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A Brazilian exploitation drug flick from the late sixties shows up as part of IFC's "Grindhouse" series.

Movie Review: Coffin Joe – Awakening of the Beast

That José Majica Marins' Awakening of the Beast (1969) was banned in its country of origin for almost two decades is almost enough to get one favorably reconsidering oppressive military juntas. An incoherent mélange of calculatedly appalling acts, Awakening is presented as an entry in the Brazilian actor/filmmaker's Coffin Joe series – though Marins' CJ persona proves more metaphor than active character.

A popular figure in horror movies, radio, and black-and-white horror comics (during the movie's opening credits, some comics pages are used as background – they look very Warren-esque), Coffin Joe is a menacing figure with ultra-long curly fingernails and a top hat. Awakening opens with a black-and-white shot of Joe blasting out of his coffin to the strains of "Ave Maria," then delivering a portentous speech into the camera. But following that intro, CJ disappears for two-thirds of the film. Instead, we're treated to a series of vignettes devoted to a variety of sordid activities – most of which revolve around drug use.

The movie proper, which recently aired on the Independent Film Channel's Friday night "Grindhouse" series, begins with a sequence that pretty much lets us know what to expect. In it, a young blond shoots up – an act shown in protracted detail as she injects the needle into her foot – then strips before a room of leering scuzballs while a perky Brazilian pop tune tells us, "We're all gonna die/Die at first light." Once our shapely junkie is fully undraped, she directs the room's attention to a wrapped package. Her audience eagerly tears it open to reveal a chamber pot. The sequence concludes with a pot-level shot of the woman squatting down, preparing to deliver the inevitable. "Oh boy," we think, "we're in for some real entertainment tonight!"

Turns out the vignette – and a host of others – are being delivered by Marins himself as part of a teevee show entitled "People's Court of Truth," where the director has been asked to appear to defend his popular entertainments. "You recount the exploits of degenerates as though they were poetry for some romance," one of his television interrogators states, though the viewer might be forgiven if they don't see much visual poetry in the proceedings.

In a second sequence, a young schoolgirl is lured to a party held by a group of bearded young bohemians; they get her stoned on reefer, then proceed to fondle her as she dances on a table and they whistle the "Bridge on the River Kwai" theme. "My world is multi-colored because I make it so," she declares, but since this part of the flick's in black-and-white, we have to take her word for it. (Later, the flick turns into beautiful Technicolor.) The party turns sour, though, when a robed prophet sudden appears in the apartment and fatally, sexually assaults her with his walking staff: "an orgy of addiction that took the life of a young girl."

After several more of these little morality tales, we finally arrive at Awakening's "story." In it, a psychologist enlists four volunteers to take what they believe is LSD and spend their trip focusing on a poster of Coffin Joe. The clean-cut looking drugees – two men and two women – each have an extended hallucination with CJ as their guide, and the movie transforms into bright color to give us the full glory of these trips. Marins cuts between these mind voyages – which are staged like more surreal versions of the Jaycees' Haunted House. In one, f'rinstance, a character walks across a bridge of naked men; in another, the older male watches a troupe of naked babes dog pile on top of each other into a fleshy pyramid to be languidly whipped; in a third, our tripper is menaced by a mysterious creature that looks like a chicken with a face painted on its plucked butt. Through it all, Coffin Joe stands on the sidelines, appearing and disappearing, looking all knowing and sinister but otherwise not doing very much.

Pretty nonsensical, though from what I can gather, this isn't necessarily a typical Coffin Joe flick, which tend toward more traditional horror subject matter. Instead, it's Marins' attempt at a combination social statement/artistic manifesto, a defense of his assertively primitive brand of exploitation cinema that apparently fell on deaf ears when it came up against governmental forces of anti-expression.

Thirty years later, much of Marins' confused nattering looks more goofy than shocking, though the sixties era music remains fun. (We even get an extended discothèque sequence with a lotta shots of wriggling rumps.) As an examination of the sinister world of drug abuse, though, the movie doesn't hold together – especially when it's revealed in the "surprise" ending that the LSD our foursome thought they were taking was actually distilled water so all that hallucinatory craziness wasn't drug-induced at all, just a reflection of their true inner selves. Pretty freaky…

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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