On February 19, horror cinema lost one of its strongest international voices. José Mojica Marins, the first Brazilian horror filmmaker, passed away at the age of 83, after a 20 day hospitalization from bronchopneumonia. His passing tragically concluded his run as his iconic character, Coffin Joe. Though he had a small following outside of his native country, Marins was responsible for creating one of the most entertaining icons of horror, long before the new generation of slashers. As a way to commemorate his work to the genre, I wanted to discuss Marin’s first entry into his series, 1964’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul.
At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul was filmed and released during a time when Brazil had disbanded their national censorship board. Marins, a lifelong fan of the horror genre, sought out to tell a story challenging the church and other institutions that created those censorships. Marins believed so much in the story that he sold his house and car to help fund the film and also stepped up to play the lead when the original actor dropped out. His passion was on full display, as he had no one else to play the character on such short notice.
The film opens with Coffin Joe addressing the audience directly, speaking in a threatening manner about the futility of life, before the title flashes with a bolt of lightning. The audience is then introduced to an old gypsy who warns the audience of the film they are about to watch, before cackling as the opening credits come to an end. This opening, coupled with the film’s black and white cinematography, invoke a golden age horror feel that lures the audience to a false sense of security over their expectations.
The film opens proper on a funeral, watched over by Coffin Joe (known in the film as Ze). He is the local undertaker to an impoverished no-name village. In contrast to the local population, which is dressed largely in peasant or farming clothes, Joe wears a black top hat, black suit, and black cape. His distinct clothing symbolizes his sense of superiority over the villagers. He feels superior because he rejects the teachings of Catholicism and religion at large and views such beliefs as a crutch for the weak and uneducated. This is only the beginning as we follow Coffin Joe’s further descent into depravity guided by a sense of entitlement.
Coffin Joe’s goal is to father a child and pass along his bloodline, which is a sinister take on the “beauty and beast” dynamic at play in some classic horror films. The old monsters desire a “bride,” whereas Coffin Joe couldn't care less about love and only desires his “continuation of blood.” Knowing that his own wife cannot bear him a child, he decides to free himself from his marriage by killing her with a venomous spider. This leads to prolonged sequence where we watch a tarantula walk along the actress’s body (arachnophobes beware), and we read the fear and discomfort across her gagged face. From there, Joe sets off throughout the town to find the “perfect woman.”
The audience’s initial expectations of the film are then shattered as we watch the violent acts committed by Coffin Joe, including cutting off fingers and gouging out eyes. This was definitely a level of violence not often seen in Hays Code-era, let alone American horror. Mileage may vary to the most seasoned of gore hounds, but the true horror lies in the absolute moral bankruptcy of the lead. When he’s not stalking the night, Coffin Joe verbally assaults the village with lengthy rants about his hatred of their religion.
After the deaths at Joe’s hands go unpunished by the town, time moves forward to Day of the Dead. Coffin Joe escorts a woman who is visiting the village back home, after mocking the townsfolk for the superstitions. No harm comes of her and Joe makes his way home through the cemetery where he is visited by the ghosts of his victims. Coffin Joe sees a vision of his impending death. Unable to believe he was wrong, Coffin Joe rushes to a mausoleum where two of his victims are buried. He opens the caskets to find their eyes open, staring back at him, their faces covered in insects. The film concludes as the villagers find Coffin Joe catatonic, horribly disfigured, and with eyes bulging open. The clock strikes midnight ending this dark fable.
Since this is his passion project, Marins is the standout of the show. He gives the best lines and often lets himself fully explore the character and the scene in several long takes (a necessity for the low budget at the time). The stand out scene is Coffin Joe’s long, drunken rant in which he challenges the supernatural on the holy night of Day of the Dead to prove their existence to him. Marins proves his talents as an actor in this scene. He is highly theatrical, but menacingly silent when needed. The other standout performance is Eucaris Moraes as Velha Bruxa, the old gyspy from the opening. Moraes appears throughout the film as the only character who doesn’t practice traditional Catholic values. She is, however, spiritual and mysterious and knows more than she lets on about what awaits Coffin Joe. She is a true scene stealer with a memorable cackle to match.
At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul became the first of long running series consisting of a prime trilogy, with This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse in 1967 and concluding with Embodiment of Evil in 2008. All of these films were directed by and starred Marins who would continue to reprise the character of Coffin Joe throughout the duration of his long career. This included appearances in spin-offs films, such as Awakening of the Beast and the anthology film The Strange World of Coffin Joe.
It’s a rare triumph to see a franchised character continue to be steered by the original creator, let alone conclude on the director’s terms. The only examples I can think of to match this would be Wes Craven ending A Nightmare on Elm Street series with the overlooked New Nightmare and Don Cascarelli’s Phantasm series.
At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is a landmark film made by a horror fan who could finally share his love of the genre with his native audience. Marins found his niche and was able to carve his place in horror history. Coffin Joe is often unfairly called Brazil’s Freddy Krueger, to which I strongly disagree as the character predates the Springwood Slasher by two decades. Marins is one of the godfathers of the slasher genre. With Coffin Joe’s story wrapped up, we say goodbye to José Mojica Marins, filmmaker, auteur, actor, horror host, and Brazil’s national boogeyman. Descansar fácil lenda.
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