At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul
directed by Jose Mojica Marins
(Fantoma, 1964)

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul is probably one of the best cult horror films you've never seen. Decades ago, this 1963 classic shocked and disturbed Brazilian audiences (it was, in fact, Brazil's first horror movie) and gave birth to a whole Coffin Joe franchise, yet only in recent years has this landmark of horror filmmaking found its way to the shores of America -- and it's about time because this is one amazing film. With its expressionistic and existentialistic overtones and a cruel, thoroughly unforgettable protagonist, At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul shines with a dark aura all its own. The stark nature of the black-and-white cinematography seems to sharpen Coffin Joe's hard edges, accentuate his evil glare, and set the mood perfectly for a thoroughly corrupt soul to face the consequences of his amoral and atheistic challenges to both God and Satan.

The character at the center of this film is now well-known as Coffin Joe, but this is actually a mistranslation of his name, Ze do Caixo. The name fits, though, as Ze stalks around in his black top hat and undertaker's getup intimidating and scaring the beeswax out of everyone in town. Everyone fears him, for good reason -- those foolish enough to challenge him wind up with missing fingers, ugly stripes all over their bodies from his ruthless whip or -- as happens increasingly in this film -- dead. Ze spits in the face of religion, summing up his nihilist philosophy at the very beginning of the film -- to put things in a nutshell, he wants to continue his existence by producing a son.

His wife Lenita has yet to bear him a child, so he has no more use for her. Instead, he casts his glance toward Terezhina, not caring one iota for the fact that she is the fiancee of his only friend in the world, Antonio. Ze is not one to let a silly thing like friendship get in the way of getting what he wants.

There are a number of deaths in this film, but I won't ruin things for future viewers by detailing them here. I'll just say that Ze takes great delight in killing, thus giving us some surprisingly gory images (especially for a 1963 film) -- Brazilian censors tried to suppress portions of the film, but we now have the luxury of seeing it as it was truly envisioned.

The downright evil of the man may not come across as strongly in America or elsewhere as it did in Brazil, however. Eating meat on a holy day surely offended the Catholic audiences of Brazil much more than it will many of today's American viewers. Still, Ze's fury in the face of religion is made obvious to all, as he has a tendency to rail at the God he doesn't believe in and challenge anyone or anything to send him straight to hell. Such scenes of voracious nihilism, set in a graveyard and cast against a backdrop of stormy lightning seemingly serving to vent the anger of heaven itself, play beautifully here.

It is amazing just what director Jose Mojica Marins was able to accomplish on such a low budget. The set was limited, especially that of the graveyard and forest, but it hardly shows. No one was willing to play the part of Ze, so Marins took it upon himself to bring his malevolent creation to life -- and does a magnificent job. He actually glued glitter onto his negative to create one special effect, but it actually works quite well -- and indeed, the special effects are a tremendous plus for this shockingly impressive film. I especially loved the change that appears in Ze's eyes just before he unleashes his fury on another innocent victim.

American audiences met Coffin Joe for the first time in 1993; now, with the DVD release, it is time America's horror fans properly introduced themselves to Marin and gave a brave, ingenious director his due. While I haven't seen the DVD, I can say that the print of the film that I came across was incredibly sharp and clear in both sight and sound. The film is in Portuguese, of course, but the subtitles are easy to read and correspond very well with what is taking place on the screen.

Coffin Joe is a strikingly captivating fiend who revels in his own evil; I daresay I've never encountered a character quite like him.

by Daniel Jolley
3 December 2005

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