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Horror, Brazilian style

Current wave of films of this genre was preceded by a tradition little known or studied

In recent years, horror films have achieved greater exposure in Brazilian cinema, a phenomenon most visible in titles that enter the commercial circuit with the promise of technical quality and actors known for their work on television.  This is the case with the feature films Isolados [The isolated], Quando eu era vivo [When I was alive], and O rastro [The footprint], among others.  Even though box-office results have not been exceptional, these clearly constitute a niche market recognized by critics and researchers alike. According to an estimate by researcher and independent professor Carlos Primati, one new Brazilian horror movie is commercially released every month or six weeks.  Given the similarity of some of these films to foreign productions of the same genre, especially contemporary horror films from the U.S., the upsurge may appear to be a novelty in domestic cinema.  Brazil, however, has a little-remembered tradition in the field of horror, which features the work of filmmaker and actor José Mojica Marins, 81, and the first two films in which he interpreted the character Zé do Caixão [Coffin Joe], in the 1960s.

Mojica’s centrality in Brazilian horror cinema is unanimously acknowledged among researchers and filmmakers long devoted to the genre, even those who do not identify with the style of the director, according to Laura Cánepa, a professor and coordinator of the Graduate Program in Communications at the Anhembi-Morumbi University in São Paulo. In 2008, she defended her dissertation in multimedia, entitled Afraid of what?: a history of horror movies in Brazilian cinema, at the University of Campinas (Unicamp).  The researcher continues to devote her studies to this genre, publishing papers and chapters in books that extend to her current line of research. Her goal while pursuing her doctorate was to describe the genre, situate it within the history of Brazilian cinema and map its widely scattered production that had as yet not been studied from that angle. It should be noted that, beginning in the early 2000s, there have been a growing number of research studies on the genre of Brazilian cinema, as noted in works on science fiction, children’s movies, bandit movies, police films and others.

The researcher herself says that the study was descriptive and based on a search of films forgotten, missing or deemed lost, but recovered through Internet sharing and in video rental stores that still worked with VHS tapes, in addition to collectors’ archives and interviews with directors. In a survey of film dictionaries, guides and other documents, Cánepa noted that there appeared to be a wealth of works in the genre that classified themselves as comedies, dramas and erotic films.  Only two directors advertised their movies as horror or terror: Mojica and Ivan Cardoso–the latter devoted to a parodic vein he called “terrir,” (a combination of terror and comedy). The first Brazilian film officially billed as a horror movie was À meia-noite levarei sua alma (1964) [At Midnight, I will Take Your Soul], which marked the debut of the Coffin Joe character.

Public domain image Quando eu era vivo, from 2014…Public domain image

Cánepa’s research led to the observation, for example, of pranks with an element of horror, even in the 1936 film O Joven Tataravô [The young great great-grandfather], directed by Luis de Barros (1893-1981). In providing an overview, Cánepa concluded that “if it is even possible to talk about a golden age of national horror cinema, it would be from 1963 to 1983.” That period includes Mojica’s most important films and “a varied and extensive cinematography divided among offerings that were markedly horror fiction alongside others derived from erotic films, explored to death by producers from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro,” including the genre of works by filmmakers such as Walter Hugo Khouri (1929-2003) and Carlos Hugo Christensen (1914-1999). There were directors, particularly at the time of pornochanchada (a genre of sexploitation films), originating in the Boca do Lixo (popular name for the downtown São Paulo neighborhood that served as the unofficial hub of movie producers and distributors in the 1970s), whose films, much like European productions, combined erotic appeal with elements of the supernatural, such as John Doo (1942-2012), Jean Garret (1946-1996) and Luiz Castillini (1944-2015).

Cánepa grouped the production in a chronological cross-section. “I had the option of approaching the genre as one category of the film industry, derived from traditional forms organized by Hollywood for popular cinema, or as a thematic trend that manifested itself in a more haphazard manner, which is what I chose,” she says. Following this principle, the main lines are as follows: horror fiction, mainly represented by Mojica; classic horror, reminiscent of 18th century gothic novels and characterized more by the creation of a terrifying atmosphere than by detailed and explicit demonstration of horrifying action, represented by directors like Khouri and Christensen; exploitation horror, characterized by sensationalism, along the vein of the titles in the pornochanchada; o horror parody, in which we find the films by Ivan Cardoso, Amácio Mazzaropi (1912-1981)–such as O Jeca contra o capeta (1976) [Jeca against the devil]–, in addition to feature films such as Bacalhau (1975) [Codfish], directed by Adriano Stuart (1944-2012), a satire of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). Finally, there is a group of films that include “cases related to subgenres such as ghost films, werewolf fiction and those children’s movies that dialogue with the horror universe.” According to a listing catalogued by Carlos Primati, the hybrid perspective includes nearly 500 films since the 1930s.

The chapter on Mojica in Cánepa’s study could have benefited from some discussion of previous studies.  Although he was a filmmaker praised by iconic colleagues such as Rogério Sganzerla (1946-2004) and Glauber Rocha (1939-1981), in addition to critics like Jairo Ferreira (1945-2003), there existed, at the time in which the researcher wrote her dissertation, a dissertation defended by journalist Alexandre Agabiti Fernandez at the University of Paris III, in France, in addition to the biography written by journalists Ivan Finotti and André Barcinski entitled Maldito: A vida e a obra de José Mojica Marins, o Zé do Caixão (editora 34, 1998) [Accursed: the life and work of José Mojica Marins, Zé do Caixão]. There were also works by experts such as Primati, one of the organizers of the box set of DVDs, Coleção Zé do Caixão: 50 anos do cinema de José Mojica Marins (2002), that includes interviews with experts and filmmakers.

Public domain image …and Rafael Cardoso and Leandra Leal in O rastro (2017)Public domain image

The Coffin Joe character played a leading role in two films, À meia-noite levarei sua alma [At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul] and Esta noite encarnarei no teu cadáver (1967) [This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse], both major box-office hits. In other productions, he appeared as a master of ceremonies or in scenes from pseudo-documentaries.  Because of censorship pressures during the military dictatorship, which frowned upon the violence of his films, it was not until 2008 that Mojica would revisit the character, in Encarnação do demônio  (Embodiment of Evil).

Cánepa says that Brazilian horror is a unique phenomenon. Inspired in observations by horror writer Rubens Lucchetti, who collaborated with Mojica and Cardoso as screenwriter, the researcher thinks that the filmmaker was able to “solve an equation” that allowed horror films to find their place in Brazil.  To her, classic horror has trouble penetrating the country because in Brazil, the supernatural is mostly seen as beneficial. “Given the Spiritist tradition, ghosts routinely emerge as saviors in the story,” she says.

Mojica created a character that has nothing super-human about him.  On the contrary, it is the incomprehensible forces that avenge his cruelty, based above all on rationalism–in the films, supernatural interventions end up killing the villain.  Coffin Joe owns a funeral home and his mission is to ensure continuity of his bloodline by having a “perfect” son. This leads him to an extreme and cruel rationalism: death, with just a hint of pain, would be the natural destiny of those who are afraid and of women who fight to perpetuate their superiority.  “I am invincible and I only believe in the power of blood and heredity,” says the character.  Yet “Coffin Joe, non-believer and sinner, will be eliminated by his own guilt and the supernatural powers he claims not to believe in,” Cánepa says.

Public domain image Marat Descartes and Helena Albergaria in Trabalhar cansa (2011)Public domain image

The spirit Exu
Although the character’s films are resolved such that good triumphs over evil, Alexandre Agabiti Fernandez points to one compelling feature that may have seduced the public. “The character challenges the powers that be, religion and the social conventions surrounding death,” he says.  “The taboo related to these themes has enormous appeal.” Like other film researchers, Fernandez points out the similarities in the description of the character itself with the spirit Exu, superimposed as part of the syncretic tradition of the devil from Christian imagery.

Primati believes that the Afro-Brazilian religions characterize many of the domestic horror films. And that some of them draw upon elements of cordel literatura (popular pamphlets containing folk novels, poems and songs).  To him, elements such as these blend into the traditions of the genre, creating hybrids that defy classification. The films by Mojica, according to researcher Rodrigo Carreiro, of the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), owe part of their strangeness to the fact that they are influenced more by popular manifestations like the circus and comic strips than by a cinematographic culture that the filmmaker would have absorbed only intuitively.

With respect to the current wave of horror films, the researchers agree in stating that the tradition started by Mojica has not continued forward, although the filmmakers recognize its importance. Some semblance of the pioneering filmmaker appears in productions described by Cánepa as “guerrilla cinema,” amateur films that circulate among fans of the genre, but not those that are now seeking a larger public, nor those that are simply thrillers such as Trabalhar cansa [Work is tiring] (Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra, 2011). However, that does not prevent these films. like those by Mojica, from having an atmosphere in which “something terrible could happen at any second.”

Scientific articles
CÁNEPA, L. Configurações do horror cinematográfico brasileiro nos anos 2000: Continuidades e inovações. Miradas sobre o cinema ibero-latino-americano. pp. 121-43. 2016.
CÁNEPA, L. L. and PIEDADE, L. R. O horror como performance da morte: José Mojica Marins e a tradição do Grand Guignol. Galaxia. No. 28. 2014.
CARREIRO, R. O problema do estilo na obra de José Mojica MarinsGalaxia. n. 26, pp. 98-109. 2013.