In our series exploring horror from around the world, we uncover some of the best horror from South America and enter the strange world of Coffin Joe.
American horror fans have come to know numerous horror icons, from Freddy Krueger to Captain Spaulding. It has been debated amongst horror fans since the 1970s as to who the face of horror truly is. Is it Michael with his iconic blank stare? Perhaps Jason with his trademark hockey mask? Or maybe even Pinhead with his signature look? Fortunately for horror fans in South America, and specifically Brazil, there is no debate. The face of horror is Zé do Caixão, aka Coffin Joe.
“What is life? It is the beginning of death. What is death? It is the end of life! What is existence? It is the continuity of blood. What is blood? It is the reason to exist!” – Coffin Joe
But who is this Coffin Joe?
He is the creation of Brazilian horror writer/director/actor José Mojica Marins, who also has portrayed Joe in numerous films, TV shows, songs and comic books since the 1960s. Coffin Joe had his debut in the 1964 film À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma (At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul) in which he is the antagonist and the main character. The film follows the violent, nihilistic, aggressively atheistic undertaker Joe who looks only to continue his blood line by any means necessary.
Over the top and violent for its time, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is a story about karma as Joe terrorizes a local town, rapes, maims and murders but in the end becomes victim of a voodoo curse. The content and subject matter was extreme by the standards of 1964.
Coffin Joe returned in 1967 in Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver (This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse) where Joe is back to his old tricks, kidnapping women, cursing God and trying to continue his bloodline.
Over the next 40 years, Joe would become an icon in Brazil appearing as a cameo in multiple other horror films before finally returning in the 2008 film Encarnação do Demônio (Embodiment of Evil), which is the finale of the epic Coffin Joe trilogy. It ends with Joe dying after having finally continuing his bloodline.
The Coffin Joe films are each violent, bizarre, macabre, artistically beautiful and unique in the way that they blur the lines of antagonist and protagonist.
The influence of Coffin Joe exists even to this day in South American horror films, here are 5 fantastic horror films from the region.
Motorrad (2017, Brazil)
Talk about unique! Motorrad is a fantastic survival horror thriller. It’s about a group of motocross riders who are pursued through the wilderness by another group of motocross riders, armed with chains and machetes, looking to kill the group members off one by one. Even though it is about leather clad motocross riders and looks like it’s set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, this is one of those art house style horror films which relies on cinematography and stunning imagery to tell a story.
The Portuguese dialogue is sparse, the first 15 minutes have no dialogue whatsoever, and the majority of the dialogue in the film is people screaming for help and calling each other’s name in the dark.
This is a high tension, beautiful film. It has enough artsy appeal to make you question what the true meaning is, while having enough horror gore to make you applaud. The violence is brief but impactful: 2 decapitations, a drowning and one person burned alive.
Motorrad has Coffin Joe’s finger prints all over it and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Sudor Frio (Cold Sweat) (2011, Argentina)
Another amazing example of the diversity of horror from around the world is a feature like 2011’s Sudo Frio (Cold Sweat) from Argentina. The premise is a jealous boyfriend tracks his girl friend to a man’s house to catch her cheating. But when he goes in the house to confront them, there is something more nefarious than just infidelity going on. How nefarious? How about 2 old guys doing human experiments and covering women in nitroglycerine, then subjecting them to Saw-like puzzles nefarious.
This is a fantastic film that hits the ground running, you are in the car with jealous boyfriend Roman one moment, and the very next there is a woman getting Nitro on her forehead and being asked complicated math problems under the fear of death.
The director of this one, Adrian Garcia Bogliano, also directed a movie mentioned in the Mexico installment of this series Here Comes the Devil as well as the fantastic 2014 film Late Phases (aka Night of the Wolf).
A bizarre film with extremely psychotic and nihilistic characters which are certainly influenced by Coffin Joe, Sudor Frio aka Cold Sweat is currently streaming on Amazon.
Downhill (2016, Chile)
Well, this one most certainly is a wild ride. A genre mash-up that is part survival horror, part witch cult, part infection/zombie film and finally part extraterrestrial creature feature with an Invasion of the Body Snatchers element. The film follows a group of BMX bikers in the Chilean backcountry who encounter a gravely ill man. They try to help but find themselves hunted in the woods by a group of psychopaths.
The violence and gore in this one is very high, and the special effects as the disease spreads are amazing and gross.
This thing twists and turns through multiple horror sub-genres so seamlessly and grows to a brutal, bizarre and depressing finale where no one gets out alive. The Coffin Joe films were nihilistic in their approach, and there was no happy ending. Downhill certainly takes influence.
Downhill is a must watch and is currently streaming on Tubi.
Morto Nao Fala (The Nightshifter) (2018, Brazil)
This Shudder exclusive is one dark, macabre and depressing ride to the edge of insanity and further. A bizarre film from debuting writer/director Dennison Ramalho that really shows the grittiness of life in Brazil.
The plot of the film follows nightshift morgue worker Stenio who has a unique ability to talk to the dead. When he uses the ability to his own advantage, telling a dead man’s secrets, he finds unexpected consequences. Soon his life begins spiraling out of control.
Much like Coffin Joe films, the definitions of hero and villain fluctuate wildly through out the film. You don’t know at a given moment if you are supposed to be rooting for Stenio or praying for his sudden demise.
Over 50 years since undertaker Coffin Joe made his film debut, Brazil finds itself with a new macabre horror icon Stenio and The Nightshifter, which is currently streaming on Shudder.
Aterrados (Terrified) (2017, Argentina)
What’s better than a haunted house movie? 3 haunted houses at the same time of course! And that is exactly what the Shudder exclusive Terrified provides. This is a weird one that will have you asking “WTF” throughout the duration of the film.
The film centers around 3 paranormal investigators and an aging cop who are investigating strange occurrences in a small suburban town. At one house, a tall demon lives under a man’s bed. At another, a dead boy rises from the grave and comes home. And in the final house, the people in the drain kill a woman in the shower.
There is a whole lot going on in this one. Each of the 3 houses has different paranormal activity. So it is very interesting to see how the director plays with each of these elements in a different way. Much like the Coffin Joe films, this one has no happy ending and doesn’t give much of an explanation other than “The blood is life.”
Terrified is currently streaming on Shudder.
If you are hungry for more South American horror, there are quite a few films out there like Dying God, Snuff 102, City of Dead Men and Out of the Dark. Although, I would highly suggest to educate yourself on Coffin Joe. The entire trilogy is included in a Collector’s Edition three-DVD set on Amazon for pretty cheap. Make sure to follow Morbidly Beautiful (and me) on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or where ver you consume social media for the latest in the series as well. You can also check out this letterboxd list.
In the next entry of the series, we will be exploring Nollywood Insanity and African Horror.