. The last I heard the elements weren't able to be pulled and scanned again in HD, so a Blu is out of the question, unfortunately.

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