Tuesday, October 27, 2009

HORROR EPICS: At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1963)

If only the Brazilian government knew what they were getting into when they did away with their national censorship board and left those decisions up to individual states. Director José Mojica Marins seized the opportunity to make À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma, the first Brazilian horror movie. With that came the debut of a character that became an icon in South America, and to cult movie buffs all over: Zé do Caixão, meaning “Joseph of the Grave.” Or more commonly known as Coffin Joe, played by Marins himself. When not working as the local undertaker, Joe spends his spare time terrorizing the general population of the village. His favorite thing to upset the townspeople with is blasphemy, making a point to eat meat on Good Friday. Not one to enjoy a leg of lamb by himself, Joe forces others to join in. At least he thought to share, right? Otherwise, the only thing that really concerns this cold-hearted bastard is continuing his bloodline. That’s right, Coffin Joe is a normal ol’ guy beneath the callous exterior. He wants a son to follow in his footsteps and make him proud. It probably wouldn’t make him any more pleasant of a guy, but it’s nice to think that it could. But tragically, Joe’s wife is unable to bear children. Obviously that’s not gonna work. Filing for divorce would take too much time, so Joe tortures and kills her instead. No court, no alimony, no clue that he had anything to do with his wife’s untimely death. With that out of the way, Joe has the perfect woman in mind to sow his seed. Unfortunately, she doesn’t quite agree. Joe is in a bit of a hurry to get this fatherhood thing started, so he takes what he wants by force. Before committing suicide, the girl vows revenge for his brutality from beyond the grave. The threat is laughed off as supernatural hocus-pocus, but it isn’t long before Joe gets his just desserts. The cult/horror buffs rave about this movie, but not because it’s the best one ever made. At least I hope that’s not why they’re raving. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is easy to write off as mere low-budget trash. Especially when you see some of their ideas for special effects. No, what the die-hards rave about is the movie’s bad-dreamlike feel. More interesting than many of the similarly funded drive-in movies of the same era. Above all is José Mojica Marins’ performance as Coffin Joe. One can only imagine the first impression he left on a predominately Catholic film audience back then. It’s possible that they saw Coffin Joe as the Devil incarnate, what with all of his anti-religious proclamations. A black-clad, feral-eyed menace bearing long fingernails that could easily gouge out an eye. It’s no surprise that Zé do Caixão was literally born of Marins’ nightmares. You’ve seen blood, gore, and blasphemy before, but you’ve never seen anything like Coffin Joe. Followed by a couple sequels, plus a handful of movies featuring Joe as a character occupying some abstract realm or whatever.

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