31 Spooky Movies in October: 2012 Edition Part 3 – Coffin Joe Special Report
10. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (José Mojica Marins, 1963)
If you’re not Brazilian, you may not be familiar with Coffin Joe (even though you should be). Think of him as a sort of Freddy Kruger type; a pop culture boogyman who’s appeared in films, TV shows, and comic books, always outfitted in top hat and black cape and possessed of some gnarly fingernails. He’s the brainchild of genuinely weird director José Mojica Marins, who has also portrayed the character for half a century. More than just a popular horror franchise star, Coffin Joe was loved by the Brazilian avant garde as a figure of subversion and gleeful blasphemy.
The plot of At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, the first movie to feature Coffin Joe, is the definition of perfunctory: a sadistic undertaker nicknamed Coffin Joe is hated by the locals for his disdain for religion and superstition, and he terrorizes them at every opportunity. When we first meet him, Joe is eating lamb on Good Friday, which I guess is the Brazilian equivalent of an American villain kicking a dog. Joe quickly gets out of shape because his wife is unable to bear him a son, so he decides to go on a killing spree to clear the way to his best friend’s fiance.
At Midnight… isn’t a perfect film, by any means. The budget was punishingly small, allowing for only the tiniest of sets. The cast made up of friends and family, and the only reason Marins took the lead role himself was to avoid having to pay another actor. The budget shows in some of the early scenes, especially the exteriors.
Yet somehow it works. Coffin Joe has next to no motivation for any of his crimes and is obviously a madman right from the beginning, but the complete lack of character development (plus his frequent wild, improvised monologues) gives Coffin Joe a mythic grandeur that’s almost comically outsized, especially considering he’s not supposed to be much more than an asshole undertaker. The graphic violence adds to the film’s surreal vibe. And trust me, it’s pretty graphic, with Joe chopping off fingers and stabbing villagers in the face with a crown of thorns (!) at the every opportunity, making it even more ridiculous that they put up with him for the length of an entire movie.
The ending is really something to behold and it’s what makes the experience worthwhile for me. After slow, shaky start, the movie works itself into a sustained frenzy that culminates in a psychedelic trip to a graveyard where Coffin Joe’s supernatural comeuppance is finally delivered. Bonkers stuff.
SCORE: 9 defaced crosses out of 10
11. This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (José Mojica Marins, 1967)
Wow. If the first Coffin Joe film gets pretty wild, this one is batshit crazy. After the huge success of At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, Marins had a much bigger budget for the next entry in the series, and it shows. This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse boasts better sets, a bigger cast, and more refined cinematography compared to the first film, which was literally shot on just a few cans of film.
The M.O. here is that of most sequels to surprise hits: everything that was memorable in the first film, do again but make it bigger. This Night… takes that formula to bizarre extremes. One tarantula crawling on a pretty girl was scary in the first film? This one has a hundred tarantulas crawling on a roomful of pretty girls! Marins’s slight monobrow in At Midnight… here takes on Groucho-mustache proportions and his long fingernails have become claws. While Coffin Joe was somewhat believable as a small town undertaker in the first film, here he’s lost all connection with reality. He now has a hunchback assistant and mad scientist style mansion complete with underground torture chambers, a far cry from his tiny apartment in Midnight. In the first installment, Joe’s only hint at character motivation was his desire for an heir, and the relative banality of this obsession made it slightly surreal. Here, the obsession is taken to mad, unholy levels as Coffin Joe rhapsodizes endlessly on “the immortality of the blood.”
But what really tips the film over into outright insanity is a 12 minute long dream sequence filmed in color in which Coffin Joe sees himself dragged into hell. It’s one of the very wildest sequences to ever make it into what is ostensibly a mainstream horror movie; Marins’s vision of hell is all bright neon lighting, body parts hanging from plaster walls, and a cackling Satan played by, of course, Marins himself. Words really cannot do this scene justice. Kenneth Anger and Roger Corman would be proud.
It’s hard for me to rank This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse higher than its predecessor, although it’s much more ambitious and reaches greater heights. But after the hell sequence, it’s a bit of a disappointment to return to black and white, especially knowing that the movie sill has another half hour to go. Compared to At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul‘s breathless pace, the sequel can only seem overstuffed.
I might be splitting hairs here. This is one wild, satisfying ride.
SCORE: 9 red, blue, and green color gels out of 10
The next proper Coffin Joe film wouldn’t appear until 2008’s Embodiment of Evil, which I still haven’t seen. In between are several more films in which Coffin Joe outtakes and the occasional new scene were inserted into new footage. The 1970 faux-documentary The Awakening of the Beast is considered the best of these, and hopefully I’ll be seeing it for the first time later this month. Until next time, folks…