For this year’s Shocktober (Foreign Frights), I wanted to cover as many different films from as many different parts of the world as possible. Though somehow I kept coming back to Germany, Italy and Japan. Hmm, is there a coincidence these are the countries that make up the Axis of Evil? Of course I’m only kidding. I’d put Sweden up there too, as one of the top international horror producers. I mean, they produced Dolph Lundgren and he tried to kill Rocky. That’s pretty evil in my book. One region whose evilness is often overlooked is South America. There are plenty of great foreign horror films from Central America, but somehow the blood seems to dry up the further you go south. I’m not sure why, especially when you consider they gave the world Jose Mojica Marins.
Jose Molica Marins is the writer, director, and star of At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, which, according to Wikipedia Scholars, is the first Brazilian horror film ever made. It all started when Marins had a nightmare one night in which a clawed man with a beard in a black cape took him to his own grave. This became the template for the popular horror character Coffin Joe of which Marin would play in this film, its sequels, and other Brazilian films and TV shows for the next forty years. In this film, Coffin Joe is an undertaker who roams around a small Brazilian town denouncing God and proclaiming the importance of “continuty of the blood.” All Coffin Joe wants in this movie is to spread his evil seed, but in a way, isn’t that all any of us want?
The film begins with a witch speaking to the camera telling the audience to not watch the movie because it’s evil. The whole scene reminds me of this VHS board game I used to have called Nightmare. In Nightmare you play a fairly standard horror-themed board game while a decrepit Gatekeeper shouts at you from your TV. It’s the greatest acting performance of all time but it’s not scary. It’s all in good fun though. Which is how I felt about the opening scene of At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, and more or less how I felt about the rest of the film.
After the trippy little opening we are introduced to Coffin Joe (Marins) arriving like Dracula, cape spread open, to a funeral service. He comforts the widow, but with the slithery way he talks and moves, you know there’s something off about this guy. Coffin Joe is married, but as his wife is unable to have children, he is often found hitting on women around town. Tired of getting yelled at by his wife, Coffin Joe ties her up and leaves her with a venomous spider. The authorities find her later and find no evidence as to who killed her. Ridiculous, I know, go with it. Things settle and Coffin Joe and his buddy Antonio visit a gypsy later to hear the fortune of Antonio’s marriage to Terezinha—a woman Coffin Joe has hit on—only to hear Antonio will never marry. Something tragic will happen. Coffin Joe and Antonio go back to Antonio’s house where Coffin Joe drowns him in the bathtub. There’s the tragic part. Again, authorities are baffled, proving them to be the worst police force in possibly all of horror movie history.
Things don’t work out between Coffin Joe and Terezinha. Coffin Joe sexually assaults her and she curses his name, saying she will kill herself and return in the afterlife to take his soul to Hell. Coffin Joe laughs, but then the next day, look who he finds hanging around. Yep. Around this time a doctor named Rudolfo begins to suspect Coffin Joe but he is quickly lit on fire and gets his eyes gouged out. Damn, so close. The film eventually leads up to the Day of the Dead festival, where after escorting a beautiful woman named Maria, Coffin Joe is confronted by the gypsy and told he’s going to Hell for his sins. Coffin Joe books it and ends up in a mausoleum where he finds the corpses of his victims, eyes open. He freaks out and screams. We cut back and he’s dead too. The church rings. It’s midnight.
As you can see, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul doesn’t follow a typical plot line. It’s just kind of, “Coffin Joe goes somewhere, gets pissed off, kills somebody.” And yet it works. It’s unpredictable and shockingly sadistic for its time. It’s hard for me to think of another film this violent that’s also this old. Guys get their eyes gouged out for goodness sake! It’s pretty ballsy for the time. Unfortunately, it’s this looseness that also hurts the movie. The film tends to ramble and drag here and there, and I don’t much care for most of the cast. But if there’s one reason to watch this film, it’s Coffin Joe.
Coffin Joe is a creep that you can’t take your eyes off of. Everything he says is so despicable and cruel and yet he has this alluring charisma due to Marins marvelous performance. One of my favorite scenes is where Coffin Joe goes into an establishment asking for meat on Good Friday. Of course, it’s a holy day, but he won’t take no for an answer. He even says, “I’ll eat meat today, even if it’s human flesh.” Damn, that’s manly. Like Ron Swanson crying a river of gravy tears manly. After this line of dialogue, we cut to a memorable shot of Coffin Joe cackling and eating meat by a window where clergymen walk by. This is some cynical stuff.
Marins would go on to play the character for a handful of followup films and obscure British TV shows. At one point, Marins became so dedicated to the character he grew out his own fingernails to ridiculous lengths to maintain his sinister appearance. That’s the kind of dedication that makes you a South American Horror Icon. Not that there’s many others… yet.