Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Film Review: AT MIDNIGHT I'LL TAKE YOUR SOUL (1964, José Mojica Marins)

Stars: 3.5 of 5.
Running Time: 81 minutes.
Tagline: I couldn't find any in English.
Best one-liner: "You have the fangs of a snake and the face of an angel."

Who is Coffin Joe? Or as he's known in the Portuguese– Zé do Caixão? Or, as he's known in real life– writer/director/producer/star/everything else, José Mojica Marins? Who is he really? Some have described him as "Mario Bava meets Ed Wood"– I think that I'd have to say he's closer to Alejandro Jodorowsky meets Ghoulardi (or any number of wacky Midnite Movie TV hosts), with a healthy smattering of 'The Trickster' from BRAINSCAN (in all of his freakish, sadistic, long-fingernailed glory).

But let's get to the matter at hand– the matter at hand being your soul, and, specifically, the precise time-frame in which it will be taken. AT MIDNIGHT I'LL TAKE YOUR SOUL is the tale of Coffin Joe, a crabby undertaker who dresses like Jack the Ripper, occasionally dabbles in serial killing, and who obsesses over finding a woman to bear his children, because his own wife is sterile and because having children is really, really important to Coffin Joe.
I had sort of assumed he'd be wholly supernatural, or at least as supernatural as a Brazilian Freddy Krueger, but instead he's kind of a scrawny brute in possession of Svengali-like powers of hypnosis:

an ether-based rape kit:

an impressive booze stash:

and a spectacularly bad attitude:

Most filmmakers ease into themselves into the heavy duty, philosophical material. However, José Mojica Marins is not 'most filmmakers.' Within the first thirty seconds of the film, which, for the record, is a shorter amount of time than it takes Terrence Malick to properly contemplate a leaf, Marins tackles, and then answers what many great men and women from Socrates to Jean-Paul Sartre have spent their entire lives ruminating upon–

Look at Coffin Joe there. Look how sure of himself he is. I know you want to know his answer. But don't worry– Coffin Joe is concise. He can solve the mystery of existence in just one sentence.

Well, now you're starting to scare me, Coffin Joe. But I guess that's the idea.
Then, before we're even eight minutes into the movie, Coffin Joe poses another, culturally significant query:

Don't worry, Coffin Joe hasn't turned Wendy's shill– it just happens to be a holy day, and José Mojica Marins has made it his life's work (well, part of his life's work anyway) to continuously ruffle the feathers of the Catholic Church. I mean, let's bear in mind that this is the filmmaker who later brought us 24 HOURS OF EXPLICIT SEX, a semi-pornographic 1980s adventure narrated, apparently, by a witty, jeering parrot. I have to respect that.

Anyway, I forgot to mention that we also get an incredible first-person-POV scolding from an irritated Gypsy/witch who's clutching a papier-mâché skull in a locale which recalls 'the garage of that friend of yours in middle school who tried to make his own amateur haunted house without his parents' permission.' This is likely where the majority of Ed Wood comparisons originate, as it's difficult not to be reminded of Bela Lugosi's delightfully demented GLEN OR GLENDA? narration. There is a lot of cackling here also.

Then she warns us not to watch the movie (!),

and finally threatens us with the stealing all of our collective souls at midnight, which confused me immediately, because I sort of had assumed that Coffin Joe would be handling the soul-collecting duties this evening. (And, as a side note, I had until this very moment completely disremembered the existence of 90's alt-rock band 'Collective Soul.')

The film graduates from the lovable late-nite "Boo!" school of horror filmmaking at this point and jumps headfirst into brutality (pretty shocking for '64) as Coffin Joe then wanders around raping and killing and torturing women with spiders and pestering Catholics and demonstrating how great his parenting would be...

...if only he could meet the right child-bearin' gal. It also bears mentioning that across three 'official' Coffin Joe flicks and innumerable guest appearances in other films, Coffin Joe's key motivation is always to knock up some poor unsuspecting lassie with Coffin Joe, Jr. and continue the bloodline. Though I suppose "if it ain't broke..."

AT MIDNIGHT I'LL TAKE YOUR SOUL is a solid cult gem with many mind-blowing aspects, but I must admit that it does indeed bog down from time to time. The pacing is a little sluggish (see also: MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE, EEGAH, et al.), the misogynistic undertones made me a little uncomfortable, and some of the religious rants are a touch lengthy. That being said, you may find your attention drifting a bit, and then BOOM–

–Coffin Joe pokes YOU in the eye. Why wasn't this in 3-D!? Oh, yeah– the budget was so low, that in order to depict an occult happening, they did DIY stop-motion animation on the film stock itself, with generous helpings of glue and glitter!

It looks pretty great in motion, too. Stan Brakhage, eat yer heart out. Seriously, though, this looks better and is certainly more believably tangible than CGI. Oh, and there's a schweet owl puppet, too:

In any event, AT MIDNIGHT I'll TAKE YOUR SOUL is campy, low-budget, bizarre, occasionally gory, and definitely ahead of its time. I look forward to one day visiting the further mind-blowing, eye-gouging misadventures of Coffin Joe.

-Sean Gill

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