Born on a Friday on March 13, 1936, in São Paulo from Spanish immigrants, José Mojica Marins would start his love relationship with cinema from an early age. His father worked in a local movie house where Mojica would spend most of his time as a child. Still a teenager, Mojica got a camera and started to make his small productions, by the time he was eighteen he would have completed more than 80 films. Two years later, with a production company of his own, Mojica started to pursue the style which he maintained for the rest of his life: horror.
But it would be only in 1963 that the Brazilian director produced the film which made him famous. Although during production Mojica was ridiculed by his idea, À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma / At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul became an instant popular classic and won several horror awards in festivals across Europe. Not only the film became a huge success, but the very character that Mojica had been mocked for was acclaimed by the public. And just like that Zé do Caixão / Coffin Joe was born.
Similar to the relationship Charles Chaplin had to Carlitos, Coffin Joe would be the character Mojica became known for. The director incorporated Coffin Joe into his daily life in such a way that both turned into the same. His trademark was a black hat, black suit and cape, and grotesque long nails, which Mojica started to grow in real life after the first film. The character appeared in another five films, different documentaries, a seven-season-long interview program in Canal Brasil, and most recently in a TV series.
Coffin Joe is an undeniable cultural reference in Brazil, the character has rooted so deep in the popular imagination that many people would recognize the long-nailed creepy figure without ever knowing he is actually from a film.
Mojica’s technique was completely amateur. Totally self-taught, he never studied cinema and didn’t have any resources or money to do his films. His sets were mostly DIY. So, he had to improvise. A lot. In of the scenes of At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, Coffin Joe is dragged down to hell and it is snowing. Obviously, there was no real snow in Brazil, so Mojica improvised it with popcorn.
Lovers of Horror films like Rob Zombie, the Ramones, and the director Tim Burton all acclaimed Mojica’s films for its originality and concepts. In Brazil, there’s a story that a man screamed “genius!” incessantly after the premiere of At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. Supposedly, that man was Glauber Rocha, the biggest name of Brazilian cinema at the time and still considered one of the best South American directors.
The opening line of the first appearance of Coffin Joe might give a fair idea of Mojica’s opinion about death: “What is life? It’s the principle of death. What is death? It’s the ending of life. What is existence? It’s the continuity of blood. What is blood? It’s the reason of existence.”