For anyone not familiar with the fabulously bonkers world of curled fingernailed Coffin Joe (his English title taken losely from the Brazilian Ze do Caixaoall) all I can say is you are missing out. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is one of those rare moments of brilliance in horror cinema, a creation of eccentric Brazilian Director, and actor Jose Mojica Marins. Marins found himself in this role when the original actor pulled out, and it was one he played time and time again during his career. Often touted as the first ever Brazilian horror film Marins struggled to get anyone to take him seriously and the film almost never got made. Yet his decidedly dogged approach to filmmaking ensured he got there in the end, and what a treat for horror fans looking for something a little bit different in their titles. Marins was certainly dedicated to his art, he grew his fingernails long until they curled at the ends for his part, which became one of his trademarks along with his top hat and beard.
Getting actors or any sort of production team to make this feature proved nigh on impossible,with rumours of a curse around the film and a number of the staff befalling strange incidents which resulted in death. However the concept finally came to fruition because of Marins’ extreme hard work and determination. Sadly Marins lived most of his life in poverty and had to resort to directing porn by the 80s just to make ends meet. Fiercely anti censorship there were many times he found himself at loggerheads with the Brazilian State run censors, and public opinion was against him. However in recent years he has found recognition for his amazing additions to the horror annals when his work finally came to Europe and The States.
At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is a wonderfully grizzly tale of Coffin Joe, a sadistic bully, and the local undertaker, who delights in terrifying residents of his village. Frustrated that because of his wife’s infertility he cannot carry on his family line he looks for the perfect mate with dire consequences for any lady who catches his eye or anyone who tries to get in his way. Coffin Joe will stop at nothing. There are a number of controversial themes in the movie, given Brazil’s religious and political background at the time, which were sure to enrage the censors. Although gruesome this tale is probably the tamest of all the Coffin Joe films. Nevertheless though Marins tackles these themes in his own inimitable style, such as suicide, murder, rape and Coffin Joe’s obvious atheist tendencies (which includes an amazing scene where he screams at the heavens denying the existence of God, and one where he deliberately eats meat on a forbidden Holy day). A difficult taskmaster Marins really puts the cast through their paces although anyone would find it hard to keep track of his inexhaustable energy.Twinned with which he had questionable health and safety practices when it came to his cast, often subjecting to his actors to tarantulas (as is the case with this film), snakes, scorpions, and famously comitting one to a live burial to capture a scene for a tv show. While there are no overtly political connotations involved in his performance Marins often used his work as a vehicle to vent his frustrations against the strongly religious state within which he resided and here he gives a perfect case in point with the anti religious statements the character he plays spouts forth.
The film opens with Coffin Joe thundering ‘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!’ This sets the tone nicely for Marins portrayal of Coffin Joe as inspired, unique and nothing you are likely to have seen or will see again. Nasty, vile, sadistic he is the perfect villan, clad in his black cape and top hat. He warns the village he will charge anyone he has to kill himself double for their burial. Delighting in nothing more than carving off people’s fingers with a broken bottle during a game of cards, or killing his nearest and dearest in cold blood, Coffin Joe is a force to be reckoned with. As the film progresses we see his characterisation lose all moral abandon as he gives himself up completely to evil in his own selfish pursuits. Nivaldo Lima (who features in some of the other Coffin Joe ventures) as Antonio, Joe’s only friend, is likeable and trusting, although it is very difficult to understand how anyone can find anything remotely at all to like about this dastardly character. Despite Joe’s obvious outrageous behaviour his friend stays loyal to him. As does his wife Terezinha played by Magda Mei in her one and only acting experience. Antonio’s fiance Lenita ( Valeria Vasquez) gives a convincing performance in her role, terrified of Coffin Joe and his attraction to her which borders on stalking. We also have a witch/gypsy type character who is amazing, cackling away she is every bit of the stereotype hubble, bubble, boil and trouble.
Marins struggled to get funded for this project and therefore the film is shot on the smallest shoestring, yet he has done a fine job and this is mainly down to his talent and ability to think outside the box. For example the studio he inhabited was an abandoned cow shed, the forest scenes were shot using a 6 foot stretch of trees chopped down from a local park, although you would not think it. Given just four days to shoot Marins resorted to using shop bought amphetamines to stay up for 96 hours straight, having two production teams working on twelve hour shifts alongside him, which probably accounts for his manic portrayal of Coffin Joe in some part! While the sets are basic Marins uses his talents to their very best to achieve something of a haunting landscape, especially the graveyard scenes. The lack of money to film in colour only aids with the atmosphere, giving it a twisted vintage feel and gloomy aura. There are also some pretty far out editing and vocal effects employed here which give the film its unique edge as it builds to its fairly psychedelic conclusion. For the time, and even now perhaps, the movie is quite violent and there are some graphic scenes that despite the lack of colour still work to shocking effect, including an eye gouging and aforementioned finger chopping. With all these factors Marins manages to bring it all together in one coherent and terrifying piece.
When I first encountered Marins’ work some time ago he was one of those directors that instantly excited me, with all of his horror films containing a certain je nais se quoi that can only be contributed to his work. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is the perfect starting point for anyone wanting to get into his films, and worthwhile checking out is the Anchor Bay box set which features eight of his films, all subtitled and pretty decent transfers, and a bonus 2001 documentary into the strange world of this horror maestro.