Wednesday, January 02, 2013

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul
Original Title: À Mela-Noite Levarei Sua Alma
Directed by: José Mojica Marins
Brazil, 1964
Horror, 84min

Ok, time to dig into some serious cult dwelling… time for some Zé do Caixão! Every country has their own cult character, cult monster, and cult personalities. Brazil has Zé do Caixão and that’s Coffin Joe to you and me.

An important key to understanding the world of Zé do Caixão is presented from the word go with the opening monologue, something that frequents the majority of José Mojica Marins films. Here Caixão stands amongst the bushes and delivers the important mantra that echoes throughout the three movies in the Coffin Joe trilogy: “What is Life? It is the beginning of Death. What is Death? It is the end of Life! What is Existence? It is the continuity of Blood! What is Blood? It is the reason to exist!” Words that will return on several occasions and are of high importance as these words are the philosophy of Coffin Joe!
A wonderfully EC Tales from the Cryptish Gypsy opens the movie, wishing us all a terrible evening, mocking us, taunting us and then cursing us, because if we dare to watch this films, she will take our soul at midnight! Then crash right into the movie where top hat bearing, caped gravedigger Zé do Caixão [Marins] just home from a funeral, mocks the mourners before asking his wife where the meat is as he sits down to diner. But being Holy Friday she gently tells him that there is no meat on this sacred day. Caixão throws a fit, slams his plate on the table and tells her that no Bible thumper can stop him! Moments later he gobbles down a leg of lamb as he laughs at the procession walking past his window.
More than anything Caixão desires a son to carry on his bloodline, although his girlfriend Lenita [Valéria Vasquez] has failed to do so yet. This has led him to become obsessed with his best friend Antônio’s [Nivaldo Lima] girlfriend Terezinha [Magda Mei], who he is convinced will be able to birth him a son. This obsession sets off a series of sardonic events under Caixão’s influence. And it really is a terrifying series of events, such as Caixão chopping off a blokes fingers in a bar, murdering his girlfriend, raping his best friends girlfriend, killing same best friend and even his own wife. But it doesn’t end there, he desecrates graves, taunts the dead, pours acid on his foes, challenges death and the afterlife. These are the ways of Coffin Joe, a narcissistic Existentialist, and I’ll return to explain that later.
All strong protagonists need a nemesis, an antagonist to threaten them. Yes, Caixão is the protagonist, despite his ill deeds, this is what makes him an antihero. But despite that, he is the protagonist as this is his film, his story, his fate. Rapidly making enemies, but using his charismatic powers of persuasion, Caixão lures his way out of every confrontation, but there’s one he should pay more attention to. The witches curse and threat of an early death. When all the omens start pointing towards the curse being an authentic one, Zé do Caixão starts to loose his mind, and with that his beliefs. As the film rushes into its climax in the cemetery Zé do Caixão is pushed off the deep end and into oblivion without completing his quest… at least for this time.
Not only for the sheer cult value and dark story it tells, but At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, and Coffin Joe is fascinating in the way that at the same time this man is so evil and will stop at nothing to get his way, like murdering whoever gets in his way, he without hesitation stops an abusive father from shouting at his son. He turns the tables and gives him a bollocking on the importance of taking care of his child and protecting the bloodline. This is of importance to the series and will return in many of José Mojica Marins's films to follow, the diabolical Coffin Joe frequently protects innocent children. This also plays a vital role to his degeneration during the last act!
As a character Zé do Caixão is one of the most fascinating ones ever to grace the screen. He’s a complete sceptic and doesn’t believe in ghosts, god or the devil. He speaks his mind and he’s actually an existentialist. An existentialist in such a way that he’d be able to take on Sartre, Nietzsche or Kierkegaard any day. I find that the existentialist attitude of Caixão is part of the key to reading Coffin Joe films. Existentialism is very much about being true to oneself, having faith in oneself and taking responsibility for one’s own fate. This is very apparent in the character, everything he does he does, he does it to benefit himself, to pleasure himself, to create his of fate. Nothing, no God, No ghost, no devil can affect him as he only believes in himself. So when Coffin Joe sets a goal, he’ll stop at nothing to achieve it, and nothing can stop him from reaching it…
At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is Brazil’s first horror film and Marins’ Zé do Caixão is definitely one of South Americas most known Horror Icons. At an early age young Marins was smitten by the magic of cinema, when his father, who managed a cinema let him spend time in the projection room. It was during such a visit that he accidentally saw a documentary on venereal disease, and the first thing he saw was a vagina infected with gonorrhoea. Marins states in interviews that this scarred his childhood and in all his horror films he tried to recreate the horror and disgust that the image had left with him.
At the time he started making his own films, he’d already been acting for some time, and his first attempts where at directing he’d tried out Drama and Westerns. But when he stepped into the realm of horror he was onto something highly potent and sensitive Inspired by theatre, horror comics and classic films he came up with Zé do Caixão! But where we today can enjoy these movies at our own leisure, it has been no easy trip for Marins, who’s not only films have been at times been censored, banned and seized. During the sixties he was mobbed on the streets both by fans and “haters” who couldn’t separate Marins from his character and where convinced he had a pact with the Devil.
When the Brazilian Dictatorship took over, around the same time he was making and releasing the Zé do Caixão films, Marins found himself persecuted, threatened and even jailed as they read political commentary into his films. On top of that he had the church and clergy all over him condemning his vile films. 

I’m not going to make much of it, but like many other visionary filmmakers, Marins ended up in the gutter of low budget filmmaking shooting and starring in smut, pornochanchada films – soft core sex comedies. If you have seen the 2001 documentary Coffin Joe: The Strange World of José Mojica Marins, you will learn that he went beyond soft core and into some very seedy territory, something he himself seems reluctant to talk about, but producer Rubens Francisco Luchetti is remarkably proud of. Once again an innovative filmmaker is forced into a territory he didn’t choose, but was driven into by their passion for making films. Crap films that are forcefully made when an auteur is forced to become a gun for hire searching for funds to make the movies they want to. Nevertheless, Marins took the deals, shot the shit, and used his paychecks to make the films he wanted, and the money from the pornochanchanda films financed many more films to come.
There’s some confusion to the lineage of the Coffin Joe films. Marins character Caixão does return in several films, although the Coffin Joe series is only three movies, À Mela-Noite Levarei Sua Alma (At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul), 1964, Esta noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver (This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse) 1967 and the final instalment, Encarnação do Demônio (Embodiment of Evil) 2008. Despite this Coffin Joe does appear in something like a dozen other Marins films. But here his role is more that of a narrator or Cicero, such as he does in O Estranho Mundo de Zé do Caixão (The Strange World of Coffin Joe) 1968.  You could compare it to something like Wes Craven’s Freddy Krueger, who appeared in a bunch of official films, but also hosted TV Show Freddy’s Nightmares and featured in the strange The Freddy Krueger Special (1988) which aired on MTV to tie in with A Nightmare on Elmstreet 4: The Dream Master.
Thanks to curious fans, late night TV, VHS distribution (remember them SWV tapes?) and dupe trading of his films by back in the eighties, nineties Zé do Caixão slowly did arise from the dead. Back with a vengeance, building his cult, José Mojica Marin now stands firmly amongst the classic horror icons that have come before him, and to this day he’s still an active filmmaker. In 2008 he wrote and directed the third part of the Coffin Joe trilogy, Embodiment of Evil , and currently slated to contribute to a segment for the forthcoming anthology film The Profane Exhibit.


Dick said...

Man,this is great stuff. Years ago I remember pulling out that SWV tape with all his trailers on it for my friends and watching their jaws hit the floor. Now we need some Coffin Joe on blu -ray.

CiNEZiLLA said...

Yup! That's the ticket, the SWV tapes where perhaps the most important part of discovering Coffin Joe. There's a great BluRay of Embodiment of Evil out in the UK!


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