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At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul

Coffin Joe José Mojica Marins is one of the true originals of world cinema. His career started in the late 1950's and he has directed almost thirty films to date. What makes him unusual is that he is a Brazilian director of horror films. There have been almost no other Brazilian horror films, and Marins's work is of a very extreme, anti-religious nature certain to offend in a staunchly catholic culture such as Brazil's. His first real success was this film, released in 1963. Marins stars as 'Zé do Caixao'; literally 'Joe of the Coffin' (hence the Americanization of his name to simply 'Coffin Joe'). He is a crazy eyed, long nailed, bearded, top hat and black cape wearing undertaker who is terrorising a small town. He rails against religion and deliberately sets out to upset people by eating meat on a Good Friday and committing other bad acts (he ties a woman up and lets big hairy spiders crawl over her body and picks fights in the local bar, cutting a man's fingers off with a broken bottle after a poker argument, etc). Zé wants to have a child but his wife is barren. This enrages him, leading him to search for the perfect woman to bear his child. A woman arrives in town to visit her relatives, and she seems to be the ideal candidate for Zé's purposes. However, things are not so simple, and Zé ends up in a cemetery on All Hallow's Eve, where he sees the procession of the dead, which literally frightens him to death.

Marins was born in 1936 and his father ran a cinema in Sao Paulo. Marins decided to make a feature film after making several shorts in 8mm and 16mm. His first feature-length film was to have been 'The Judgement of God', however production was hit by all sorts of problems, most notably various tragedies concerning the lead actresses (the first drowned in a swimming pool, the second got TB and the third lost her legs in an accident). His next project was 'The Depths of Despair' and this too was hit by problems when a storm destroyed sets and equipment. The first film Marins actually completed was 1959's The Adventurer's Fate, a Brazilian Western. When Marins returned from the shoot, his pregnant wife had miscarried and much of the footage he had shot was out of focus and hence useless. Marins's next venture was a series of photo novels called 'The Voice of Cinema', but this too was a failure. Understandably, Marins was feeling pretty depressed by this point and he became ill from stress. One night, he had a bad dream (or vision) of a terrifying man dressed all in black. the man dragged Marins to a graveyard where he saw a tombstone with his name on it. Looking up at the man in black, he saw that it was himself. Marins promptly wrote a treatment for a new film project based on the nightmare he had had and took it to his producers, along with the title which had also come to him in a dream. The film was shot in under two weeks, almost entirely in a small set (even the graveyard is a set, built by Marins).

Right from the start of this film, you know it's going to be something unusual. Marins stares into the camera, delivering a wild monologue on life, death and religion. Next a crazy gypsy woman delivers a second monologue, complete with cackling and veiled threats towards the audience. The picture is black-and-white and fairly rough-looking, but this only adds to the atmosphere... "at midnight I'll take your soul" she finishes. This remarkable opening sets the scene for what is to come and also serves to introduce us to the two main characters in the film, Zé and his nemesis, the gypsy woman (OK, she's not strictly speaking a main character, but she is very important in the story). I'm always reminded of Russ Meyer's equally brilliant and superficially similar opening to his Lorna (1964) when I watch this opening segment. What is fascinating about the character Marins created is his contradictory nature - he hates religion and weakness, but likes children (in one scene he tells a boy's father off for upsetting him). He wants a child, yet considers women simply a means of obtaining one. He wants to be hated and feared, yet almost seems to want to be loved in places. The audience might not feel sympathy with the Zé character, but it will almost certainly end up liking him in some way, despite his ugliness of self. Marins apparently wanted the character to be given more background - he was supposed to have returned from WWII to find that his wife had left him for another man, leaving him understandably bitter. This would perhaps justify his outspoken blasphemy, but I think that whatever motivation Marins tried to introduce, the character would remain just as chilling, a bogeyman for the Brazilian audience. Freddy Krueger, Wes Craven's equally homicidal, though less inventive anti-hero of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, shows an obvious debt to Coffin Joe, through his long nails and strange hat, and Marins' character has undoubtedly had considerable influence within the horror genre, despite his films being little seen outside of Brazil.

The film is reasonably violent for its day, with relatively believable special effects, especially given its minuscule budget. The scene involving the (real) spiders will be enough to upset any arachnophobics watching, though a much worse scene can be found in the follow-up to this film, Tonight I Will Possess Your Corpse (1966). Although Marins doesn't show any particular directorial flair in this film, he does achieve some outstanding set-pieces, most notably the final scenes in the cemetery, and the procession of the dead, shot in negative. A really strange, demented atmosphere is generated by the film, which is perhaps why I like it so much. I should also mention the wonderfully evocative opening credits here - they sure don't make 'em like this anymore!

Copyright 2008 Todd Frye.