Generally agreed to be the first Brazilian horror film, 1964’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is the perfect underseen-in-America Halloween movie. Its director and cowriter, José Mojica Marins, also stars as Zé do Caixão, or Coffin Joe, a robustly diabolical and atheistic mortician who terrorizes everyone in his town. Coffin Joe has long fingernails and favors a black cape and black top hat. In this heavily Catholic town, he enjoys eating meat on Holy Friday, going so far as to force a man in the local bar to chew some lamb. Coffin Joe is obsessed with “the continuity of blood”; he wants a son to carry on his bloodline, and since his wife can’t give him one, he goes looking for a candidate. As you may have gathered, this does not involve gentle seduction and walks on the beach.
At Midnight is the first of a trilogy of Coffin Joe films (though Marins made several other movies featuring the character) whose plot throughline is the anti-hero’s quest for a son. Coffin Joe went on to become something of a favorite (if disreputable in many quarters) icon of terror in Brazil, lending his name or visage to books, comics, TV shows, songs, and even a Volkswagen. Our closest equivalent, I suppose, might be Freddy Krueger, who rose out of American fears of child abusers much as Coffin Joe is partly a cautionary figure demonstrating what happens if you laugh at God and spirits and the local bruja. Brazilian audiences felt safe in vicariously relishing Coffin Joe’s blasphemies and violence as long as it was clear that he would get his comeuppance at the end — which he does, spectacularly.
Of course, “spectacular” is relative when you’re talking about something obviously made on a frayed shoestring; this is the kind of cheapjack film in which an actor must endure real live tarantulas and maggots crawling on his or her face. Despite that, the gore effects (shot in inky black and white) are appropriately gross and wince-inducing, especially for a film that landed only a year after H.G. Lewis’ seminal Blood Feast. Not really a flashy director, at least on this ride, Marins still manages to birth a classically spooky affair with the sometimes-schlocky but lovable aesthetic of a small-town haunted house: skulls, witches, glowing eyes, disembodied shrieking and moaning.
Most of Marins’ cast were non-actors (one of his cowriters, Magda Mei, plays the unfortunate woman who catches Coffin Joe’s eye), but Marins himself gives a performance of epic hamminess, constantly laughing maniacally or screaming in terror of the “inferno.” At Midnight is a lot of fun, but it’s also a serious document of its time and place, a Brazil gripped with fear of God and ghosts; the movie is suffused with that unique South American Catholic mix of religion and superstition. It’s a place where the concept of the Holy Ghost consorts uneasily with that of unholy ghosts. Coffin Joe may be one of the latter; he starts off as a fairly normal mortician and gradually adds terrible qualities, beginning by wanting meat on Holy Friday, until finally he’s drowning his best friend and raping that friend’s fiancée.
Yet the little I know about Marins suggests he doesn’t mean Coffin Joe entirely as a cautionary figure. The character is also a critique of the society that gave rise to him, a heavily paternalistic culture that places a great deal of importance on procreation, especially having sons. Women, of course, are regarded only as a means to that end (remember, a woman cowrote the script). Coffin Joe isn’t just an example of how a Brazilian man can go wrong and doom his soul (he isn’t the one, incidentally, who issues the film’s titular threat); he’s the logical extension of the harsh misogynistic world he lives in. Naturally, this being a horror film, he also drops a tarantula on his wife’s face and smashes someone else in the face with a crown of thorns he rips off of a statue of Christ. At Midnight has been compared to Ed Wood’s loony absurdities, but it’s closer to the surreal grotesqueries of Buñuel and Dali’s L’Age d’Or.