Friday 19 January 2007

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964)

We're treated to an interesting opening. A scary gypsy woman wishes us a terrible evening and warns us not to watch the film, or at midnight she'll take our souls. What a way to start! This is a crackly old print of a 1964 Brazilian movie, and it's obvious early on that the acting is not of stellar quality, but the whole thing simply reeks of exotica. It's also highly refreshing because in all my years of watching horror movies I've never seen anything like this.

The film roughly equates to the lead character, because he dominates this film entirely. He is Zé do Caixão, known to Western audiences, or at least those who even know of his existence, as Coffin Joe, and this was the first of many films he made as both actor and director. Unlike any other horror lead I can think of from the sixties, he's not just no hero but he's a complete badass and it's impossible not to watch him. He's the local undertaker and he dominates everyone and everything around him. He swaggers, long before Shaft and the blaxploitation antiheroes, in his black top hat and cape, his ego swaggering alongside him. He seethes, with lust and sadistic desire, and he maims, rapes and kills without any regret or remorse. He also proudly and blatantly proclaims his secular beliefs by breaking religious edicts and superstitious proclamations and flaunting his defiance.

The only thing he seems to honour, except the lust for life, is the preservation of his bloodline. He kills his girlfriend or mistress, whatever she is, because she can't bear children, and he has a go at a father who treats his son badly. That's about the only positive attribute he seems to have, from a standard western moral standpoint, though there are certainly philosophies that include much of what he seems to stand for. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law?

José Mojica Marins obviously has a vision, and that doesn't just involve the intriguing use of negatives and overlaid graphics. For this to come out as it did in 1964 is astounding. I remember the controversy over films like Blood Feast in the States, where a tongue ripping was seen as graphic horror completely beyond the pale. This is only a year later, though without the garish technicolor, but it's just as graphic: corpses teeming with worms or with spiders roaming over them, fingers being cut off with a broken bottle, a whippings, a rape, a bludgenoning, a drowning, the works!

What takes it a step further than its American cousins is its blistering attack on the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil, which Marins lumps in with the ravings of the gypsy witch as superstitious nonsense. He really has a go: not just eating lamb on Holy Friday as an obvious sacrilegious reference to Agnus Dei but stooping so low as to stab a man in the face with a crown of thorns from a statue of Jesus.

The film is a riot, pure and simple, and a cinematic slap in the face that will take a while to really sink in. Now I'm seriously looking forward to the next couple of Coffin Joe movies to be shown on IFC Grindhouse: This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse and Awakening of the Beast. I knew about these from years of reading genre magazines, but I now see at IMDb that there are more than these, and that Marins is even making another Coffin Joe movie in 2007, at 78 years of age!

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