Wednesday, September 14, 2016

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (aka Coffin Joe) and the great mid-century worldwide horror wave

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul aka Coffin Joe aka À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma (1964)
Dir. José Mojica Marins
Written by Waldomiro França, José Mojica Marins, Magda Mei
Starring José Mojica Marins, Magda Mei, Nivaldo Lima, Valéria Vasquez

Brazil is not necessarily the first country you think of when you think of horror cinema. There are a smattering of horror movies shot in Brazil (everything from KILLER FISH [1979] to TOURISTAS [2006]) but these are mostly foreign productions, maybe incorporating a local film partner but more often just slinking in to shoot some rainforest footage and maybe a few impoverished-looking villagers before returning home, undoubtedly to become really annoying at parties talking about how exotic their travel has been.

In recent years, it looks like Brazil has gotten more into the horror game, with some modern titles like BEYOND THE GRAVE (2010), DESAPARECIDOS( 2011), THE NIGHT OF THE CHUPACABRAS (2011), DARK SEA (2013), THE FOSTERING (2015), and the nifty-sound THE BLACK FABLES (2014), several of which seem to be directed by former magician Rodrigo Aragã, now on my list of international heroes. But as near as I can tell, until fairly deep into the new millennium, Brazilian horror was almost totally the province of one man, writer/director/star José Mojica Marins, and, indeed, one character: the diabolical (but dapper!) undertaker Zé do Caixão, which is usually rendered in English as Coffin Joe.

Joe (every bit of English language commentary refers to him by his Anglicized name, so I’ll follow suit) is a pretty unique character. He’s a bearded mortician who -- though he lives in modern times -- dresses in an extremely old-fashioned formal style, complete with cape and top hat. His clothes and his disturbingly long, curled fingernails give him a decidedly vampiric appearance, but there’s nothing supernatural about him, except the fact that he’s just the world’s biggest fucking asshole, to everyone, everywhere, like Dr. House if he didn’t cure your Lupus. Instead of a fantastical creature, he’s something even more terrifying: an atheist! Indeed, his supreme assholishness is in part a reflection of how superior he feels to all the superstitious ninnies around him!* His real obsession, though, isn’t philosophical but biological. He arrogantly considers himself far better than the common man, and this manifests in an obsession to father a son with the “perfect woman,” a goal he describes (with the feverish zeal of a madman) as “continuity of blood.” This makes for an interesting motive for a horror antagonist (or at least a uniquely unsavory one) and gives the whole affair a subtle structure of hubris and punishment. All well and good, but practically speaking as the movie plays out, the main attraction is him just going around being an unbelievable asshole to everyone he meets, and occasionally flipping out, getting weird bloodshot eyes, and slapping people around. Which it turns out is more than enough to add up to a good time at the movies.

AT MIDNIGHT I’LL TAKE YOUR SOUL marked the arrival of Brazil’s most famous horror icon (I spoke with several native Brazilians for this story, who confirm that “Coffin Joe” is every bit the national institution in Brazil that Freddy or Jason are in America), but more broadly it also inaugurated the entire horror genre in the country, as Brazil’s very first horror film of any kind. 1964 was a little late for a first entry into the horror game (Mexico, for example, had been making horror movies since at least El fantasma del convento In 1934, and had spent the 50’s cranking out increasingly sophisticated horror tales ranging from the trailblazing El vampiro to the batty brain-eating sci-fi El Barón del terror --better known in the US as THE BRAINIAC), and, perhaps consequently, AT MIDNIGHT has something of a dated feel, even for a 1964 movie. It looks fairly handsome in its scrappy black and white, but there’s no getting around the fact that it also feels a bit stilted and old-fashioned, and despite some stylish touches (Joe’s weird apartment sports a nest of hands sticking out of the walls! A ghostly sequence at the end gets nigh-on psychedelic by inversing the standard black-and-white contrast!) it was obviously made on the cheap. But it doesn’t matter at all, because Joe --as embodied by director José Mojica Marins-- is just such a wonderfully hateable and imminently watchable screen villain. Marins claims the character and his affectations came to him in a dream, and frankly I believe it, because it’s hard to articulate just what makes him so loathsomely compelling, but there’s equally no denying it. Something about his haughty demeanor, anachronistic dress, and single-minded sadism is instantly iconic and timeless in a way which feels genuinely subconscious.  

The film is smart to just go ahead make him the central character, because, admittedly, he’s the only interesting thing around. I think a less confident (or less crazy) director might have chickened out and larded up the film with some dull good guy characters we have to pretend to care about, but Marins seems to have almost immediately realized the vein of gold he’d struck, and just contents himself to let Joe run amok. It’s not an especially narrative film, mostly being composed of little vignettes of Joe wandering around treating people like shit and sometimes flipping out on them. Any plot that materializes is simply built upon him just getting more and more outrageous until finally he gets his comeuppance. That’s not to say the film is wholly without structure, though; the finale, where his misdeeds finally catch up with him, is a righteous, old-fashioned nightmare, a well-paced and compelling bit of gothic horror ghost show (though perhaps a little conventional compared to the bracing strangeness of the rest of the film.) It’s a worthy horror climax, but the real showpiece scene is actually halfway through, as Joe reflects --maybe even a little sadly-- on his misdeeds, and dares the universe to do something about it in a heroic bout of mega-acting that the camera is too mesmerized by to cut away from. Dated and cheap as the film sometimes is, Marins proves himself an able horror director when he wants to be (particularly with the feverish, atmospheric climax) but this lengthy monologue firmly demonstrates that the lightning in a bottle here is the character himself, with all his unexpected contradictions and mysteriously compelling odiousness.

AT MIDNIGHT is by no means an overwhelmingly violent or salacious film, but still, it had to be pretty shocking for a first-ever horror film in Brazil. You got some fingers cut off, some maggot-strewn bodies, a hanging body, and a drowning scene better than any in THE DROWNSMAN, which is honestly about as shocking as any comparable Hammer or Italian film dared to get at the time. One word of warning: Given his obsession with fathering a son, it probably comes as little surprise to you that consent is not high on his list of Joe’s priorities, and of course that goes exactly where you think it will. The rape scene is probably a little harder for modern audiences to deal with than it would have been in 1964, and I’d certainly understand if it was a dealbreaker for some people who still retain some modicum of human decency. Those days are a distant memory for me by this point, but even I can’t deny that it makes things a little less fun afterwards. At any rate, the worst stuff happens off-camera, and hopefully the whole enterprise is dated and silly enough that it won’t kill the buzz for you, because otherwise Joe’s gleeful sadism is mostly a hoot, over-the-top in a gratuitously delightful EVIL DEAD sort of way instead of a grim torture-porn kinda way. Still, it’s obviously very much a movie of its time, with all that implies about early 60’s Brazilian society and social standards.

In fact, AT MIDNIGHT I’LL TAKE YOUR SOUL seems to have arrived right on the crest of something of a global wave of horror, which began in the late 50’s and peaked in the early 60s, continuing onward in some countries and rolling back in others. Like Mexico, some of these individual cultures had flirted with horror cinema in the early days of film, but had backed away during the long nightmare that was the two world wars. Japan, for example, was making silent horror films as early as 1898, in Bake Jizo and Shinin no Sosei. But it was only with the advent of the the 1950s that they returned to the genre with films like TALES OF UGETSU (1953) and THE GHOST OF YOTSUYA (1959), -- not to mention GODZILLA (1954). While these stories have origins much older than their cinematic representations (THE GHOST OF YOTSUYA is based on a classic Kabuki play first performed in 1826!) there seems to have been something about the 1950’s which ushered them into cinemas around the world in a more persistent and impelling way. In England, of course, Hammer was gearing up for what would become a historic horror renaissance beginning with THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT in 1955 and coming into its own with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE HORROR OF DRACULA in 1957 and 1958, respectively. And In Italy, Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava inaugurated modern Italian horror with I VAMPIRI in 1957 and the Sci-Fi/horror CALTIKI in 1959, though of course it would be Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY (1960) which ignited a wave of Italian Gothic horror that lasted throughout the 60’s and into the giallo era of the late 60’s and 70’s.

What was it about the late 50’s and early 60’s which provoked this deluge of horror cinema around the world? The usual hacky answer is Cold-War-era nuclear malaise, a paranoid fatalism about the potential destruction of human life on Earth which percolated deep into the collective unconsciousness of the world and manifested as a generalized anxiety which found expression in newly visceral horror cinema. While I have always contended that this argument is overstated (most specimens of the “nuclear monster” era of sci-fi horror which, in particular, dominated American genre cinema, are simply too corny and cheerful to realistically read as documents of an unsettled national psyche), it’s also not wholly unwarranted, as we can see from the genuinely bleak tone of early films like THEM! and, perhaps most obviously, the original GODZILLA.

Four films from the worldwide wave of horror cinema which kicked off in the mid-50's: Italy's I VAMPIRI (1957), England's DRACULA (1958), Japan's THE GHOST OF YOTSUYA (1959), Mexico's EL VAMPIRO (1957)

Still, I’m more inclined towards the theory advanced both by Mikel J. Koven in his book on Italian giallo cinema La Dolce Morte and Colette Balmain in her Introduction to Japanese Horror Film: the anxieties which provoked such a startling worldwide avalanche of horror cinema have less to do with geopolitics and more with rapidly shifting cultural norms. Particularly as traditionally patriarchal and rigidly classist societies --like Great Britain, Italy, Mexico, Japan and, as we shall see, Brazil-- saw radically new roles for women emerge, just as the traditional sources of social power began to visibly fade and crumble (the aristocracy in England, Confuciust-based monarchy in Japan, the Roman Catholic church in Italy and Mexico, and the civilian government of Brazil). Though in many ways this was a direct result of the chaos wrought upon these societies by World War II, these social shifts were somewhat more gradual, which I suspect contributed to a long-term sense of slow-motion national collapse, something palpable enough to inflict real psychological trauma, but gradual enough to seem amorphous and nonspecific, exactly the sort of environment wherein the abstracted and symbolic terrors of horror cinema would be expected to thrive. Note that in the US -- largely unscathed and in many ways empowered by the second World War-- these anxieties would manifest themselves somewhat later, as the culture shock of the late 60’s finally hit the mainstream with its own shifting ideas about class, feminism, equal rights, and the counterculture, embodied most directly in some of the “Killer Hippie” and “Youth Gone Wild” exploitation films of the late 60’s (for example, I DRINK YOUR BLOOD in 1970) but also clearly visible in everything from the nihilistic visions of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE to the arguably reactionary sexual politics of the 80’s slasher wave.

In Brazil, 1964 was a particularly turbulent year. In March, a long-gestating Military coup d'état (supported, predictably, by the US) had seized control of the government and deposed president João Goulart, following several years of tumultuous leftist reforms and economic instability. By the time AT MIDNIGHT I’LL TAKE YOUR SOUL premiered in November, the country had entered into what would become a decades-long nightmare of repressive military rule, under which intense privatization efforts handed vast sections of the economy over to foreign corporations, economic inequality skyrocketed, and thousands of Brazilian artists, intellectuals, and dissidents were deported, imprisoned, tortured or murdered. Seen in this light, the imperious, amoral and curiously anachronistic Coffin Joe character makes a certain amount of sense, as the personification of the newly emboldened ultra-right wing military dictatorship, with its casual sadism and total lack of compassion (that having been said, his strident atheism is interesting in this context; the Catholic church was initially divided between progressive and reactionary elements during the coup and the subsequent military dictatorship. It seems, however, that the initial reaction by the mainstream church power structure was at least moderately pro-military, which would make sense given the traditional enmity between the Catholic church and the generally secular-leaning left-wing forces. Ultimately, the church would play a key role in protesting and organizing resistance to the dictatorship, but I’m not at all certain that would have been apparent just a few short months into the new government’s rule. Hence, I take Joe’s atheism as something of a separate issue, and more along the lines of the generalized anxieties about shifting social institutions which we can also see in the other countries discussed above.)

These are not images from the movie, but historical photos from the '64 coup, which began April 1. The movie does not reference this directly, but does it do so symbolically?

Alternatively, Joe’s anarchic lashing out and rigid personal code might have been read as the calling card of a cathartic anti-hero, a rebellious personification of fierce individualism in the face of an increasingly repressive government and society. Certainly, that’s how the military itself read the films, banning or severely censoring several of them (Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies By Dana Och, Kirsten Strayer, pg. 151), including AT MIDNIGHT I’LL TAKE YOUR SOUL (which probably worked to Marins’ benefit, lending the films an even more controversial, cult appeal). Like any great horror icon, I doubt Coffin Joe could have remained so universally beloved for so long if he was merely seen as an utterly despicable figure, so as tempting as it might be to suggest that his imperious sadism is an easy parallel for a inflexible, dictatorial government, the evidence seems strong that audiences saw at least something they related to in the character. Even though Joe is clearly a villain, he defies easy categorization and and pat symbolic interpretation. Indeed, according to a lengthy and (to all appearances) fairly well-researched article by Christoph Huber in CinemaScope, it may in fact be Joe’s very elusive metaphorical nature which has contributed to enduring iconic status. He writes:

With Zé do Caixão, Mojica managed to create a vessel able to contain many of the antagonisms and ambivalences of Brazilian society. This indefatigable, nefarious, but also deeply honest seeker of immortality through a perfect bloodline (and the appropriate woman to bear his superior spawn) immediately became a hero of the poor and underprivileged, who undoubtedly responded to his liberating, anarchic anger against a hypocritical establishment—church, politics, and police inevitably form a corrupt trifecta of institutionalized evil challenged by Zé. Yet the black-clad gravedigger with his trademark accessories (top hat, cape, and those long, long nails) also is a frustrating force himself, stifling a timid society, which he punishes with contempt for its weakness. As the aptly schizophrenic words of the catchy gospel ballad over the opening credits of Mojica’s horror anthology The Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968) have it: “His reign is for revolt/His orders are for hatred.”

Anyway, whatever his original intention (if, indeed, there was ever anything as disappointingly banal as a “point” in the mind of his creator) having single-handedly invented Brazilian horror, Marins quickly set off on that most honorable pursuit of a horror director: milking the franchise for all it was worth for decades until the whole thing was totally run into the ground (Disney is no doubt eagerly consulting Marins even now for new techniques to render STAR WARS so utterly ubiquitous as to be functionally meaningless). Marins went on to make other horror and exploitation movies, but since his ‘64 debut, Coffin Joe has consistently shown up all over the place in Brazilian pop culture, both in an official trilogy of films (beginning with AT MIDNIGHT I’LL TAKE YOUR SOUL, continuing into its direct sequel THIS NIGHT I’LL POSSESS YOUR CORPSE in 1967 and concluding an impressive 40 years later with EMBODIMENT OF EVIL in 2008), and in various noncanonical films and cultural bric-a-brac, including supporting roles in AWAKENING OF THE BEAST (1970), THE BLOODY EXORCISM OF COFFIN JOE (1974), and HALLUCINATIONS OF A DERANGED MIND (1978). He was such a draw that they even used his name in a film he doesn’t even appear in, the anthology THE STRANGE WORLD OF COFFIN JOE (1968) (presumably one strange thing about Coffin Joe’s world is that he doesn’t always turn up in the films that literally have his name in the title). And get this -- those are just the films that Marins himself directed. Marins and Joe have also shown up as TV hosts (including in-character in an Alfred Hitchcock Presents style horror anthology series called Além, Muito Além do Além (Beyond, Much Beyond the Beyond) which ran 1967-1988, and later a similar program called Um Show do Outro Mundo (The Show from the Other World).

Scene from the 2008 horror/comedy short THE BLIND DATE OF COFFIN JOE.

Coffin Joe has also shown up in a series of comic books (because, of course), in TV comedies and soap operas, in commericals (including, improbably, for a 1969-70 Volkswagen model actually called the “Zé do Caixão,” which, yes, is a real thing), and, in lyrics and music videos for everything from iconic Brazilian art-pop band Os Mutantes’s classic 1968 debut album to Brazilian metal stalwarts Sepultura’s 1996 classic Ratamahatta on their album Roots (Marins, in full Joe regalia, even joined the band onstage on at least one occasion to perform what wikipedia describes as “an on-stage ‘blessing’”). Ohioan death metal band Necrophagia also sports a Joe-themed song on their 2003 album The Divine Art of Torture (the cover of which also bears an image of the fiendish mortician) which is both named for the character (using his original Brazilian name Zé do Caixão, because Necrophagia absolutely does not fuck around a single bit) and, purportedly, features lyrics which recount the plot of AT MIDNIGHT I’LL TAKE YOUR SOUL.** And do I really need to tell you that White Zombie sampled the opening of AWAKENING OF THE BEAST in their song I, Zombie? Frankly it’s far less surprising that Joe is sampled in a Rob Zombie song than it is that is that Rob Zombie hasn’t (yet) found a good cameo role for Marins in any of his movies. But you know it’s coming.

Anyway, Marins is 80 now, but age doesn’t seem to be slowing him down yet: IMBD reports he’s currently filming yet another iteration on his classic character in the not-yet-completed but excellently named Brazilian horror/comedy MOSQUITOID. And lest you forget: he created, wrote, directed, and first starred as the character in 1964. That’s 52 years of Coffin Joe. Is there any other actor who has portrayed an iconic character so successfully for so long? The closest I could think of was Angus Scrimm, who played the Tall Man from PHANTASM, on and off, from 1973-2016 (his death), but still a full decade short of Marins. Other contenders fell even shorter; Boris Karloff actually only played his iconic role as Frankenstein’s monster from 1931-1939, though he would don the makeup again one final time in 1962 for an episode of the TV series Route 66, making his total 31 years, just missing Bruce Campbell’s tenure as EVIL DEAD’s Ashley Williams, which currently stands at 35 years. Anthony Perkins played Norman Bates from 1960-1990, across four sequels in 30 years; by contrast, Brad Dourif has been Chucky for 25 years, Robert Englund has been playing Freddy Krueger for a mere 21 years (including his 2005 appearance in the Freddy-themed game show series A Nightmare on Elm Street: Real Nightmares), and Doug Bradley played Pinhead for a paltry 18 years. Other iconic characters, like Jason Vorhees, Leatherface, or Michael Myers, have been played by a rotating roster of actors. So as near as I can tell, Marins is actually the longest-running cinematic horror icon in film history. Since I’ve only seen the first one (so far) I can’t report on how consistent the results have been over his half-century of Coffin Joe, but even from the start, it’s obvious there’s something uniquely special here. To carry it on so successfully and with such startling longevity is a genuinely stunning feat. Continuity of blood indeed.

(Special thanks to Mauricio Carvalho for offering a Brazilian's perspective on the Coffin Joe phenomenon!)

*Great, another completely despicable horror icon who I immediately relate to. Thank God for all the rapey stuff that happens later, because otherwise this was shaping up to be another REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN situation where I spend the whole movie grousing that the “villain” is actually completely right.

** These are death metal lyrics, so for all you can actually understand he might as well be singing about the Keebler elves. But according to the lyrics are pretty spot on:

Spits in the face of god
Cast an inverted shadow
(Talons of) deprovation [sic] adorn
Bloodshot eyes
Dead as night

Ze Do Caixao

Unholy desires
A torture garden
Inside his soul

His ways are sadistic
In his quest for destiny
Womb of innocence
Defiled with his seed
Spawning a superior race
A bloodline of blasphemy

Play it Again, Samhain

None apparent
Followed by two more official sequels, THIS NIGHT I’LL POSSESS YOUR CORPSE in 1967 and EMBODIMENT OF EVIL in 2008. He also features in various supporting roles in AWAKENING OF THE BEAST (1970), THE BLOODY EXORCISM OF COFFIN JOE (1974), and HALLUCINATIONS OF A DERANGED MIND (1978), and has appeared in other media as well (see above)
José Mojica Marins / Coffin Joe
Yes, although it’s mercifully off-screen
Not much out-and-out gore, though a finger does get cut off
No, just the monster of Man’s hubris.
Yeah, for reasons which are never made clear, when Joe really gets mad he gets these crazy bloodshot eyes.
No, not really

Very well-known in its native land, to the point of being ubiquitous and iconic. Less so elsewhere in the world.
Just because we all love Slash does not mean everyone with an iconic top hat is good people.
Actually both titles (AT MIDNIGHT and COFFIN JOE) are both pretty accurate, but a word of note: Joe doesn’t take anyone’s soul, and is in fact the one who is being addressed in the original title, not the one saying it.



    list on IMDB list some older Brazilian horror

  2. None older than AT MIDNIGHT, though. And as usual for these lists, a lot of those movies are not actually listed as "horror" by IMDB. But yeah, it looks like Brazil made plenty of horror movies between '64 and the present (or at least, Marins did). Unfortunately it doesn't look like most of them, even the modern ones, have Region 1 releases on DVD