Impulse Buy Theater - At Midnight, I Will Take Your Soul
This Impulse Buy Theater is going to be a deep pull.
You see, not too many people have heard of Coffin Joe, or, at least not too many outside of Brazil. Hell, we even asked our resident horror movie expert and his response was “Coughin’ Joe? Nope, but get that bastard to the Halls of Medicine…I just got over that shit and don’t want to catch it again.” That’s kind of a shame, because given the current cultural inclination toward child-worship in many of today’s parents, well, Joe feels like a natural growth from that and as such might just have more of a relevancy now than he did back when he was created in 1963. We’ll get to that in a little bit as we start off on this strange journey into Brazilian horror cinema with a look at the first film in the Coffin Joe Trilogy: At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul.
First though, let’s take a look at how Joe might have fallen through the cracks. Well, the obvious place to start is location, location, location. This is not to say that if something isn’t spawned in Hollywood, it’s doomed to failure because there are certainly many examples of films and directors that completely trash that statement. Japan’s represented by Kurosawa’s dramas and kaiju films, Germany has Lang, Murnau and expressionism, Italy has Burtolucci and other auteurs, Spaghetti Westerns and Giallo, France is the second largest exporter of film behind the US, China has a fine tradition of kung-fu films and so on and so forth. [Yeah, we’re not here to start a lecture course about World Cinema, thank you very much. – Ed.] Brazil however has had a bit of a difficult time establishing a cinematic identity mainly due to the community’s need for incentives and funding from the government and the ebbs and flows inherent within that kind of dependence. At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul emerges in the wake of the Cinema Novo period in Brazil where trends established in Italian (neorealism) and French cinema (New Wave) were a big influence. The ‘dark mirror’ of that trend, if you will, so-called ‘marginal cinema’ is where Joe resides…in essence, Brazilian B-movies. [Since you’re not going to say it, big shout out to the Wiki on pretty much the bulk of this paragraph. – Ed.] As we all know, there’s no shortage of B-movies in the US…never has been, likely never will be…and given that glut of material, it’s not hard to imagine foreign material being overlooked when a great deal of domestic material often suffers the same fate.
Next is timing. At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul [Fuck it, at this point, we’re going to shorten it to AMIWTYS. – Ed.] inhabits a strange place…stuck between the Universal Monsters period and the newer school of horror that arose around George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In watching the film, you can tell it resides in this transitional period. It doesn’t engage in the full gore that Herschell Gordon Lewis was exploring around this time in his films but we do see some blood where it’s needed and limited decay make-up effect for the tormented souls that return to take their vengeance on Joe at the end of the film. Another scene of notice is the inclusion of a rape scene. In the wake of such films as ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ and ‘Irreversible’, this scene is incredibly tame but when you take into account both the time, early 60s, and the place, a very Catholic Brazil, it becomes increasingly more notable and firmly entrenches the film in the aforementioned ‘marginal cinema’. Something else to consider about the timing of the film’s release is that all this was occurring at the same time as the horror host boom was happening in the United States. While there was certainly no internet or YouTube at the time to help the idea catch on quicker, having the star of a horror movie that looks so in place with a television phenomenon happening in the US at least gives the impression that there was a little more at work here than mere co-incidence. To make the picture truly complete…Coffin Joe did indeed become a horror host from 1967 all the way until 1988 on Brazilian TV and even now, Jose Mojica Marins still hosts a TV show in Brazil…just not as his alter ego. In a way, I have to admit that it was this horror host type appearance that drew me to the films. Coffin Joe (or, if you speak Portuguese, Ze de Caixao…there’s a bunch of stresses and tildes and other punctuation there, but Word hates me) is clad in an all-black suit and cape with a top hat with unsightly long nails.
Just by his appearance, Joe is off-putting but the movie makes it a point to let you know in no uncertain terms that Joe is…well…a huge dick. For example, Joe doesn’t simply eat meat on ‘holy Friday’ (remember, Catholic Brazil), he does it in front of an entire procession. It’s his general air of superiority with the others in town and his constant displays of how superior he is to them…either verbally or physically…throughout the entirety of the film that makes it very clear that this man is thoroughly unlikeable. Yet he has a best friend, Antonio. [Hey, you know how it is…everyone has THAT ONE friend… - Ed.] It is because of this feeling of superiority the main driving force behind Coffin Joe (not surprisingly the town’s undertaker) is the perpetuation of his bloodline. That’s right, Joe wants to be a daddy…and he’s willing to do anything to make that happen. Current wife can’t have kids? She’s gotta go. Best friend has a hot fiancé who can? He’s gotta go. Said fiancé not willing to help Joe out? Well, we already referred to the rape scene. With his seed in place, will Joe be successful in siring a hellish heir???
That's it. That's the movie. So why do I like it so much? Why do I think you should watch it? It all comes down to Joe...and, that being said...Marins' performance. Coffin Joe is such an irredeemable, unrepentant character that you can't help but be mesmerized by him. I'd almost like to say that he's like the rebellious goth kids you at least encountered once during high school...but he's better than that. He's not watered down. The dude is cranked up to 11 while those that surround him are happy to be mid-volume 5's at best. To follow that, yes, the acting is uneven in the film (Antonio is particularly a weak point) but it is just that overacting and sheer force of Marins' personality that separate this film from where so many others have failed. Only one other actor in the film, the gypsy fortune teller, is really able to go toe to toe with him at this level...but she's only in at best 2-3 scenes. This is Coffin Joe's film. Lastly, and I touched on this in the opening paragraph, but Joe seems more relevant than ever. You see, the girlfriend and I have both noticed this as we and the friends and peers around us have aged. Many of them will judge your success in life by whether or not you've pumped out a kid...or two...or three or whatever their ideal number is. Children, in many ways, have become an obsession in today's culture...just as it is Coffin Joe's obsession. There is no right, no wrong, just the need for an heir. Watching the film, even though it's from the 60s...it struck me as increasingly relevant to current attitudes. This makes Joe's obscure status such a shame...because monsters, at their best, have a core idea or theme behind them: Dracula is about the sins of the flesh (after all, he is an analogy for venereal disease!), Frankenstein can be both technology and are we merely the sum of our parts or is there more, Freddy Krueger rules our dreams, Michael Myers at his best is about family and Jason is the living embodiment of puritanical morality. Coffin Joe's championing of child obsession should elevate him into this lofty Parthenon.
In summation, look, horror movies didn't take a break...once Universal's reign ended, others, like Hammer Films, Dario Argento, Mario Bava and so forth took up the mantle of scaring movie audiences. But perhaps the allure of Universal, which Hammer would partially cash in on, were the names: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman and so on. There was a central focal point to the horror...one nigh unstoppable figure. And horror movies from the late 70s onward have returned to this kind of focal point with Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Leatherface, Pinhead and others. Coffin Joe stands in limited company, a torchbearer during the lean years. To put it simply, he's the Tom Bodett of horror movies...he left the light on for us. Okay, that's a little broad and maybe giving him too much credit, but he did leave the light on for horror fans of Brazil. But he serves as the bridging character. He takes us from the bloodless Dracula of Bela Lugosi and allows us to get the the knife-wielding Michael Myers. He is, in many ways, like Herschell Gordon Lewis, one of horror's overlooked missing links and if you fancy yourself an anthropologist of horror cinema, you owe it to yourself to track him down. At Midnight, I Will Take Your Soul is the beginning of his story...and that's where you need to start.