The Horror and Catholicism of the Coffin Joe Trilogy
Horror as a genre is always a response to real-life culture and social events of a particular time and place. The ’80s slasher films reflected the conservative push in the United States at the time. The giallo in Italy profited from a post-fascist loosening of censorship. And the horror done in Spain during the Franco regime was to specifically portray other countries as a source of fear and derision. Perhaps the most fascinating part of studying these trends is the cultural context of horror, and perhaps none is as fascinating as the ‘Coffin Joe Trilogy’, a trio of horror films. Brazilians using the country’s staunch Catholicism to its advantage.
Coffin Joe, an English translation of his Portuguese name Zé do Caixão, is the creation and character of Brazilian writer, director and actor José Mojica Marins. The character is an undertaker who terrorizes communities with his penchant for violence and his belief that his own lineage is perfect and must continue by imbuing the perfect woman to give him a son. Coffin Joe wears a black suit, cape and top hat, and has a thick beard and grotesquely long fingernails.
Although he only appeared in three official films, Marins appeared as Coffin Joe in several other films, three TV series, various music videos, and even had his own comic book series. He is widely regarded as the “National Boogeyman of Brazil,” which is quite a feat. But what makes Coffin Joe so interesting isn’t his looks, but his attitude. In a country as religious as Brazil, it is his Nietzschean and atheist convictions that make him so terrifying, and it is always by Catholicism that he is defeated.
Zé do Caixão’s first appearance came in the 1964 Sailors film
, the very first horror film produced in Brazil. Townspeople hate Coffin Joe for his atheism and violent manners, but they fear him for his weird physical prowess and good looks. The movie begins with Joe delivering a monologue straight to the camera:
What is life? It is the beginning of death.
What is death? It’s the end of life.
What is existence? It is the continuity of blood.
What is blood? This is the reason for existing.
This immediately contrasts with one of the major tenets of Catholic Christianity. Death is not, for Catholics, the end of life. Belief in God is eternal life. Blood, in Coffin Joe’s worldview, and specifically perpetuating his “higher” blood is the key to immortality.
Throughout the film, he beats, maims, and kills various people and takes women within reach as possible vessels for his higher blood. The competent authorities continually try to punish him by the laws of man, but he escapes prosecution. Eventually, he meets his end not through angry villagers, but through the appearances of his victims returning to banish him to Hell.
Many horror monsters, especially vampires, use demonic or satanic imagery, and crosses and holy water, instruments of Catholic God, are the tools of their destruction. But Coffin Joe is specifically
a follower of the devil. In the 1967 sequel
, Marins presents Joe as an enemy of both God and Satan. He’s an atheist, he doesn’t believe in any of that. Catholics believe in the devil and hell; they are the punishment for wickedness. But Coffin Joe thinks everything is ridiculous and simple-minded.
We discover at the beginning of the film that Coffin Joe is in fact not dead at the end of the first film. After a long stay in the hospital, he returns to his bad habits, even more determined to find the perfect woman to give him a son. He kidnaps several women and subjects them to horrible tortures, in search of one who will show no fear. Apparently, fear is not greater. It feeds those who cry poisonous snakes.
Eventually, Joe finds a woman, Laura, who shares his belief in “blood continuity” and begins an affair with her. He naturally kills his entire family that stands in their way. Laura gets pregnant, but a complication means that only one, her or the baby, will live. They both agree that the child must live, but the operation fails and Laura and the son die.
What is particularly fascinating
and his relationship to religion comes about halfway through the film. Joe learns that one of the women he fed the snakes was pregnant and he feels guilty. Even a sadist like Coffin Joe knows that children are the key to the continuity of blood. That night he has a vivid nightmare – in color! – of his trip to Hell, where he sees the torture that awaits him. At the end of the movie, after a town resident shoots him, a priest comes to him and begs him to repent and accept Jesus into his heart, which he does just as he dies. .
Even more than the first film, the second film is about the need for Catholicism and belief. God and the Devil basically team up to thwart Coffin Joe at the end of the movie. Coffin Joe therefore becomes both the monster and the victim in this case. He is a horrible murderer, but even he curls up before the power and majesty of Christian deism.
After a 40-year hiatus, Marins wrote, directed and starred in Coffin Joe’s last official film, in 2008.
. He finds Coffin Joe, who again is not dead, released from a maximum security asylum thanks to legal procrastination. Forty years away from society, Sao Paolo has radically changed. More and more people are atheists and lead hedonistic lives. Coffin Joe still wants to find a perfect wife to give him a son, but now he has many sidekicks ready to help him, and many women who want to be his chosen carrier.
is not as good or interesting as the previous films in my opinion. Being that it’s 2008, the gothic vibe of the 60s movies has largely gone and we instead have overdone gore, abundant nudity, and an overall heavy metal vibe. Even still, however, Marins reflects the changing attitude of the times. Not only are those who oppose him today all older generations and a young militant priest, but they are all direct victims of his past crimes. The simple sin of his beliefs is no longer enough to damn him. If anything, the perceived piety of those against him is the crime.
It is also the only one of the three films where Coffin Joe succeeds. Yes, he dies (he still dies), but his efforts to continue his lineage are paying off. The film ends with eight of her potentials showing up at her grave, each pregnant. The implication is not that God will strike down the wicked, it is that the wicked will inherit the Earth.
José Mojica Marins died in February 2020, at the age of 83. He left behind a truly savage character and a legacy of almost 60 years of horror. The Coffin Joe Trilogy doesn’t represent the most terrifying or best-directed horror films of all time, but their perspective and iconography are so strong and singular that they deserve a place in the history of the horror.