At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1963)
Cast: Mojica Marins, Magda Mei, Nivaldo de Lima, Eucaris de Morais, Valeria
Director: Jose Mojica Marins
Nutshell: Superlative macabre shocker from Brazil’s master of Cult….stunning!
The circumstances from which At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul was born are easily as bizarre as the film itself in that it all began with a ghastly fever induced nightmare. Jose Mojica Marins had been severely ill and bed ridden with depression and a fever that none of the doctors could seem to fathom. His family were at a loss and thought he was demonically possessed. Then one night, in the grip of a raging fever Marins lapsed into a nightmare, which proved to be the basis for the amazing Coffin Joe series. In his nightmare he watched in sheer horror as a dark figure in a cloak and hat with hideous claws drags Marins to his own freshly prepared grave. Then Marins is startled to find that the figure dragging him to his destiny is none other than himself! The very next morning, Mojica leaped out of his sick bed and started writing feverishly, planning what was to become the first instalment of the Coffin Joe films.
The film was completed in an astounding 13 days and virtually all of it was shot in a very constricted area of about 600 square yards. Mojica found that no serious actor was willing to destroy their image by appearing as the ghastly, marauding satanically tinged central character of Ze Do Caixao or Coffin Joe so he donned a weird looking top hat and a black cloak and put on his finest suit. Mojica already had extended talons for nails so that bit wasn’t a problem. Once in complete regalia, he truly did look the part and on they went with shooting with Marins himself in the lead role. The film gets underway with a prologue by Coffin Joe ….dressed in full regalia raising questions about the meaning of mortality. He stresses at this very point that the only reason there is for life and its only meaning is to continue the bloodline – A strange philosophy but then Coffin Joe is hardly your average Joe.
Some wonderfully bizarre titles follow featuring clips of some of the horrors to come as well as some wonderful weird lettering that fly out towards the viewer like vampire bats. The next shot is of a witches den where the resident witch with the finest ever cackle, clutching a rather over-sized skull warns the viewer not to watch the film…”Don’t watch the movie, go home!” but moments later as the bell starts tolling in the background she informs viewers that it is too late and now the show has begun and the audience should prepare to “suffer” and that she will take their souls away at midnight. The camera closes in on the skull as the witches cackle grows ever more maniacal. It’s a stunning opening sequence, mesmerizingly shot in dreamlike shimmering black and white setting the tone for what’s to follow – a journey through the surreal, nightmarish world normally found deep within the realm of EC horror comics – a world of dark and twisted happenings where nightmares go hand in hand with reality.
The next scene is at a funeral where we are reintroduced to Ze – dressed in his uniform as always. He is a man who has become embittered with life and especially with religion – he has totally lost all faith in the spiritual world – to the point of despising and mocking everything connected with it. He was supposedly a veteran of World War 2 who returned home battle-scarred only to find his wife had been cheating on him. He deliberately goes out of his way to spite and ridicule the town’s people, their customs and beliefs as well as their stupidity and timidity. He blasphemes openly, relishing in upsetting the people and occasionally forces others through the sheer fury of his terror to submit to blaspheming along with him. Once in a while somebody in the town does attempt to stand up to him, but Joe (Ze) is capable of becoming possessed with a maniacal strength when provoked – You can see it in his eyes as they literally cloud over with weird black squiggles when he begins to get seriously pissed off.
There’s a striking resemblance in the character of Coffin Joe to that of the notorious evil doing Charles Manson who was about to shoot to notoriety a few years after this film was made. However while Manson used his followers as devices of torture and death, Joe does all his dirty work (hacking off a persons fingers with a broken bottle for example) by himself. The only person who appears able to stand up to Joe is the demented, cackling witch who is constantly warning him that he will pay a dreadful price for each one of his misdeeds.
Having hacked off a man’s fingers over a card game Joe decides he has to murder his mistress as she isn’t able to continue his bloodline – which after all is the reason for life itself according to Joe’s warped logic. He doesn’t just kill her though; he delights in torturing her, having a tarantula crawl all over her body before it finally kills her with its fatal bite. Then Joe decides on making a move on his best (only) friends fiance who appears to fit the bill as potential vessel for his bloodline. However in order to make it with Terezinha he has to get rid of his mate Anotonio – another job he relishes completing with his own hands in the most ghastly manner, bashing the poor chaps head in before strangling and drowning him simultaneously. Later, he gouges out the town Doctors’s eyes with his talons before torching him alive!But finally it seems the witches dire warnings start to begin materialising and Joe is faced with the ghastly prospect of facing up to the consequences of his own reign of terror. A terror that now threatens to rebound on him in the most horrifying manner.
Jose Mojica Marins has created a quite amazing film scores on several counts. Firstly it crackles with a manic energy which it clearly derives from its creator Marins. The film comes “alive” – as a live EC comic book – set in a nightmarish world, bristling with a charged, demonic energy.
Secondly Marins has created his surreal nightmare world using just a small hall as his studio. The entire movie, other than the cemetery scenes, was shot in a 600 square yard area which Marins dressed up differently to suit his means, including the forest – a quite remarkable achievement. Yet despite these crippling limitations, Marins has created his surreal world with the use of brilliant innovation, and fabulous camerawork by his trusted Italian cameraman. Just goes to show that budget was never a constraint when it comes to extraordinary filmmaking – many of the finest films ever have been created on shoestring budgets and here is another great example. (Not that we suggest that this is indeed one of the best films ever created, but its pretty damn good).
At Midnight is undoubtedly a horror masterpiece and clearly Marins rediscovery needs to be acclaimed with suitable fanfare. This film ranks alongside any of the great horror classics, matching them for style, execution and artistry and let’s not forget sheer unadulterated horror. Marins film is shocking and invigorating in equal doses – it’s utterly shocking in it’s up front violence and its sadistic, tortuous murder scenes. Coffin Joe himself is as vile a monster as can be humanly possible – all consumed by his hatred and disdain for everything but himself. The film also shocks for being so outrageously blasphemous (remember it was made in 1963 in a country that is 99% hardcore Roman Catholic) – The film was banned over and over again and had it not been for the fact the ghastly Joe gets his comeuppance, the film would probably have stayed banned for good, at least in Brazil. However as it transpired the film went on to tour the country from province to province (wherever the ban was lifted) and packed in the crowds becoming a sizeable box office success.
Whichever way you look at it, this film has to rank as a classic of the genre and deserves to be recognized and acclaimed alongside such greats as Carnival of Souls (which it even resembles remotely). Having watched this film – our first exposure to the work of Jose Mojica Marins, all one can say is “We want more!”
Some of Marins films have recently been made available on DVD and in the last couple of years he has grown into a major celebrity on the world Cult and Horror stage – and is arguably the current King of Underground horror, even if his films are 30 odd years old. Genre fans absolutely cannot afford to miss this fantastic slice of the macabre.