Friday, 22 January 2010
Me n' Coffin Joe, Part # 2:
At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul (1964)
About halfway through the 2001 documentary “The Strange World of Mojica Marins”, Jose Mojica Marins gets around to discussing the making of his debut cinematic feature (and apparently the first horror film ever made in Brazil), the wonderfully titled “At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul”. Marins admits that he was whacked out of brain on cheap amphetamines throughout the production, working non-stop for 48 or 72 hours at a stretch, using two crews who rotated around him in 12 hour shifts. “I fell into a hole in the set, and nearly broke my leg,” he recalls, “and everybody cheered – they thought I was going to have to stop. But I had them wheel me in on a stretcher, and I carried on filming! I showed them!” And that just about sums the guy up really.
As it happens, he became pretty successful as a filmmaker and media personality following this film, but it’s easy to suspect he would have carried on banging them out in exactly the same manner even if everyone in the world had collectively burst into tears and earnestly begged him to stop. In fact, I’m pretty sure he would have liked it even better that way, the big freak.
Regardless of your thoughts on the director’s wider work though (and to be honest, I feel like I’m taking my life in my hands every time I hit play on one of these DVDs after “Awakening of the Beast”), it’s hard not to recognise “At Midnight..” as a real accomplishment, not only in the way it transcends its zero budget, backyard origins through sheer strength of vision, but also as a singular cinematic expression of rampant egotism.
One thing that initially surprised me about “Midnight..” is that, despite his outlandish appearance, Marins’ Coffin Joe begins the film not as a villainous monster, but as a pretty regular guy. Ok, so the whole thing with the curly fingernails must freak people out a little, and he’s liable to fly off the handle at any moment and start ranting about his contempt for the church or somesuch, but aside from that he’s just a lad from this small town who’s made a career for himself as an undertaker. He’s got himself a pretty young wife, and even some buddies he likes to go out drinking with.
Not a bad state of affairs really, although you wouldn’t know it from the way he stomps about behind closed doors, glowering and cursing and demanding to eat meat on Holy Friday (a big no-no it seems). You see, Joe’s got a lot on his mind – namely, his own obsessively realised philosophy of materialistic Social Darwinism. Vehemently denying the existence of God to anyone who will listen, Joe believes that man can only become strong by throwing off the shackles of religion and adopting a strict survival-of-the-fittest approach to life, devoid of ‘weak’ sentimentality. He is also rather unhealthily obsessed with a continuation of bloodlines, and specifically his own, believing that a man’s only chance for immortality is through his children.
We the viewers gather all this pretty quickly because, well… boy, does he ever like to go on about it. It seems that if there’s one quality the intrepid film fan needs to cultivate to get through the Jose Marins filmography, it is an appreciation of the director/star’s penchant for ranting endlessly about whatever’s on his mind, proclaiming his views (or, more charitably, his character’s views) in bloodcurdling, fire & brimstone terms at every opportunity, shaking his fists at the skies and gesticulating like a deranged carnival barker as he does so. “What is blood?”, he demands of us in his opening monologue; “It is existence!” Uh… sure thing man. Personally, I find all this blather gets pretty tedious pretty quickly, but I do enjoy the exaggerated emphasis Marins puts on the Portuguese word for ‘hell’ (“EEEnfernooo!”), and waiting for it to pop up again usually keeps me awake through these outbursts.
Anyway, needless to say, it is these homespun philosophies of his that see Coffin Joe swiftly descending from the level of the merely odd to that of the aforementioned villainous monster. As the film opens, he is angry with his wife for her failure to bear him a son. And rather than just, say, giving it some time or considering fertility treatment (which I guess wouldn’t have made for much of a horror film), Joe decides instead to take more affirmative action and kill her – which he deems no great loss, because hey, his best friend Antonio’s fiancée looks like a bit of a goer, and might make a more suitable vessel for the hallowed Ze Do Caixao seed. Which obviously means he's going to have to kill Antonio too, and... well, you see where this is going.
Throughout the film, Joe uses his doctrines of self-preservation and violent egotism as justification for the brisk series of murders, mutilations and sexual assaults that this line of thinking sets him off on, and it is this crime spree, followed by the supernatural retribution he suffers after being cursed by a gypsy fortune-teller, that comprises the rest of the film’s narrative.
Visually, “At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul” is superbly realised, taking its inspiration less from the kind of formal gothic horror that was in the ascendant in Europe and North America at the time, and more from the most garish and theatrical end of the old Universal movies. I was particularly reminded of Lon Chaney Jr in The Wolfman as Coffin Joe stalked through fog-shrouded graveyards and treacherous forests, all obviously created to order on a ten foot wide set with a black backdrop and plenty of dry ice. These fake exteriors, along with the cramped and furniture-stuffed interior sets, help to give every shot in the movie a convincingly claustrophobic atmosphere. If not as overtly dreamlike or surreal as later Marins films, Coffin Joe still seems to spend "At Midnight.." trapped in a constrictive, funereal world of his own making, just as surely as the viewer in turn feels trapped within the crypt-like corridors of Marins' brain.
Although tame compared to the insane excess of his later work, this aesthetic set up gives Marins plenty of opportunity to indulge his trademark love of hair-raising and genuinely nightmarish imagery, with a few shocking incidents of graphic violence, and many moments in which deathless horror clichés – tarantulas, skulls, open graves, cackling hags etc. – are rendered with such ghoulish intensity that they become jarring and uncomfortable, as if we were seeing such things on screen for the first time. The film’s opening, with the aforementioned gypsy fortuneteller addressing the audience directly, warning them not to watch the movie if they “fear the wandering ghosts”, is a classic spookshow spine-tingler, worth the entry price alone, and the primitive ‘in-camera’ visual effects at the film’s climax are a joy – far weirder and more viscerally satisfying than more sophisticated techniques could ever have been.
What I found most unique about “Midnight..” though is the way that Marins – working entirely outside of any national film industry or pre-existing cinema tradition – manages to turn many of the conventions of the North American horror film upside down, reinventing the genre for a rural, working class, Catholic audience in Brazil, and apparently succeeding sufficiently well for them to welcome his film with open arms.
Seeing the image of Coffin Joe on a poster or video cover, most horror fans (or indeed innocent bystanders) would assume that he is going to be the supernatural antagonist in the film, in the tradition of Dracula, The Wolfman, Freddy Kruger or just about any other iconic monster. It is a surprise therefore to find that Joe is in fact a regular mortal and a staunch materialist to boot, and that his monstrous deeds arise purely from his own amoral and self-centered approach to life. And conversely, the supernatural in the world of the film, rather than being something frightening and strange, is presented as the benevolent belief system of the everyday people whom Joe terrorizes, closely aligned with the comfort and benign justice provided by the Catholic church.
In a North American horror story I suspect, the film’s memorable title would be something Coffin Joe himself might say, as he sets upon his victims with occult powers that seem an affront to their rational/scientific mindset. In Marins’ film however, the title is something that the gypsy fortuneteller – who in effect acts as the film’s moral compass – says TO Joe; a curse that brings the vengeance of the supernatural down upon him, to punish him for both his evil deeds and his lack of belief.
About the closest parallel to this I can come up with is the old fashioned use of literalist Christianity to fight evil in Hammer films (and not just the vampire and witchcraft ones either - “they charged me with assaulting a police officer… and acting against God”, Peter Cushing complains in ‘The Evil of Frankenstein’). But even Hammer always faced off ‘good’ supernatural forces (Christianity) against ‘bad’ (demons, monsters) – a recognisable idea to the Protestant/Western mindset, if an absurdly anachronistic one. It’s hard to think of another horror film from any country in which religion and the weirder forces of the occult are actually on the same side, helping to maintain the natural order by destroying a monster created by antisocial extremes of rational thinking.
But that is the situation which is made explicitly clear in “At Midnight..”, when Coffin Joe receives his comeuppance not only from the reanimated spirits of his victims (the “wandering ghosts”), but from also from a spectral parade of saints marching through the graveyard in a solemn funeral for Joe’s soon-to-be-departed spirit, and from a shining vision of a cross on a tomb wall, from which he recoils. Apparently Marins himself was once a steadfast Catholic, but it appears he underwent a crisis of faith shortly before he started making films. In the aforementioned documentary, he talks about arguing with priests, resenting their corruption and never going to church again. Clearly this loss of faith was still pretty fresh in his mind when he set about making “At Midnight..”, and both Coffin Joe’s somewhat subversive diatribes against religious belief, and the frenzied guilt trip of his supernatural fate, must have made for electrifying viewing for a Catholic audience.
Also unusual is the fact that Coffin Joe is the film’s protagonist. In conventional horror films where the villain is also central character, he will usually be a tragic, misguided figure with sympathetic qualities that help drive audience recognition (think again of The Wolfman, or of Vincent Price’s doomed aristocrats in all those Poe movies). When a villain is a TOTAL villain (the Dracula model), he is usually used as a shadowy threat, whilst other, more human, characters compete for our affections. Not so in “At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul” and its sequels – Coffin Joe is a miserable, misanthropic bastard with no redeeming features whatsoever, and yet he’s centre-screen throughout.
More than anything, this probably has to do with Jose Marins being a somewhat obsessive egotist who clearly felt that his performance and sound of his own voice were the central qualities of his film, to say nothing of the fact that he pretty much made the damn thing on his own with little in the way of a supportive cast or crew. And indeed, the film’s narrative suffers a great deal from this lack of anyone to identify with. The other characters are portrayed as little more than gormless cut-outs, and there’s only so long you can spend watching a hateful asshole going about his business before things start to get pretty tiresome, especially when he’s in the habit of pausing the action on a regular basis to lecture us on the finer points of his belief system.
Such flaws though are an integral part of the weird idiosyncrasies that make up Marins’ filmmaking, and to lose them would be to lose the intense imagery and visceral power that make “At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul” so unique - probably one of the best and most fascinating independent horror films made anywhere in the world in the early ‘60s.