❉ Enter the world of Crackpot Auteur Jose Mojica Marins, in his legendary Coffin Joe guise.
“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!”
With this monologue, delivered directly to camera by Writer, Producer, Director, Crackpot Auteur and Star Jose Mojica Marins, in his legendary Zé do Caixão / Coffin Joe guise, we begin the saga that would bring him international notoriety. Perhaps more than any other horror icon, more so, even, than the likes of Christopher Lee with Dracula, Peter Cushing with Frankenstein, Tobin Bell with Jigsaw or Robert Englund with Freddie Krueger, Marins is so wholly identified with his creation that it’s difficult to separate the man from the myth, a task made even more challenging by the fact that many of the atrocities Coffin Joe inflicts upon his on-screen victims were, in fact, inflicted by Marins upon his performers.
Indeed this blurring of lines has allowed Marins to get quite metafictional with his work at times. Stephen Thrower, writing in The BFI Companion to Horror, rather deftly sums up Marins’ style: “Chaotic deep-echo soundtracks, penchant for cheap but jolting effects and berserk visual inspiration combine amateur Jodorowsky, ragged Cocteau camera magic and Ed Wood senselessness. Some effects look chillingly real… but a tendency to repetition and longueur, as well as appallingly cheap production values, can undo his grotty delirium.”
At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is the first part of the official ‘Coffin Joe Trilogy,’ which, as its name suggests, is comprised of the three canonical entries, despite the fact that the character makes numerous cameo appearances—usually in the form of stock footage, hallucinations, or as a Rod Serling style introductory narrator—in countless other Marins films. It was followed by This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967) and the belated conclusion, the truly extreme Embodiment of Evil (2008).
While not as extreme in terms of its violence, nor as surreal in terms of its Cocteauesque imagery (both sequels feature very unique visions of hell), At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is certainly deliriously hammy. Not only are we subject to Coffin Joe’s cod-Nietzschesque rant as he sets out his agenda for “the continuity of blood” (his whole shtick is to find himself the perfect woman to bear him a child, whether they like it or not), we’re then, following the Halloween-prop-and-Latin-soap-opera opening titles, warned by an old, skull-hugging Gypsy woman that we really should go home; she cautions us, Criswell-style, that we’re in for a right shocker, and we’re about to really suffer. In fairness, for the a movie made in what was, in 1964, a militantly Catholic third-world country, much of the imagery is pretty extreme, and Coffin Joe is generally a bit of a rotter.
First introduced within the narrative as an undertaker, we immediately know there’s something shifty about him by the way the locals react when he appears at a funeral to give his condolences to the widow. As soon as he turns up, everyone acts like he’s an English estate agent who’s just asked Michael Ripper the way to the castle whilst frequenting a Transylvanian inn. He goes on to demonstrate his self-perceived “superiority” to the general populace by indulging in such general assholery as eating meat on Holy Friday (shamelessly parading around with a whole leg of lamb, if you please); being a bit of twat towards his long-suffering wife Lenita (Valeria Vasquez) and putting the moves on the unwilling Terezinha (Nivaldo Lima), who happens to be the fiancée of his only friend Antônio (Nivaldo Lima). The first real flinch-inducing moment, though, comes when Joe uses a broken bottle to graphically mutilate a man’s hand in the local bar during an argument over a card game, although Joe is courteous enough to promise to pay the medical bills when Dr. Rudolpho (Ilídio Martins) turns up. All this and more happens in the first twenty minutes and is often heralded by cutaways to Joe’s eyes going bloodshot with rage through the power of lap dissolves.
Naturally, everyone is afraid of Joe and no one is strong enough to stand up to him. The only person who ever intervenes is Antônio, though he only succeeds by reminding Joe that it might not be in his best interests to go as far as killing a man, which might be why Joe tolerates his company whilst displaying only contempt toward everyone else, mocking their fear of God and of himself. Nevertheless, this doesn’t do much to improve Antônio’s chances, as he soon ends up bumped off shortly after Joe has despatched Lenita (brutally drowning him and using a very real, very gigantic spider on her, which crawls over the squirming, terrified actress’s body), reasoning that with those two out of the way, he can get on with impregnating Terezinha and achieving immortality through the continuity of his blood, which he does by beating and raping her; she responds by vowing to kill herself, telling Joe, “At Midnight, I’ll Take Your Soul!”
Inevitably, all this mayhem sends Joe’s sanity on a downward spiral, particularly after the Gypsy warns him he’ll “live the horrors of hell” for his sins after he’s mocked the dead in the local graveyard, and he really starts to crack up once Lenita is found hanged and he has to take increasingly desperate measures to cover up his crimes and keep the townsfolk in line.
Shot in a converted poultry barn using Halloween store effects, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul manages to conjure up the feverish atmosphere of a nightmare despite (or, perhaps, because of) its makers’ impoverished resources. The tatty theatricality coupled with the amateurishly hammy performances elevates proceedings to the operatic. The inspiration for Coffin Joe himself came from a figure Marins saw in a vision during an illness prompted by the failure of an earlier film. The cowardice of the townsfolk was a commentary on the religious hypocrisy Marins saw around him; in interviews, he often cites an incident when, as a youngster, he witnessed a man who’d been mistakenly pronounced dead suddenly awakened from a catatonic state at his own funeral and, despite his wife and family praying for his return, they all ran from the church and subsequently shunned him when he actually did (the incident is actually recreated in Marins’ 1971 film Finis Hominis).
Ultimately, Coffin Joe meets his Shakespearean comeuppance more because of his own paranoia than through divine intervention. The dead figures who pursue him are a result of his deranged mind rather than crusaders for justice from beyond the grave. The frightening thing about the godless universe in which Coffin Joe occupies is that the guilty are only punished through their own sense of guilt, thus, regardless of Coffin Joe’s fate, the film is and of itself an act of blasphemy by positing that man’s ultimate hell comes from within himself, not from God’s vengeance, and each sequel revises the previous films’ censor-approved endings to enable Joe to not only fight another day, but to return with even less of a conscious than he had before.
❉ Synapse Films’ Region 1 DVD collection The Coffin Joe Trilogy, containing At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse and Embodiment Of Evil, is available via Amazon Global Store, RRP £36.34.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions. Visit his website.