Dir. José Mojica Marins
Zé do Caixão (that’s Coffin Joe to you and me) is something of a cult figure both in his native Brazil, and in the wider horror community. The creation of filmmaker José Mojica Marins, who also portrays him onscreen, Coffin Joe has appeared in various TV anthologies, comics and sequels, as well as countless appearances in other films by the director. A nightmarishly striking figure - sporting long black cloak, top hat and grotesquely long fingernails - Joe first appeared in At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, which was also the first Brazilian horror film.
A curious and carnivalesque oddity of a film, At Midnight follows the increasingly crazed exploits of undertaker Joe, as he attempts to find a woman worthy of bearing him a child - and thus helping him obtain immortality by extending his bloodline. Addressing concepts such as faith, free will, social responsibility and politics, Marins’ film is an existential horror that unfolds with impish glee. While fairly tame by today’s standards, it still makes quite a shocking impact with its antihero’s atheistic rants and sociopathic tendencies. Brazil is a deeply devout Catholic country and when audiences gathered to watch At Midnight they basically encountered a formidable bogeyman mocking and ridiculing the very foundations of their beliefs and their faith.
Joe believes his atheism and free will elevates him above his superstitious neighbours. His fiery monologues touch on the same notions apparent in Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘superman’, as Joe does not follow common morality, preferring to forge his own and rise above ‘herd mentality.’ His actions are so shocking because he doesn’t adhere to any sort of moral code. He terrorises the other villagers who are portrayed as feeble and weak, and he rejects spirituality, choosing to maintain a rational mind. Coldly rational. His wife is unable to bear children, so he sees nothing wrong with killing her and setting out to find a woman worthy of having his children. He tortures people to test their emotional strength.
There are a number of incredibly atmospheric moments throughout, but none more so than the scene in which Joe begins to realise that the curse placed on him by one of his victims is actually about to be fulfilled. Wandering through a gloomy forest he notices various foretold events occurring before his eyes, marking his imminent demise. No music accompanies this scene, only the low moan of a desolate wind through trees. Tension builds with every realisation that the curse is in effect and a meeting with the devil is nigh. The home-made effects of the catacomb-set finale, as Joe is confronted by the animated corpses of his victims, are effectively realised and further add to the film’s off-kilter tone.
While Joe denounces God and the existence of the supernatural, and it appears that his demise is brought about by the gypsy curse placed on him, Marins maintains a certain degree of ambiguity throughout proceedings. As Joe’s histrionics mount, it becomes clear that all these horrifying visions could just be figments of his already deranged mind.
José Mojica Marins is a fascinating filmmaker, particularly when one takes into consideration the subject matter of his films, the often rigid regimes of censorship imposed upon them and the low budgets with which they were realised. Usually working with amateur actors and production teams, his work has the feel of something untamed and genuinely off the wall. At Midnight is a highly subversive, provocative and idiosyncratic film worth savouring on a dark and stormy night.