Sunday, October 8, 2017

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul

(1964) Written and directed by José Mojica Marins; Starring: José Mojica Marins, Magda Mei, Nivaldo Lima, Valéria Vasquez and Ilídio Martins Simões; Available on DVD

Rating: ***½

“What is life? It is the beginning of death. What is death? It is the end of life. What is existence? It is the continuity of blood. What is blood? It is the reason to exist!”
– Coffin Joe (José Mojica Marins)

The 1960s marked a renaissance for horror films, stretching the boundaries of what could be displayed on the screen. Around the same time Herschell Gordon Lewis was testing the waters for taste and acceptability with Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), Brazilian filmmaker/actor José Mojica Marins helped usher in his own mini-revolution with the Coffin Joe films, starting with At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, attracting and repelling a whole new generation of audiences. 

Marins displayed a kind of mad genius, helping jump-start Brazilian horror when there was none, with his saga of Zé do Caixão, or Coffin Joe. The idea of doing a horror film wasn’t very well regarded, and casting the title character proved to be a challenge.* In an act of desperation (or inspiration, depending on your point of view), Marins took it upon himself to play Coffin Joe, and the rest is history.

* According to Marins in a 2002 interview, “Nobody wanted to do it and look like a fool.”

Coffin Joe makes a memorable entrance, clad in a top hat and cape, and sporting some freakish pointed nails. He breaks the fourth wall, introducing the audience to his philosophy of life and death. In the following scene, after the opening credits roll, a gypsy fortune teller foretells disaster, and warns us not to watch. Although I can’t imagine there were many people who left the theater, we soon discover her words weren’t entirely unfounded. Coffin Joe, is the town’s undertaker, and not above improving his business by his own hand. After his loving, albeit naïve wife, is unable to bear a child for him (in this case, a son), he decides to shop around. What ensues, is a trail of death and dismemberment in his wake. Marins left no stone unturned to find something to offend everyone. Coffin Joe eats meat during Good Friday (“I’ll eat meat today, even if it’s human flesh.”), mocking a procession that marches past his window. He terrorizes a local bar, and pursues his best friend’s fiancée. What’s a guy to do, when someone stands in the way of his conquests? Coffin Joe drowns his best buddy in a tub, and makes the move on the grieving fiancée – in case you haven’t noticed, he’s not a nice person.

Marins described Coffin Joe’s motivation: “The character is a guy who is wronged. He was in the Second World War, and upon his return, his wife cheated on him. From that point on, he was angry at women and the whole world, and became evil.” He embarks on a tireless quest for a woman who will produce a son, and anyone who stands in his way faces injury or worse. But Coffin Joe is full of contradictions. In one scene, he shows compassion for an abused child, admonishing a parent not to hurt his son (although I wonder if he would have gone to the same trouble if the child had been a girl). Marins’ character is unquestionably sadistic and misogynistic, but the film has a moralistic streak. What goes around comes around, and after all the awful things he perpetrates, he must pay for his evil trespasses.

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul was ahead of its time, for its explicit depiction of gore, cruelty and sadism. More than 50 years later it hasn’t lost its impact (you know if you’re the right person for this kind of film). Fingers are severed, eyes are gouged out, and just about anything else you can imagine. Much like the Friday the 13th movies which followed a couple of decades later, we don’t side with the antagonist for a minute, but we can’t help but wonder, with sick fascination, what horrendous thing he’ll do next. How can one man keep an entire town petrified beyond the capacity to fight back? The villagers fear and despise him, but they’re so terrified, they don’t stop to think about overwhelming him. Of course, this could be said about hundreds of other films, so I’ll let this slide.

For more than half a century José Mojica Marins has been synonymous with Coffin Joe (although he has many more directing and acting credits). Few other horror characters, as portrayed by one actor, have been as enduring. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul was followed a few years later by This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967), but it took another 40 years for the next chapter, Embodiment of Evil (2008). Unfortunately, the third installment succumbed to the law of diminishing returns (at this point it seems a little too familiar), but you have to admire Coffin Joe’s tenacity. The original film was ahead of its time, and many of the mainstream horror films that followed decades later owe a debt of gratitude to Marins’ twisted vision. And if Marins has his way, we haven’t seen the last of Coffin Joe.

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