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Embodiment of Evil
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by Jay Seaver

"This stuff has an international cult following? Really?"
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: If you've been waiting decades, or even just years, for José Mojica Marins to complete his trilogy of films about homicidal undertaker Zé do Caixão (aka "Coffin Joe"), don't let my negative review stand in your way. There's a good chance that it's everything you could hope for from Marins's long-awaited return to his signature character. But if you're new to the series, or just not particularly enamored of it, I fear that the semi-legendary status of "Embodiment of Evil"'s forebears will work against it.

The long-time absence of Zé do Caixão (Marins) from movie screens is explained by saying that he has been in prison, doing the usual thing charismatic sociopaths do there - driving guards mad, maiming other inmates. But he has been freed by Lucy Pontes (Cristina Aché), a lawyer who found procedural errors in his prosecution. This incenses her husband Claudiomiro Pontes (Jece Valadão), who put Zé away, and his equally corrupt brother Oswaldo (Adriano Stuart). And, honestly, not playing strictly by the book would have been okay here, as it's not long before Zé is up to his old tricks, gathering disciples, killing those he considers his enemies, and searching for the woman who is worthy of being the mother of his child. Maybe it's favela girl Elena (Nara Sakarê), or biologist Hilda (Cleo de Paris). The Pontes brothers soon find themselves allied with Father Eugenio (Milhem Cortaz), a man of the cloth dedicated to Zé's destruction.

Those coming to a horror movie looking for a string of murders and mutilations will not be disappointed; Marins is working without censorship for the first time in his long career, and holds very little back. The blood and guts are plentiful, and while not played quite so grim as torture porn, it is something that the camera lingers on past the initial shock. Some of the shots, if my understanding of co-writer Dennison Ramalho's translation during the Q&A is correct, may be more authentic than is typical of horror movies - in addition to shooting in actual favelas (slums), Marins seemed to imply that they hired some body-modification guys so that, for instance, when you see someone suspended from the ceiling by hooks, that's not make-up and props. Marins has other visual tricks up his sleeve, too, including some rather trippy hallucinations.

As much as I am relatively squeamish for someone who watches as many horror movies as I do, it's not the graphic violence or the weirdness that does the most to turn me off from this film; rather, it's Zé do Caixão and José Mojica Marins's portrayal that does it. As much as I'd like to go easy on a man in his seventies who was more or less coaxed out of retirement to do one last movie, Zé is in nearly every scene, and in many he comes off as a frail old man who may have been monstrous back in the day, but is shrunken and weakened now. He's a serial killer whose mind is going foggy, which isn't the most threatening monster in the world. Maybe that would be something if Marins were able to fill Zé with some sort of larger than life charisma, but he comes across more as a television horror movie host - he cackles and grows his fingernails long, but though he raises his voice, there's no edge to it, no madness. He may be a shadow of his former self, but to be quite honest, the former self we see in flashbacks (some clips from the previous two films, some new), is just bad Z-movie ham as well.

Indeed, the movie's best sequence is the one before he actually appears, as a warden and a throng of guards walk deep into a prison, the warden yelling into his mobile phone about what foolishness releasing Zé upon the world is. That's a tense, excellently cut bit. Along with the film's other bookend, it demonstrates that while Marins may not be much of an actor these days, he certainly can direct a movie. Marins-the-director squeezes bits of tension out of scenes that Marins-the-actor does little with, and even a little more from scenes with the supporting characters. The script is something of a mess, though - it has signs of having bigger ideas than just "here's five scenes of Zé killing people", but never really digs into it.

Of course, there may be elements to the story that I just don't see. Some bits appear to be somewhat specific to São Paulo's favelas, or Brazilian society in general. It's likely someone more familiar with Brazil could prise some meaning from it; the earlier "Coffin Joe" movies are often described as fitting some allegory in among the carnage. And much of what I found to be random plot elements is likely the culmination of themes that started in At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul and This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse.

It's probably worth mentioning that the house packed full of fans seemed to find "Embodiment of Evil" a worthy sequel. Maybe it is if you've got the proper background. If you're coming it cold, though, it may leave you just as cold.

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originally posted: 09/16/09 10:20:58
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 29-Mar-2011



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