aka À Meia Noite Levarei Sua Alma (Original Title)
84 min., 1964
Directed by José Mojica Marins
My rating: ★★★★
“What is life?”
* * *
All things considered, AT MIDNIGHT I’LL TAKE YOUR SOUL is a very unusual movie, while at the same time being business-as-usual. There is a lot to it that is old-fashioned and has much in common with the original Universal horror pictures. Yet at the same time, it is mostly a modern movie with modern sensibilities. Trapped between the two worlds, perhaps as a transitionary film, it holds its own between both. When it first came out in Brazil, most states in that country banned it. Yet according to the liner notes of the DVD, people still came out in droves to see it, wherever it played. It was successful enough to merit two immediate sequels and another more recently.
It really is strange. For all the talk about this movie, when you pare it down to the basics, it is simply about a guy who wants to fuck his best friend’s woman, and he’ll do anything, up to and including murder and rape, to get what he wants. Throw in a supernatural revenge element, and you have a TALES FROM THE CRYPT story. (The parallel isn’t lost on director Jose Mojica Marins; included with the DVD is a reproduction of a Ze do Caixao comic book, which is structured like an EC comic with Coffin Joe as the host.)
There is only one thing that tips the scales in this movie’s favor: the protagonist. Known in Brazil as Ze do Caixao, his name translates in English to Coffin Joe, and he’s a supreme bastard. Back then, it wasn’t common to use the villain of the story as the protagonist, so already this movie is ahead of the game.
What makes Coffin Joe so special? Check it out: he’s the local mortician of a super-religious village. Dressed in a top hat and cloak, and bearing a black beard, bristling unibrow, and creepy long fingernails, he is feared by everyone in town. It isn’t just because he looks scary and deals with the dead on a regular basis. First of all, he’s a staunch atheist in the midst of these uber-Christians. This defines him as in league with the devil, as far as they’re concerned, but later in the film, Coffin Joe also takes the time to scorn the idea of Satan. This guy is such an atheist, he makes Penn Jillette look like an altar boy. To top it all off, he’s very violent, and he loves it. In one scene, he goads a fellow poker player into trying to cheat him, just so he can have the pleasure of cutting the poor bastard’s fingers off with a broken bottle. In another scene, in order to cover his tracks, he stabs a doctor’s eyes out with his fingernails and burns him alive.
And most importantly, in Coffin Joe’s own words, the townspeople recognize that he is strong and smart. He believes he is enough of both of these traits to rule over them. This is why he thinks they fear him, and it would seem that they’re right to.
When we first meet him, he is sick of burying people all the time. He hates the people around him, and he’s bored with his profession. To mock the villagers, he sits before an open window while watching a Holy Friday procession, and he eats meat in front of them, laughing his creepy laugh. He’s got an odd sense of humor, regularly making dark jokes, yet at the same time, it doesn’t intrude on the story, unlike, for example, Freddy’s sense of humor in the later NIGHTMARE movies. When Coffin Joe makes a joke, he comes off as scary.
He is married, and he hates his wife because she can’t have kids. This is the strangest part about Coffin Joe’s character, or at least it would seem so at first. He is shockingly tender toward children. He desperately wants kids of his own. When he sees a man yelling at a child, about to raise a hand to the tyke, Coffin Joe steps in and stops it, demanding that the man be nicer to the kid. And then, we find out why he feels this way: kids are a continuation of one’s bloodline. Since there is no God, the only form of immortality we can have is through one’s children. There are no roadblocks between him and his ego.
Anyway, he wants to fuck other women, seeking the perfect womb in which to sow his seed. He has his heart set on Terezinha, the girlfriend of his best friend Antonio. In one scene, where Coffin Joe manages to get her alone, it becomes very apparent that he has no intention of winning her over. Rape is perfectly fine with him. She rebukes him, but that’s all right. Coffin Joe has his ways.
His plan: murder his wife and make it look like an accident. Then, he will murder Antonio and . . . make it look like an accident. Then, he will make his advances on Terezinha, and if she rejects him, he’ll rape her. Once she’s subjected to his will, she’ll be his sex slave until she produces a child for him.
So he does all of these things (and he doesn’t just kill them; he finds too much pleasure in torture to end their lives quickly), but he didn’t count on shaming Terezinha so much that she actually commits suicide. Not before she curses him, of course. She tells him that her spirit will come for his soul at midnight.
This frustrates him, but that’s not the end of his quest for pussy. It brings him through much more violence and blasphemy before coming to a very predictable ending.
As one watches the movie, it’s clear why Brazil banned it. The blasphemy is over the top, and the violence doesn’t shrink away from itself. It focuses on the corpses, and it shows the blood. There is a scene where someone finally stands up to Coffin Joe in a bar, and Ze whips the shit out of him. He literally uses a whip, and it’s enough to make anyone cringe. The spider scene, the hanging scene, the scene with the doctor’s eyes, they’re all super-violent for the ‘Sixties. It more than earns its reputation.
But there are a ton of flaws. First of all, Marins, who plays Coffin Joe himself, sometimes takes it too far over the top. His monologues are just too far out there to be taken seriously, and his theatrical first appearance in the story itself is very much in the fashion of a comic book. (He also does an in-character introduction to this movie, pondering the meaning of life and death. Completely unnecessary. There is also a second introduction, performed by a Gypsy, warning the viewer to turn away before it’s too late. Also, very unnecessary. These people do not have the class of, say, William Castle, who could pull something like that off without a problem.)
The opening credits are too campy. While the music is great, the animation is just stupid, and the TV opening style of showing pictures of the actors with the actors’ names is just too blah. Marins also relies too much on close-ups of Coffin Joe’s eyes, especially when he’s about to fly into a murderous rage and they suddenly grow veins all over them.
Coffin Joe’s atheism is way too much in some scenes, like when he desecrates a religious shrine to the dead and steals the wine on display. In one scene, he runs around a room, jumping all over shit, screaming about how the gods don’t exist and challenging them to destroy him at the same time.
The cherry on top is the predictable ending. Anyone reading this can probably guess what it is, yet at the same time, that final shot, just before the dissolve to the church’s clock, is actually pretty ghastly.
Take Coffin Joe out of this movie, and you have something that might squeak by with a one-star rating, barely worth your time. He’s easily worth two stars, and he will get you through this. You will marvel at his proficiency with violence, and his enjoyment in hurting people. AT MIDNIGHT I’LL TAKE YOUR SOUL was waaaay ahead of its time; check it out and see why.
Stay tuned for a review of the next movie in the series, THIS NIGHT I’LL POSSESS YOUR CORPSE.Have You Read...?