CAPSULE: AT MIDNIGHT I’LL TAKE YOUR SOUL (1964)

À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma

DIRECTED BY: José Mojica Marins

FEATURING: José Mojica Marins, Magda Mei

PLOT: Brazilian undertaker Zé do Caixão (“Coffin Joe”) eats meat on Friday, terrorizes peasants, and plots to steal his best friend’s fiancee; a gypsy witch is the only person in town who dares to defy him.

Still from At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Up until its nightmarish finale, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is only weird in the sense that it features a one-of-a-kind antihero: Zé do Caixão, a the stovepipe hat wearing undertaker and self-appointed ubermensch who eats lamb on Holy Friday, rails against God during a thunderstorm, and gleefully murders his friends and acquaintances. The vicious character was popular enough to spawn a series of films, and Zé became an iconic boogeyman in Brazil, along the lines of a Freddy Kreuger in the States. Although not all that strange, the original At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is arguably the best of the Coffin Joe movies; the character, however, would return in weirder guises…

COMMENTS: When José Mojica Marins made At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul in 1964, there were no previous Brazilian horror films for him to model his movie after. That explain why Midnight, while cheap, sleazy, and cheesy in design, feels fresh and unique. Marins begins Midnight with not one, but two prologues. In the first Coffin Joe explains the concepts of life, death, existence and blood; in the second, an old gypsy hag waves a Universal Studios surplus skull in front of the camera and warns audiences there’s still time to turn around and go home. In between the introduction and the foreword, the sadistic highlights are previewed over the credits. A leather gloved hand bloodies a woman’s face, the same hands strangle a man in a bathtub, and a tarantula crawls over a bound victim, all while the wind howls and screams, moans and cackles echo in the background like a soundtrack for a Halloween haunted house. The opening impression is of a cross between a Universal horror and a grindhouse roughie; throw in a bit of Anton LaVey posturing, and that’s a fairly accurate description. The violence, which includes severed fingers and gouged eyeballs, is astounding for the early 1960s (there’s no nudity, of course—modesty must prevail). There’s a brutal rape scene, but Zé’s casual blasphemies probably shocked the original audience even more. The plot is simple but unusual: it’s mostly a series of scenes of Coffin Joe scandalizing pious villagers with his sacrilegious antics, then beating and whipping them while daring them to gather the courage to confront him. Meanwhile, he obsesses about fathering a son to carry on his bloodline, and decides to get rid of his barren girlfriend in favor of his only friend’s fiancée. A gypsy woman hangs around the edges of the picture predicting doom for the blackguard. Coffin Joe finally goes too far in his iniquities and one night, at midnight, the spirits of those he’s wronged come to take his soul. It’s not the plot (and certainly not the production values) that impresses, however, but the character of Coffin Joe. Clad head to toe in black, with a stovepipe hat, cape, pipe, bristly beard, and three-inch long fingernails sharpened like knife points, Zé is an instant nightmare icon from the moment he arrogantly strides onscreen. But what makes him terrifying is that he freely chooses evil: there is no backstory to humanize him or explain how he became embittered and corrupted. He’s simply a sociopath who delights in causing pain to his fellow human beings, and who is smart enough to justify his lusts and strong enough to seize them. His philosophy of evil is summed up by his assessment of the villagers he terrorizes: “They’re weak because they fear what they don’t know. I am free. Therefore, I am stronger.” Because Zé, an atheist in a superstitious Catholic society, has no fear of eternal punishment, he can take whatever he wants. A woman he rapes tells him she will kill herself: Zé’s chilling response is to wipe her blood from his lips and inform her that all the women say that—at first. Coffin Joe is repulsive, but he’s also charismatic; the cinematic figure he resembles most is Alex from A Clockwork Orange. We can’t actively root for him, but we can’t help but secretly envy him; he is what we fear in ourselves. That makes for a great character, even if the technical qualities of the movie surrounding Coffin Joe can’t quite live up to Marins’ ghoulish persona. Zé’s downfall satisfies the censors; evil is punished. But at the end, when the forces of superstition and the vengeful spirits of the dead swamp the undertaker, Coffin Joe’s comeuppance has all the sincerity of a fallen preacher’s tearful apology to his parishioners. It’s there for show, to convince the audience that wickedness has been buried once and for all. As Coffin Joe’s words echo in our ears, we remain unconvinced.

Director José Mojica Marins says he took the role of Coffin Joe because he could not find a professional Brazilian actor willing to play the part. He portrayed Zé do Caixão for 45 years, through three canonical Coffin Joe films and a host of guest appearances, including cameos in Marins’ more surreal offerings, including the LSD horror Awakening of the Beast and the cut-and-paste highlight reel Hallucinations in a Deranged Mind.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Morality is annihilated, transgression is exalted — a confrontational close-up makes Mei’s mauled mouth as bizarrely erotic as Barbara Steele’s punctured face in Black Sunday…”–Fernando Croce, Cinepassion (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by EricSG, who praised the “eerie atmosphere” and “surrealistic touches that hint upon Bunuel (albeit more evil)” and added “the ending catapults it into the weird netherworld with psychedelic camera tricks…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “CAPSULE: AT MIDNIGHT I’LL TAKE YOUR SOUL (1964)”

  1. Perhaps this movie’s poor production values – the opening few minutes seem designed to frighten five-year-olds, and a ghost’s glowing aura was clearly achieved by scratching the film – obscure the fact that something very weird indeed was going on here.

    I don’t mean in the movie, though it’s certainly odd – I mean in Marins’ head. Look at those fingernails! Mr. Shit in Holy Motors has very similar nails (they look as though they might be a nod to this film), but his were fake – Marins actually grew them for the part, and kept them for the rest of his life! How long does it take to grow nails that length anyway? I wouldn’t know, but surely far too long to hold up production of a film this cheap while you do it? Which suggests that, by a happy coincidence, he must have had those talons anyway for some other reason…

    He’s clearly a driven man – the more ambitious (and somewhat weirder) sequel was allegedly shot without a permit in an abandoned synagogue, using street people as extras. I wonder what the rabbi thought if he ever came back to find the place transformed into a carnival-ride version of Hell? Basically, Marins is Ed Wood without any of his redeeming features.

    I’ve read perfectly serious suggestions from people who analyze movies for a living that Marins’ entire career is a strange kind of auto-psychotherapy, in which his bad self (Coffin Joe), struggles against a Christ-like figure called Finis Hominis, also played by Marins. And there aren’t that many directors who appear as themselves in their own films, attempt to explain their decidedly odd philosophy to hostile listeners, and when that fails, reveal that they are in fact the extreme psychopath they played in previous films and torture everybody to death!

    Although the violence is tame by the standards of todays’ torture porn, it must have raised a few eyebrows back in the day – for a very long time all the Coffin Joe movies were totally banned in the UK. But what makes me genuinely uneasy about watching some of Marins’ work, especially the later stuff, is the sense that there might genuinely be something badly wrong with him.

    Movies under the control of one person to the extent that his are give you a window into the soul of their creator, especially if that creator is too artless to hide anything if he wanted to. I think I would have liked Ed Wood. I don’t think I want to be in the same room as this guy for one second!

    Incidentally, his early films suggest that Marins really, really wanted to be a Surrealist – note the useless furniture made from dummy hands in Coffin Joe’s house in the first film! More significantly, our hero’s numerous speeches about amorality and militant atheism sound as though they’re lifted almost verbatim from the pompous, arrogant, and numbingly dull writings of the awful André Breton.

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