By LARRY ROHTER
Published: October 19, 2011
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — SEATED on a sofa in the living room of his modest apartment here, dressed in shorts and flip-flops, José Mojica Marins seems inoffensive. He is mild mannered and soft-spoken, and nothing suggests he has made a career of writing, acting in and directing provocative horror movies with titles like “Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind.”
But Mr. Mojica’s cinema alter ego, Coffin Joe, a crazed and sadistic undertaker who always appears in a uniform of black, complete with top hat, cape and gruesome fingernails, is a different story altogether. His extreme behavior and demented look, starting with a pair of low-budget black-and-white 1960s films, “At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul” and “This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse” — enhanced versions of which are to be released next year on DVD with new subtitles and improved prints and supplemental material — have made him a cult figure for fans and creators of the horror genre all over the world.
Some admirers see Mr. Mojica, who has directed, written or acted in more than 50 movies, as a kind of South American Roger Corman, a B-movie auteur whose films contain references to Nietzsche and Dante. Others view his work as pure camp — more in the tradition of Ed Wood and “Plan 9 From Outer Space” than Luis Buñuel or John Waters — or simply trash.
“I’m an original, unlike anybody else, but it’s been a hard road,” said Mr. Mojica (pronounced moe-ZHEE-kah). “I know that because of Coffin Joe I’m considered to be crazy, a blasphemer, and that some critics spit on me, but I’ve maintained my independence. I’m not connected or beholden to anyone.”
Mr. Mojica was born here, in South America’s largest city, on a Friday the 13th in 1936, into a pair of Spanish immigrant families. His parents were circus performers who, tiring of life on the road, became managers of a movie theater, where Mr. Mojica intently observed every film that was shown, sneaking into the projection room to watch those his parents did not want him to see.
“You know the kid in that Italian movie ‘Cinema Paradiso’? ” he asked, speaking in Portuguese. “Well, when I saw that movie, I said ‘Jeez, that kid is just like me.’ That was my life. There wasn’t a movie I wouldn’t watch.”
An only child, he was given his first camera when he was 8 and never thought of anything but a life in cinema. His big break came when he acquired an abandoned synagogue here and turned it into a studio and academy, where he trained actors and technicians.
Both “At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul” and “This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse” were partly shot there, with scenes that featured eyes being gouged out and snakes and other creepy critters crawling over actresses’ faces; later films would even show cannibalism. But Brazil was under a right-wing military dictatorship, so Mr. Mojica’s eccentric look and activities aroused suspicions: in the name of authenticity rats, spiders and scorpions were allowed to roam the studio, and episodes in which actors or crew members died during production (though the deaths were unrelated to filming) added to his reputation for the macabre.
“The police thought it was all a facade behind which terrorists could be hidden, and it was hard to get that idea out of their heads,” Mr. Mojica recalled. But his biggest problems were with government censors, who were shocked and disgusted by his mixture of gore, sex and blasphemy, perhaps most notably a scene in “I’ll Take Your Soul” that has Coffin Joe eating a plate of lamb as he mocks a passing Good Friday procession.
“This film is of terrible bad taste, using and abusing beatings, torture, sex and extreme violence” one censor complained in a report that the writer and director André Barcinski obtained for his biography of Mr. Mojica, “Damned: The Life and Films of José Mojica Marins, Coffin Joe.” As a result several of the films had to be “mutilated,” as Mr. Mojica put it, in order to be released; one was prohibited, and an injunction prevented him from even beginning to shoot another.
Broke and with producers unwilling to finance projects that ran the risk of also being banned, Mr. Mojica was forced to put aside his own scripts and become a director for hire. He initially did low-budget westerns, science fiction and adventures, but as the 1970s wore on, he drifted into soft-core pornography, shooting movies like “The Virgin and the Macho Man” under the pseudonym J. Avelar. When even those opportunities dried up, he worked as a master of ceremonies at parties and dances.
“People confuse him with his character a lot, and it’s his fault,” said Mr. Barcinski, who is also the co-director of the documentary “Damned: The Strange World of José Mojica Marins.” “He used it as a means of making a living for 20 or 30 years, and it makes him a magnet for all kinds of strange people any time he is in a public setting.”
Over the years Mr. Mojica also dabbled in comic books and television, as the host of shows with names like “Beyond, Far Beyond the Beyond.” At the moment he is the host of a weekly horror-oriented talk show called “The Strange World of Coffin Joe” on a Brazilian cable channel, but he admits to being hopelessly incompetent with his own business affairs, so he has never made much money from any of his endeavors.
Mr. Mojica seemed destined to remain in obscurity, but technology and globalization eventually came to his rescue. As the Coffin Joe films became available, first on VHS and then on DVD and YouTube, inquisitive horror fans outside Brazil discovered them and, beginning around 1990, started inviting him to film festivals in North America and Europe, where he would appear in character and invariably make a strong impression.
“There was no real analog to him in American horror films,” explained Michael Gingold, the managing editor of Fangoria, the leading magazine covering the genre. “He grabbed a lot of attention, because these films were more extreme than many of those being made in America at the same time, and Coffin Joe was a singular figure, a precursor to characters like Freddy Krueger and Jason, in that he was a human being who chooses to do evil, and not a monster like Frankenstein or Dracula, for whom you could feel sorry. So there was a sense of great surprise that a rich collection of films had not yet been discovered.”
Mr. Mojica said the distinctive look of the Coffin Joe character first came to him in “an awful, violent, heavy nightmare” in the early 1960s. At that point he had filmed a couple of dramas and cowboy movies, with titles like “My Destiny in Your Hands” and “The Adventurer’s Fate,” but the dream made him realize that Brazil had no tradition of horror films, and that he could easily transplant the genre from the castles and forests of Europe to the plazas and streets familiar to the audience he wanted to attract.
“I was being taken to the cemetery to be buried, but I was still alive,” Mr. Mojica recalled of the nightmare. “I remember that I was wearing all black, so I started filming that way.”
The character’s other trademark is his impossibly long fingernails. Mr. Mojica said that from 1964 to 1999 he never once cut his nails, so that “at their peak they were nearly a yard long, with curves that made them look like strands of spaghetti.” Since then he has stored the fingernails at home, gluing them back on when he slips into character.
Coffin Joe has always held a strong appeal for musicians, especially among punk and heavy-metal bands. The Ramones were such dedicated fans that on a tour of Brazil the guitarist Johnny Ramone gave Mr. Mojica a prized leather jacket, autographed by all four members, as a token of the group’s esteem. Members of the Cramps have also sought out Mr. Mojica when their tour schedule brought them here, and the drummer of the British band the Horrors has even adopted Coffin Joe as his stage name.
In the heavy-metal world Mr. Mojica’s best-known disciple is probably the singer and film director Rob Zombie, who used dialogue from “Awakening of the Beast” on the White Zombie song “I, Zombie” and has inserted oblique tributes to the Coffin Joe films into his own movies. Groups like Sepultura, Necrophagia and Faith No More have also written songs that refer, directly or indirectly, to the Coffin Joe movies.
“All horror characters go against prevailing mores, but part of Coffin Joe’s appeal is that he actively sets out to attack and dismember mainstream societal and religious values,” Mr. Gingold said. “So it’s hardly a surprise that punk and metal, which often do the same thing, should embrace him.”
In 2008 Mr. Mojica was finally able to make “Embodiment of Evil,” which he had conceived more than 40 years earlier as the last part of a Coffin Joe trilogy. With a budget of $2 million — the earlier parts of the trilogy had cost less than $20,000 each to make — the film, which recently became available in a DVD and Blu-ray combination edition, proved to be as gory and deliberately offensive as anything he had ever done.
“He was very much into the idea of coming in with a very brutal and harrowing piece,” said Dennison Ramalho, who wrote the script with Mr. Mojica. “He was very angry and resentful, bustling with fury, at having to wait all these years for it to come to life, so he wanted to out-evil the previous ones. He is still breaking boundaries.”