Thursday, September 13, 2007

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1963): or, Coffin Joe's Prelude to Madness

After watching José Mojica Marins's 1967 weird-horror masterpiece This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (reviewed on Mmmmmovies here), I was intrigued, excited, and thirsty for more. An ebay search and a few days later I had in my hands what is widely hailed as the first Brazilian horror movie from, Marins's 1963 cult curiosity At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul. (Marins has SUCH the way with titles.) I was worried that, having watched the sequel first, I might suffer cognitive disconnect and find myself in a nightmarish world of spiraling self-referentiality and chronological coo-cooity. However, both films work on their own merits, and in the final analysis I think I watched them in the right order, for reasons I'll try to remember to expound in the conclusion of this brief review.

The film opens with its star, Coffin Joe, staring into the camera and looking none too impressed with what he sees staring back at him. He delivers his personal philosophy, just dripping contempt and malice, in a few short sentences. Then we're treated to a very unsettling credits sequence. It's mostly flash-forward clips from later in the movie, but it's done to a soundtrack of screams that seem to come from the depths of the inferno, and the text is animated in cool and off-kilter ways. One thing Marins does both here and in TNIPYC is use the credit sequence to establish mood, and after this one I was ready for an unusual and disturbing flick.

Next we get a crypt-keeper-esque introduction by an old gypsy witch, who warns those who are easily frightened to leave the theater. I love that gimmick; it reminds me of the old Universal flicks. In fact the b&w cinematography throughout is very well done in the atmospheric Universal pictures way, and the sets also recall the Universal glory days. However, what goes on in those sets is something else entirely.

Gypsies give the worst head.

Coffin Joe is the diminutive and malicious (but strangely charismatic) undertaker of a small town in Brazil. Though small, he's scrappy, and when he gets mad no one can beat him in a fight. After winning a card game and finding his opponent too slow to turn over his winnings, Joe breaks a bottle and severs the man's finger with it in a surprisingly gory scene. There are also bloody beatings galore, as Joe does his best to justify the peasants' fear of him.

But they're less afraid of his physical prowess than they are of his blasphemy. In a comical-to-us-now but doubtless shocking scene to staunchly catholic early-60s Brazilians, Joe orders meat on a Friday and, laughing evilly, chews the leg of lamb while penitents go by on their way to church. Later in a barroom brawl he uses the crown of thorns off a bust of Christ to disfigure the face of his opponent! This man is blasphemously bad to the bone, and doesn't care who knows it.

Surprisingly, Joe has one friend, Antonio. I guess they were kids together or something. Anyway, Antonio is unfortunate enough to be engaged to a lovely lass for whom Coffin Joe lusts. After killing his own barren wife with a spider (shades of things to come in future movies), Joe makes advances on the fiancee, with his own wife not cold in the ground. She refuses, naturally, as she's spoken for. So Joe, just as naturally, kills his one and only friend and then rapes the fiancee, so that she will bear his child and make him immortal. She can't live with the guilt, though, and hangs herself, first cursing Joe to lose his soul at midnight.

It turns out that here, as in TNIPYC, Joe's Achilles heel is a hidden subconscious guilt for his crimes, which is manifested in a fantastic scene where Joe prowls through the graveyard, challenging God to come down from heaven, or Satan up from hell, to take his soul and thus prove that they exist. It's an acting tour de force by the debuting Marins, and really a fantastic scene. This is followed by the expected supernatural intervention, as the ghost of Antonio arrives with some very cool and weird lo-tech effects, and it all ends up in a not-quite-nicely tied little bow.

Sorry, Joe, they don't want you. They're too scared.

So how was it? Pretty good, but only a hint at the achievement of TCIPYC. It seems to me that here Marins is still finding his feet, still defining the character, still figuring out what it is he wants to do and how to do it. In the sequel he's got all that under his belt, and he goes for broke. So having seen the second first, I had a better picture of the Coffin Joe character and found him more compelling than I otherwise would have, perhaps. This movie has its strengths, but really it's best viewed as a prequel, I think, to the main event.

That said, this is a solid 2.5 thumb effort, and one you should see. But after This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, in my opinion, for the best effect.

Whoop-whoop! Nyuck! Nyuck!

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