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Under the Shadow of Coffin Joe

The trajectory of director José Mojica Marins includes censorship, erotic films, and internal conflicts.

Coffin Joe is an iconic horror character and his creator, José Mojica Marins, was the father of Brazilian horror. First, to make a horror film in the country, his creativity used to overcome the low budget brought innovations.

The Early Years

On old-timey movie poster

Mojica was perhaps the most eccentric filmmaker of the genre. From the first day of his life, he seemed destined for terror movies. He was born on a Friday, March 13, 1936, in São Paulo, the son of Spanish immigrants. The contact with the seventh art was frequent and it happened very early since his father worked in a cinema. Also in his early years, his imagination was sharpened by comic books, which he read for hours. Films and comic books soon brought out his creative potential and early interest in creating narratives. Thus, he played puppet theater and created plays in which he wore cardboard costumes. He liked the costumes so much that he used to walk around the neighborhood in costumes.

At the age of nine, he volunteered to direct Little Red Riding Hood for a school play. According to the biography Maldito—The Life and Cinema of José Mojica Marins, the Coffin Joe, by Ivan Finotti and André Barcinski, “the daughter of the grocer’s owner bribed the class with peanut candys, and was elected the lead actress. Mojica, annoyed, had to accept. Faced with the student’s inability to scream where the wolf meets Little Red Riding Hood, he took a gecko and threw it in the girl’s hair. He was suspended for a week, but that was the beginning of one of his milestones as a film director: “His obsession with doing scenes with hideous or disgusting animals interacting with the actresses.”

At twelve, Mojica got a camera and started filming at home. Quickly, he understood the process of editing the films. Without the possibility of editing his material, he filmed the scenes in the sequence he wanted, alternating angles, to simulate an edit. Thus, he and his gang shot several short films in the neighborhood. In the ’50s, Mojica set up the Apolo Film School, where he taught acting classes and had the help of students in the cast of films. They also helped to raise the money that would be invested in the productions. The amount raised, however, was never enough to finish the tapes the way he wanted.

In 1958, Mojica released the western Adventurer’s Fate. Despite the good reception of his movie, none of his productions achieved the desired repercussion. In 1963, the filmmaker was disillusioned. He thought of killing himself if he didn’t succeed in his next project. That’s when he got the inspiration to create the character that would change his life.

Born from a Nightmare

According to the biography Maldito, the idea came from a nightmare of Mojica, in which “a guy dressed in black dragged him to a cemetery and stopped in front of the to Mojica’s grave. When he looked at the face of his tormentor, he recognized him—it was himself, but with a thick beard. In front of the grave, the figure, which was himself, was throwing him into the earth. After waking up, Mojica dictated his ideas to his secretary. That’s how Coffin Joe was born.”

Mojca wrote the script for At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul on the same day. Released in 1964, the film features the sinister undertaker Josefel Zanatas, known in his village as Coffin Joe. In the midst of a rural village, he personifies the figure of the aristocratic villain, eccentric and feared by the other residents, like Dracula. Skeptical about the supernatural, Coffin Joe openly mocks the superstition and Christian beliefs of the other residents. His obsession is to find the woman who will give him the perfect son, continuing his lineage, which he considers superior.


Unlike the Catholic José Mojica Marins, Coffin Joe morbidly personifies Nietzsche’s superman. He places himself above good and evil, rejecting and questioning the provincial morals and beliefs of the current society. To get what he wants, however, he is capable of killing in the most sadistic ways and often with the help of venomous animals. His rebellion against supernatural forces guarantees one of the best scenes in At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. After one of his victims swore he would return from the dead to take his soul, Coffin Joe mocks. He goes to a cemetery, where he impetuously shouts a challenge against the supernatural, “Dead! Are you listening to me? Which one of you will take my soul?”

Initially, Mojica did not intend to play Coffin Joe. The role would fall to Dráuzio de Oliveira, but he dropped out because he would have to film with a spider. Dissatisfied with the tests he did for the role, with no time to find a replacement, and with the technical team already assembled, Mojica decided to take on the cover of Coffin Joe. He liked it so much that he went to promote the film, even before its release, dressed as Coffin Joe. With the release of At Midnight, I’ll Take Your Soul in 1964, Mojica got a contract for five more films with the character Coffin Joe.


Faces of two girls attacked by snakes and spiders. Coffin Joe back with his deformed sidekick, Bruno. In the background the crosses of a cemetery

In 1967, Mojica released the sequel entitled This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse. Brazil, however, had been under a military dictatorship since 1964 and the regime became increasingly repressive. The film had several scenes censored by the military, which also demanded an ending in which Coffin Joe accepted Christ.

Even with these obstacles, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse proves to be an excellent film and has the merit of being a sequel worthy of the original. Once again, Mojica proves to be a genius as he produces the film in black and white but offers us a glimpse of hell in color.

During the entire period when the military was in power, Mojica’s horror films underwent censorship and alterations. They even forbade the director to put the character Coffin Joe directly in the plots of the films. He could only appear in delusions, visions, or movie intros. Mojica was censored not only because his films were considered in bad taste, but above all for the questioning and iconoclastic character of his work.

Mojica talked about censorship in the song “Prenúncio,” which he recorded in 1998 with the Brazilian thrash metal band, Sepultura. The song is an eschatological monologue accompanied by heavy guitars with sinister timbres. At the same time, it is an outburst, a cry of resistance. In a certain passage, he asks, ” What is more violent? The animals, the force of nature? No! It’s the imprisonment of freedom of expression. Feeling, hearing, and not being able to speak.” It was also in that year that the filmmaker cut his long nails, which he had cultivated since 1964.

Mojica would only finish the Coffin Joe trilogy in 2008, with the film Embodiment of Evil. In this ending, Mojica brings Coffin Joe back from the dead in the best style of horror films and still settles accounts with the end imposed by the military on the previous film.

The Shadow of Coffin Joe

In the meantime, he directed more than 30 films, including The Strange World of Coffin Joe,  Awakening the Beast, and The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe. In that last one, he plays himself and confronts his character Coffin Joe. The film is a true exorcism of Mojica’s frustrations. The confrontation between creature and creator is the backdrop that permeates the plot, but inserted there as if Mojica said, “Hey, that’s what this movie says.” The central plot of The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe involves a witch who uses sorcery against a friend of Mojica and he ends up getting involved.

However, the confrontation between the director and his character can be seen in the film’s own dialogue when Mojica talks to friends about the frustration of having his figure as a director obscured by Coffin Joe. Mojica soon finds himself face-to-face with his creation at the climax of this creative production.

Two men stand in front of eachother, seemingly in the middle of conversation

Standing in the shadow of Coffin Joe, which many knew without ever having seen his movies, bothered Mojica. In a way, he himself contributed to this, by always dressing like the character on TV shows. He began to receive more invitations from the mainstream media to participate in talk show programs such as Coffin Joe, while director José Mojica Marins had little or no space to talk about his works and the struggle to make horror cinema in Brazil. Over time, Mojica and Coffin Joe became one in the popular imagination, and for many, there was just Coffin Joe, that weird guy who appeared on TV from time to time.

In 1971, the director made the film Finis Hominis, which he claimed was his favorite. The plot revolves around the character Finis Hominis, who comes out of the sea naked and thus roams the streets, questioning people’s relationship with money and with their own peers. After becoming a kind of messiah followed by a mob, he returns to where he came from in an ending that only Mojica could conceive. Loaded with reflections and social criticism, the film was banned from release during the military dictatorship and only released with the end of the regime in 1985. In an interview, Mojica reported that he intended to confront Finis Hominis with Coffin Joe, but that never happened.

Cult Status

Poster for Embodiment of Evil

Mojica also had to resort to erotic productions to stay in the business. In the 90s, his horror films became popular outside Brazil and gained cult status. His horror works also won comic book versions. Throughout his career, Mojica has received, outside Brazil, several awards and nominations as an actor and director. His work has never had due recognition in his own country, despite the fame that the character has achieved. Mojica presented four TV shows. One of them, called The Strange World of Coffin Joe, consisted of a freak show where he interviewed eccentric celebrities. Another of the programs that Mojica commanded was Cine Trash, where he showed horror films. In all the attractions, he appeared as Coffin Joe.  

Mojica died in February 2020, aged 83, of bronchopneumonia. His legacy, however, lives on. The monster survives the creator. His passion for horror still inspires filmmakers around the world, especially in Brazil, where filmmaking is true horror.


BARCINSKI, André & FINOTTI, Ivan. Maldito –– A vida e o cinema de José Mojica Marins, o Zé do Caixão. São Paulo: Editora 34, 1998.

Memória do Cinema – Entrevista com José Mojiva Marins. Disponível em

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Written by Wilker Duarte

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