At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964)
Brazil has a long, rich cinematic history. Unfortunately, like most Americans, I know nothing about it. It's a huge, diverse country, and no more a monolithic culture than the United States. I am sure that Brazil has had its Buñuel, Godard or Fellini, but unfortunately when it comes to movies outside of the U.S. it is usually Europe and Asia that gets the notice.
The one Brazilian director I am familiar with is José Mojica Marins, and it may be surprising that I have seen other movies of his outside of the Coffin Joe films that made him famous. Somehow, although Brazil was under a brutal military dictatorship during the height of his career, Marins thrived despite running into problems in some Brazilian states for perceived blasphemy. The blasphemy was part of the character of Zé do Caixão, an evil undertaker in a black hat with long fingernails who was constantly on the prowl for a woman to bear him a son. Although there are only three movies in the original trilogy the character appeared in a number of Marins's films, as well as hosting horror movies on television. Not bad for a man that modestly wrote, directed and starred in Brazil's first horror film.
Zé do Caixão runs a mortuary in a small Brazilian village. Despite the services he provides everyone fears him, as he is stronger than even most of the working men and has a violent temper. He constantly rails against the Catholic church, declaring not only his atheism but his opposition to God if there is one. Because they fear him they turn a blind eye as he gets away with brutal violence and even murder, being clever enough to not leave any evidence behind for the police. His one desire in the world is to have a son as he believes that, through his offspring, he can achieve a sort of immortality.
This last reaches a head when he begins to lust after Terezinha (Magda Mei), the fiancé of his best friend Antônio (Nivaldo Lima). What stands in his way is his own wife Lenita (Valéria Vasquez), whom he despises because she is barren. In order to get what he wants Zé plans a series of murders, being careful to make them all look like accidents. However, his plans fail to bring about the desired results and, unfortunately for him, the dead are often restless and not so forgiving.
Another actor was hired to play Zé do Caixão but, for whatever reason, bowed out at the last minute. Marins, with his trademark long thumbnails, was given long, pointed nails to match, thus completing the ensemble along with his old-fashioned suit and top-hat. Marins completely inhabits the role from the first words uttered while staring directly at the camera, so it is no wonder that the character became as popular as it did. It's a performance one does not easily forget.
The movie built around him is surprisingly effective given budget restrictions and the fact that, except for a few exterior shots, everything was done within a 600 square foot studio. That includes the cemetery, the shots between houses, exteriors and interiors of houses, and the bar where a lot of action takes place. It does have an old-fashioned feel, almost like a 1930s Universal film, particularly with the intro of the witch with a papier mache skull introducing the movie at the beginning. From there on, however, Marins's influence from Italian and Spanish horror films is evident, as it pushes the envelope on violence.
The bravest thing, however, was to make Zé do Caixão the protagonist in the picture. Normally there would be heroes fighting against such a villain. In this case he just gets more and more arrogant, blasphemous and despicable as the film goes on. The moral compass is still with his victims, but he is one of the best villains to ever grace the screen, and it is sad that outside of Brazil he is not more well-known.
It is a fascinating movie to watch, with the overacting of the woman who plays the witch (she is integral to the story, not just a cheesy intro gimmick) and the true pain and suffering Magda Mei puts into Terezinha. While the bigger budgets may have helped Marins indulge a bit more in the sequels, nothing equals Zé indulgently eating lamb on Friday by his front window as a religious procession goes by. I may not know anything about classic Brazilian cinema, but I do know horror films, and At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul is one of the best ever made in any part of the world.
At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964)
Time: 84 minutes
Starring: José Mojica Marins, Magda Mei, Nivaldo Lima, Valéria Vasquez
Director: José Mojica Marins