Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Movie: At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1963)

In college, as in prison, you want to land a job in the library. I spent most of my years in the Microfilm Department poring over film reference books I couldn’t afford, like the horror volume of the Overlook Film Encyclopedia.

In particular I read and reread the entries on the movies of José Mojica Marins and his character Zé do Caixão, or Coffin Joe. Joe, played by Marins, is an undertaker who scorns both religion and the supernatural. He’s taken self-interest to its logical endpoint: he does whatever he wants to whomever he wants, and his neighbors live in fear of him. (An interview with Marins is available here.)

At the time the films were almost impossible to see outside of Marins’ native Brazil. Their obscure status, combined with author Phil Hardy’s meticulous descriptions of every act of mayhem and sacrilege, made them loom large in my mind. These films, I thought, were like the ones that occasionally turned up in horror novels, where simply watching a few frames could ... drive men mad.

Some of Marins’ movies were eventually distributed on video. I didn’t seek them out; I suppose I didn’t really want to see them. I knew they couldn’t live up to the unholy spectacles I imagined them to be.

Last Friday, as we were about to settle in and watch a DVD, I noticed that IFC was only minutes away from showing Coffin Joe’s debut At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul as part of its Grindhouse series. I’d never heard of a Marins film airing on TV before. I wasn’t about to miss my chance.

There’s no plot. After not one but two Ed Wood-style introductions delivered straight to the camera, Joe begins humiliating and murdering people. He horsewhips a guy, sics a tarantula on his wife, and uses the crown of thorns from a bust of Christ as a weapon. He also proves that my mother was right: you can take someone’s eyes out by imitating the Three Stooges.

The film looks like it was shot on the sets for a Brazilian kids’ show after hours. One of Joe’s victims has pennants hanging in his room. I wanted them explained – “This one’s for the Sao Paulo Rams, and that one is for Lucifer” – but before that could happen Joe knocked the man unconscious, dragged him into the bathtub and drowned him. Joe’s a busy man with a lot of folks to kill.

Midnight is not a good movie. It’s actually kind of boring. But after a while it began exerting a peculiar fascination. Unlike many horror films, it has the courage of its convictions: Marins is determined to shatter as many taboos as possible. The low production values only enhance the movie’s power. When Joe is haunted by a vision of his dead victims carrying him in an open casket, Marins simply shows the scene in negative. The result is genuinely disturbing, as are a number of other bargain-basement effects.

This Friday, January 19, at midnight Eastern, IFC is showing the second Coffin Joe film, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse. (I’ll say this for Marins: the man knew from a good title.) According to The Psychotronic Video Guide by Michael Weldon, a reference book I can afford, the sequel is “Marins’s ultimate movie,” including a full-color sequence set in an ice-cold Hell with moving body parts embedded in the walls. This is followed next week by Awakening of the Beast, which is part documentary about the drug culture of the 1960s and part Coffin Joe schlockfest.

Based on my experience with Midnight, I can’t recommend these movies. But you know I’m going to be watching them.