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Embodiment Of Evil (2008)
Director: José Mojica Marins

review by Paul Higson

Issue three of Tim Paxton's Monster International published an enthusiastic letter from reader Lux Interior. Oh, to have known what Mr Interior's opinion on the then-current issue might have been, as I was never to see another issue, particularly what he thought about Horacio Higuchi's 30 pages on José Mojica Marins, alias Ze do Caixao, and 'Coffin Joe'. Higuchi was always meticulous to the umptieth degree including advice on the phonetics: it's 'zeh-dough-kyshawn'. Higuchi branded anyone 'ignorant' and 'dumb' that used Coffin Joe over Ze do Caixao, preferring even Coffin Ze, not that any one single person, pleb or scholar, has ever followed suit. Higuchi gave examples of American characters that would not expect translation but he neglects to include Topolini or Dick und Doof. I expect Marins is happy to be identified under any of several names as long as he is recognised. Marins has had an outrageous time over five decades and there is a wealth of evidence of this, chiefly on film. Every possible excess has been explored in his movies over the years and in his native Brazil he has never been absent. An iconic figure in black coat, a top hat and fingernails grown to a couple of curling inches, the character exists in films, on television, in comics and foto-novellas, as dolls and in merchandise.

His latest film, Embodiment Of Evil (aka: Encarnação do Demônio) has been touted as the belated third part to a trilogy, the first two chapters At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (aka: À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma, 1964), and sequel This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (aka: Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver, 1967) This is both true and false. If you are interested in learning more about this filmmaker then please expect nothing more than contradictions and puzzles of this order. It is true that this is a realisation of a previously abandoned third chapter in the Ze do Caixio series and it is true that in subsequent movies a postmodern self-examination reduced the figure of Ze do Caixao to a supporting role. In those films Ze's the only character deemed equal enough to act as his on-screen nemesis would be the director José Mojica Marins himself. Ze would continue to reappear to reappear in several more horrors, sometimes bridging anthologies or introducing the tale of horror. The character's third official feature film appearance was on a 'trilogy', in Trilogia De Terror (co-directed by Marins) the top-hat fronting a portmanteau. The unsettling films often have unsettled production histories. I had seen only one of his amazing films, The Awakening Of The Beast (aka: O Despartar da Besta) which was originally a compromise on the banned Ritual Of The Maniacs (aka: Ritual dos Sadicos).

For many, Embodiment Of Evil is a return, but there is no evidence that Marins has been inactive. It would appear that this is the first time that Marins has been given the budget to complete his vision. This is that third chapter, resuscitated 40 years on, but also brought very much up to date, revised to accommodate the now. It may also be his last film. In the moment that it becomes the first Ze do Caixao film to obtain a theatrical release in the UK, its star and director becomes an octogenarian; he turned 80 years of age last March. Despite the grand age there is no shortage of vim in this latest endeavour. Marins is no less a visionary, and this professionally mounted production brims with images and notions. Embodiment Of Evil is retrospectively playful. It upgrades themes and is a jingle-jangle of old and new cinematic ideas. Yet it is no jumble and remains a complete tale. On the Friday screening at the 8th 'Fantastic Films Weekend' in Bradford I sat throughout with a dirty great grin on my face.

It is too easy to become distracted by the horrors and extremes but there is more to Marins than that. He is meticulous. Never mind the rat penetration, take another look at another sequence in which the favela bar owner is closing shop. The final few washed glasses are placed on a shelf and then he casually brings down the shutter. The smooth natural movement suggests that a non-actor has been employed to fill his own shoes or an actor has been put through the ritual a hundred times. It is a becalming shot dwelt on momentarily, a précis of one man's role in the favela. The textures of the slum are exploited by the filmmaker and its lurid colours and less inviting stains exposed.

Extracts from the black and white Ze do Caixao films take the part of memory. Silver (screen) ghosts from those memories invade the present. The apparitions are uncanny in their detail. It is not simply the costumes, but the physiognomy and build that have been immaculately reproduced. Special make-up recreates the face and even the stature and shape are cast to a tee, systematically evidential in sequences considerate to include both close-ups and long shots. The deliberation called for in the achievement of this is unheard of even in bio-pics where the focus is on a major celebrity, never mind for some forgotten supporting character. In the new film Ze do Caixao has four fresh disciples, a motley group that would die for the fictional bad man. One is a handsome, bearded young man who is barely noticeable until a shoot out in Ze do Caixao's abattoir in the black of night leaves him dead on the floor. Wearing Coffin Joe's costume we now see that he is the spitting image of Marins in his more youthful incarnation of four decades before.

Marins also considers the viewer in a way that few have since Hitchcock, inviting them to participate, pulling them into the film, not settling for visual acceptance but rekindling our faculties for imagination. When the corrupt policeman Colonel Pontes (Adriano Stuart) 'street cleans' San Paulo kerbs and corners of homeless children shooting two of them dead he gives chase of a third. The child runs up some favela steps and the camera switches position with a jump cut to the top of the steps. The shot is angled down the narrowing walls towards the thin opening at the bottom of the steps, the boy scurrying up the steps towards the camera. Though the shot only lasts seconds the brain races to read it on several levels. Knowing how kill-happy the Colonel is, and that a bullet takes a fraction of a second to find its target, there is an urgency on the behalf of the child to reach the top of the steps and escape. The moment we glimpse the Colonel and the boy in the same shot we know it is too late. The boy escapes but the viewer is now in a new predicament. The viewer is left in that vacant position at the top of the steps and for a moment it is realised that it is you the gun will be pointing at. The thrill of concern is momentarily on the viewer himself. It is a tremendously well presented sequence.

Similarly, the viewer is engaged in the fairground 'death' of Ze do Caixao, his body prostrate, 'staked' in the chest by a spike over a metre long. One of his beautiful female accomplices finds him and strips naked, mounting him to fuck the life back into him. More crucial than the actions is the main shot. The sequence includes some medium close-ups and close-ups but the important shot is a long shot angled slightly down expanded to take in some of the abandoned fairground at night. The viewer is invited to picture the fairground path as they might commonly expect to see it (particularly in films like Rollercoaster) heaving with families milling about and passing through. Such superimpositions stoked from our imagination make the sequence all the more obscene. These are genuine considerations made by the veteran filmmaker.

In a year full of surprises, particularly in those most important lost arts of the image and imagination, alongside the brittle iconic beauty of Let The Right One In and the obsidian trick and treat of Dark Floors, Marins too continues to deliver bold designs. A silver ghost enters a bandstand, disappears into the floor, and is rescued half-torso, her waist a cluster of roots, the hollows of which emit a multitude of tarantulas. It is like discovering the horror film genre again. It is like seeing Don Coscarelli's Phantasm for the first time. Marins' visions of hell are startling, and no less so is his visit on this occasion. In the past Marins has been brutish in the content of his film and more than willing to exploit real conditions. Then (as in O Despartar da Besta) it might have been a junkie shooting up, and for this return modern primitives allow him to get up close on real penetrated skin and flesh. The hanging from the skin of the back by hooks comes a bit late and is by now an overly familiar torment but the beauty who is subjected to having her lips sewn together is evocative, her eye already sewn shut in a make-up effect. The skin of this and others in hell is bruised yellow in a tight ratio of their wounds. The film is at its most shocking in its rare acts of suggestion. When the Colonel realises that his estranged legal-beagle wife has helped Ze in achieving an early release, he takes several of his officers to her office and they give her a severe beating. The impacts are unseen but the throws are violent and the viewer flinches at the imagined results of those blows.

The plot objectives are the same, Ze do Caixao is a dark force in search of the most beautiful women to provide him with that first offspring to continue his evil line. His misogyny should never be excused and he certainly cannot be accused of false advertising: he claims to be evil and the character has certainly made an effort to prove that. The film initially toys with the viewer, the two boys slain are done so by a character that is not Ze and the details of their bullets to the head are obscured by the front of a car. The impression given is that the new film will hide its horrors, is safer, but this is misdirection and an attempt to lure even the most knowledgeable Marins viewers into a more relaxed mode. When the horrors come they come screaming. For those unfamiliar with Ze the harmless old dude graduates to unimaginable maliciousness. Even those who have helped him in his despicable whims are given no quarter if it suits him to turn on them.

If Embodiment Of Evil has one flaw it is the Ze de Caixao howl, an anguished scream that the character occasionally gives hinting at an inner humanity that might break out and so doing freeing him of his torment. In youth that howl offered hope, a release and a future but at his advanced age all we see is Ze de Caixao for what he would now become, a pathetic and weary, little old man.

Embodiment Of Evil is a remarkable film in a remarkable year for movies. It is this year's Chemical Wedding, a delirious and intoxicating, synapses-tickling, guilty pleasure. Anchor Bay releases a box set of Marins' Coffin Joe films shortly and it is almost certainly worth the attention of anyone to whom a series of irreplaceable, vintage mangled nightmares might appeal.
Embodiment of Evil

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