At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964)
By: Mr Intolerance on May 12, 2009  | 
DVD
Fantoma (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.66:1 (Non-anamorphic). Portuguese DD 1.0. English Subtitles. 81 Minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Jose Mojica Marins
Starring: Jose Mojica Marins, Magda Mei, Nivaldo de Lima, Valeria Vasquez
Screenplay: Magda Mei, Waldomiro Franca
Country: Brazil
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
Brazil's horror maestro Jose Mojica Marins (aka Coffin Joe) is one weird dude. In this film, the first detailing the bizarre antics of the psychotic, positively Nietszchean, bordering on the Sadeian, undertaker, Z'e Do Caixao (literally "Joe of the Coffins") wants an heir, specifically a son. In the horrendously over-the-top introduction to the film (amusingly enough, the character berates his wife at an early point of the film stating, "I can't stand melodramatics" - oh really? Well allow me to present Exhibit A, where you seem to like 'em just fine – and as for the secondary introduction by the wirch...oh brother...), he gets all spooky for the camera, and with eyes bugged out like a fighting dog's balls, states, "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." In other words: I don't believe in god, so this is my best attempt to live on in peoples' memories for time immemorial. Mind you, I think they'd remember him for other reasons, too.

For example, Z'e is a terribly blasphemous fella – and before you respond with a resounding "so what?" - you've got to remember that Brazil is one hell of a Catholic country; and so when Z'e is quaffing mugs of wine while scarfing down a leg of lamb big enough to choke a donkey in his local pub on Good Friday, people would find this rather confronting. Then of course, there's all those suspected murders, and his outre appearance. Y'see, Z'e likes to get about in a top hat and a cape, and has outlandishly long nails. Think the look of the faux vampire you might have seen in stills from the lost classic London After Midnight, remove the fangs and bung on a beard that looks like he's half-way through eating a badger, and you're about there. It's basically, to my mind, Marins' take on the Universal villains of yore – he uses our knowledge of those villains as a visual shorthand to let us identify Z'e with badness. There are some neat twists; my favourite is when he gets really riled up, one eyebrow raises and his eyes change; kind of like the bloodshot contact lenses Christopher Lee used to wear, but somehow more eerie.

Oh, don't get me wrong – while there is definitely some atmosphere to the movie, realistically At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul is about as subtle as a brick to the face. One of the most surprising things about the film is the remarkably high level of violence – odd given this is a black and white film from 1963, but moreso that Brazil's government were censorious bordering on the fascistic. By Marins' own admission in the interview that accompanies the film, there were a lot of heavily cut prints doing the rounds back in the day, but only he had the original negative (flat out lying to the nation's censors, saying it had been lost), which is how we get to see this bargain basement oddity in it's fully uncut form today. The budegtary restraints for this film would have even made Ed Wood Jr think twice about making it I think, if not make him take a few deep breaths and steady himself on the furniture.

The plot is accordingly quite simple: Z'e is the under-taker in a small Brazilian town, and he wants an heir. Unfortunately his wife Lenita can't conceive, and he's pretty furious about it. So, what to do? Simple: turn his job into a sideline for his hobby and start killing his way to his end, Terezhina, the pretty young girlfriend of his friend Antonio (just why Antonio is his friend is up for grabs, as Z'e is as contemptuous of Antonio as he is the rest of the town's inhabitants). Along the way he runs afoul of a cacklingly over-acted witch who foretells his inevitable sticky demise, which he laughs off, and generally sees himself as above any law, secular or sectarian. He sees himself as like to Nietzsche's idea of the uber-mensch, someone above the laws of man, and disbelieving of any laws handed down by a god he obviously has no belief in. He commits many a crime and acts in a way that generally appals the populace, and by extension a Brazilian audience of the early 1960s. He tramples over values and social mores with all the grace and finesse of a drunken moose, and yet almost no one has the balls to confront him – one fella does try early on, but Z'e bullwhips his face until the fella sees the error of his ways. So does everybody else.

Now, given that precis, you might be thinking, well, so what – doesn't sound like the basis for a feature-length film, more an episode of The Twilight Zone, but there you'd be wrong. It's not the content per se that's kept this film alive for nearly half a century after it was made, it's the stylistic touches and the look of it. Yeah, some of the camerawork borders on the incompetent and detracts from either characterisation or action, but given that the crew were working with an extremely limited amount of film, pretty much everything that was filmed had to be used – I don't think there were many multiple takes going on here.

I mentioned the riffing on the old Universal films before – those deeply conservative films with their ultimately sympathetic villains and monsters provide the look only for At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul; it really does owe a debt to those old fabulously creaky gothic sets and the lighting that accompanied the moody set-pieces. In other ways this film goes for the jugular in a way that a seasoned and more-talented director like James Whale would have baulked at. The prudish primness that seemed so right for the early 30s is chucked unceremoniously to one side, and what we get is a down and dirty-feeling film with a bizarre edge that teeters on the brink of the emerging strain of Absurdism in the Arts, pioneered in the theatre by the likes of unsympathetic playwrights like Ionescu, Beckett and Artaud. No one wins, and the world is a horrible place, as in Sartre's No Exit – to stay alive you have to either become an amoral monster, or otherwise neglect your innate humanity and become a passive observer to the horrors and wrongness that abounds in the modern world. Like I said, this is Z'e as Nietzsche's self-perceived uber-mensch trampling over societal norms (and watch what happens when he stops riding rough-shod over propriety), with the villagers little better than Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon, powerless clowns with no say in their own future, blown hither and yon by stronger forces. It is very much a product of its time, and the values and attitudes of the place in which it was created.

So, the violence, eh? It's quite brutish, and for 1963, shocking – raises an eyebrow today, even. Eyeballs get punctured by fingernails, fingers are removed with a broken wine bottle, women are beaten within an inch of their lives to begin with – all of it surprisingly bloody, and quite squalid. Okay, it lacks the excess of say, Herschell Gordon Lewis' proto-gore flick Blood Feast, and the fact it's in black and white reduces the impact, but I think it shares the mantle with that far more lurid film's excesses as ushering in a new age of cinematic violence, and does it in a way that seems less cartoonish than HGL's full colour splatter shocker. That being said, the simplicity of the plot of At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, as well as the hammy acting and the rather pat notions of poetic justice at the end tend to be reminiscent of the horror comics of the 1950s (as well as later TV shlock-shock shows like Tales From The Crypt, or the Amicus portmanteau films of the 1960s and 70s). To me, that kind of lets the whole thing down – our cape-clad villain does an astounding about face at one section of the film, and yes, while that does make him more than a one-trick boogeyman, it also kind of makes him a little less credible. But it also does show that Marins was aspiring for something more than yet another forgettable horror movie scene-chomping villain – and yet I'll guarantee at the same time he was pulling bits of the furniture from between his teeth for weeks after this bad boy was finished. Is that the sound of someone gnawing on a backdrop?
Video
Not the greatest, but then considering the negative had probably been sitting in Marins' basement for 30+ years, it's passable, or more accurately forgivable. However, surely Fantoma (released through Image Entertainment) could have spent a little bit more time restoring this to at least a clean print, as it's bespeckled to hell and loaded for bear with film artefacts. Father Time has really taken a bat to At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul.
Audio

Correspondingly, the audio is not the best, and we get to experience this reasonably ground-breaking, and certainly taboo-shattering film in a flat, muffled and lifeless Portuguese mono track with optional English subs. Ho hum.

Extra Features
There's an extremely interesting interview with Marins, who as an older gent still sports freakishly long talons – I guess they're the trademark – but proves himself to be a fine interview subject: lucid, enthusiastic, humble and extremely informative. Despite the brevity of this interview about the production of the film and its rather chequered history, it is one of the more engaging examples of the species that I've seen. To be blunt, I was more into this than I was the feature film itself. You also get theatrical trailers for At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse and Awakening of the Beast Marins' Coffin Joe films of the 1960s.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Sometimes it's possible to see the importance of a film and why it's held in high regard without actually being all that much of a fan of it. Did I like At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul? Yeah... I guess. Was I blown away by it? No. Am I glad I saw it? Sure – it'd been on my "to watch" list ages, and I do think that it's an important film in the history of horror cinema and a definite "to watch" for any serious fan of the history of the genre. The inexperience of the cast and crew does show through though, as indeed it does with many low-budget shockers from back in the day, but what carries it through is the sheer verve of the film. You get the definite impression that Coffin Joe would like nothing better than to leap off the screen and savage his audience first hand, and the pacing of the film is never less than brisk (you can read that as, "you're never given time to think"), and you can just tell that everybody here is giving his or her all – in that regard, the film's got a lot of heart, and in the end that really does carry it over the line.

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