At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-02-15 01:22

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964)
Studio: Synapse Films
Release date: January 31st 2017

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

“I wish you all a terrible evening, my dear, brave little friends,” a gypsy woman impishly intones to what must be a bewildered audience at the beginning of At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. By this point, they’ve been subjected to three wildly different introductions to the bizarre world of Coffin Joe, the Brazilian horror icon conjured up by actor/director Jose Mojica Marins. The first of these sequences features Marin himself as Joe, piercing viewers with his signature, penetrating gaze as he wonders aloud on the existential nature of life and death, a far cry from the playful ravings of the aforementioned gypsy that follows him: “What is life?” he asks before further musing, “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!”

Sandwiched between these two scenes is an incredible animated credits sequence that hints at the film’s carnival atmosphere, leaving one to wonder just what Marins is up to here. Will At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul be a brooding, existential picture? Or will it be more in the spirit of a low-rent haunted house Halloween attraction? The answer is that it’s both, and it’s not that Marins’s film falls somewhere in between that spectrum: instead, it’s operating on all ends at any given moment, sometimes whiplashing through them from scene to scene. On paper, it feels like it should be a disaster; in reality, it makes for one of the most indelible and amazing experiences the horror genre has to offer.

If it isn’t abundantly clear after these first five minutes of At Midnight, it must be noted that Marins—and by proxy Coffin Joe—does not give a single fuck. Our perception of early 60s horror tends to paint the era as a moment of transition for the genre in America, with films like Psycho and Blood Feast moving the genre away from the quaint 50s into a more sinister, gorier age. Brazil, on the other hand, plunged headlong into the latter with the debut of Coffin Joe in this, the country’s first horror film altogether. Marins obviously had no intention about easing his fellow countrymen into the gore-soaked pool, as he dreamt up an unhinged dispatch straight from his unfiltered id. It’s fair to say that At Midnight is less a coherent, plot-driven film and more an episodic rummaging through Coffin Joe’s attempt to live out his most base desires, a quest that primarily involves finding various women he can knock up to ensure his legacy lives on.

Obviously, At Midnight cannot be considered “woke” by any stretch of the imagination: when a film revolves around a guy treating women as nothing more than fuckable vessels for his own seed, it’s inherently an exercise in pure misogyny. Coffin Joe himself is an outrageous asshole, so much so that it’s galling that he somehow becomes something of an antihero here. But of course, this is also what makes the film so wildly compelling. Like so many exploitation films, this one thrives on a sense of incredulity—it’s almost as if you can’t believe you’re watching a film helmed by what must be an actual lunatic. Every inch of this film feels as if it were explicitly shot to provoke and offend as many sensibilities as possible—that it often invites viewers to delight in its thrills makes it all the more screwy.

At the center of it is the irascible Coffin Joe himself, a small time undertaker who couldn’t be any less dignified for such a line of work. Upon his introduction, he’s immediately trading in blasphemy: when reminded that he can’t eat meat on Friday, he shrugs it off, insisting he’ll buy an entire rack of lamb and eat it himself. A few cuts later and there he is, gleefully chowing down, scoffing at a religious procession unfolding outside of his window. His itinerary only grows to be more bawdy and rambunctious when he heads to a local bar and promptly starts a fight after hitting on one of the waitresses; after leaving his victims a bruised, bloody mess, he caps off the evening with a warning to charge extra to bury the body of anyone he kills himself. It’s just an incongruously badass moment, the sort of thing an action hero might utter—not the villain of a horror movie.

The contrast only becomes more pronounced once Joe begins his lecherous advances on a friend’s fiancée because he’s convinced she’ll bear his children. Nevermind that Joe is already married—her infertility renders her practically worthless since “a woman who can’t bear a child needs no care.” Not content to simply revel in this awful sentiment, Joe drives his point home even further by tying his wife down to the bed and unleashing a poisonous spider on her prone, prostrate body (arachnophobes should probably avoid At Midnight at all costs, by the way). That this happens only a third of the way through the movie signals just how wild, shaggy, and loose the plotting is here, as Joe moves from one potential replacement to the next, removing whatever obstacles—such as his own “friend”—that might stand in his way. There’s something preternatural about both his savagery and his capacity to be an asshole, so much so that you begin to wonder if sinister forces aren’t lurking behind the sinister, hypnotic eyes that disarm his victims.

But at a certain point, this whole sordid affair becomes wildly compelling beyond its gruesome implications. Marins is magnetic as the titular Coffin Joe, all wild-eyed, seductive, and completely blasphemous. Only a handful of scenes unfold without his alluring presence, firmly establishing Joe as the center of the film’s gravity. At each moment, you’re constantly wondering just how much more awful—and weirdly charming—he’ll get. Sure, he’s a callous, murderous brute, but there’s a dark romanticism to his quest to find earthly pleasure and sire a legacy. He possesses the blasphemy of Milton’s Lucifer, the lyrical dialogue of a Byronic hero, and the gaze of Bela Lugosi, making him truly unlike any other horror icon.

Surrounding him is a similar pastiche of familiar horror elements colliding about, allowing At Midnight to act as a bridge between the rapidly fading gothic era and the period’s emerging splatter output. Giorgio Attili’s dreamy black and white photography creates a hazy impression, one that’s often punctuated by grisly violence to jolt viewers back to the stark reality of Joe’s misdeeds. One moment, At Midnight evokes the likes of Lewton or classic Bava; the next, it feels more akin to the era’s gore pictures. Given the film’s lurid nature, it’s perhaps a bit surprising that the former emerges supreme once the proceedings take a distinctly supernatural turn. Eventually, Joe’s exploits come back to haunt him quite literally, as the ghosts of his victims lurk in the nearby cemetery, just waiting to claim revenge.

Undeterred, Joe naturally continues his reign of terror throughout the Halloween season, all the way to Brazil’s observance of All Souls Day on November 2nd. It’s here that Marins unleashes a genuinely evocative climax that finds Coffin Joe confronting his demons and ghosts. He does so in unrepentant fashion, as even the gypsy’s foreboding warnings about his impending fate do little to deter the maniac. It’s here that At Midnight feels most like a ramshackle haunted attraction, all spooky noises and ghastly revelations. When Joe rummages through a crypt to find some peace of mind, it practically recalls cheap haunted house gags that substitute grapes and spaghetti for eyeballs and brains—only, in this case, the creeping, crawling maggots and rotting skulls are all too real for Coffin Joe. A score that recalls one of those old seasonal haunted house tapes only adds to the kooky ambiance of an unexpectedly moody climax—imagine being talked into visiting a silly haunted house, only to discover it’s actually a bit unnerving.

That’s Coffin Joe in a nutshell, and you underestimate him—and his films—at your own risk. Marins is a genuine talent, having summoned this icon out of the fog of a purgatorial horror scene. Joe exists as both an echo of the bygone age of the Universal Monsters and a harbinger of the unhinged madmen that would become horror icons. Just as icons before and after Joe found cross-platform success stretching across various media, so too would Marins’s creation transcend his own films by popping up in other films, television shows, and even his own comic books. I am not the type to insult your intelligence by insisting Coffin Joe is “the coolest horror icon you’ve never heard of” or whatnot, but he is certainly among the least likely horror icons to even exist.

With At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, Marins crafted the ultimate horror experience by realizing an indelible character through sheer blasphemy and provocation, blending the lo-fi huckster charm of drive-in exploitation with the unsettling existential dread of gothic horror. It’s early Bava by way of H.G. Lewis, and it’s just as unhinged as that description implies—if not more so.

The disc:

You could actually be forgiven if you haven’t yet crossed paths with Coffin Joe, what with most of Marins’s films being a bit hard to track down since their first DVD release all the way back in 2002, when I was a freshman in college. Talk about existential dread. The good news, however, is that Synapse has recently re-released the films on DVD (and DVD only—no Blu because the rights holders have not transferred the films to HD since it might not be possible). While the lack of a Blu option is disappointing, just having Coffin Joe back in circulation again is worthwhile on any format, especially since Synapse secured some terrific-looking prints and produced some new supplements to boot.

Marins appears all over the disc for At Midnight, first hosting an introduction for the film and then participating in a couple of interviews that detail the making of the film. Each of these clock in at a combined 16 minutes and quickly recap how Coffin Joe came to be (you will not be surprised that it has a screwy history). Another interview focuses on “Reino Sangrento,” Marins’s 1952 short film, while a new scene film in 2002 essentially retreads one of the more infamous scenes in At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. Fans should note that Synapse has released At Midnight and Tonight I’ll Possess Your Corpse separately and as part of a trilogy set alongside 2008’s Embodiment of Evil, which is actually quite convenient for those who already own the latter on Blu. (And if you don’t, it probably makes more sense to buy them separately since it’s nice to own at least one of the movies on Blu-ray.)

Either way, first-time viewers are in for some kind of treat with Coffin Joe. Despite Marins’s blending of familiar horror elements, there’s nothing quite like At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, a film that lingers like your best dreams and your worst nightmares all at once.
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