À Meia Noite Levarei Sua Alma
***½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B
starring José Mojica Marins, Magda Mei, Nivaldo Lima, Valeria Vasquez
written and directed by José Mojica Marins
Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver
***/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring José Mojica Marins, Roque Rodrigues, Nadia Freitas, William Morgan
written and directed by José Mojica Marins
by Alice Stoehr Zé do Caixão, known to English-speaking audiences as Coffin Joe, is like Mr. Hyde without a Dr. Jekyll. Although nominally a small-town undertaker, he has the mien and rap sheet of a supervillain. Attired in top hat and cape, he stalks the countryside, bent on perpetuating his bloodline. He luxuriates in his own depravity. He's a horror-movie monster, and he loves it. Joe is the brainchild of Brazilian filmmaker José Mojica Marins, who's been playing the role for decades. He introduced the character back in the 1960s with a pair of colourfully-titled films: At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul and, three years later, This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse. Both of those phrases are threats spoken onscreen by Joe's victims; both hint at ghostly mischief and a lurid tone. Unhindered by understatement, these films dispense atrocities at the rate of about one per reel. Joe's first evil act, mere minutes into Soul, is blasphemy: he spends Good Friday noshing on a leg of lamb--an unthinkable sin to his pious Catholic neighbours--then, like a schoolyard bully, forces an unwilling bystander to take a bite. Further iniquities pile up quickly in the form of bullwhipping, blinding, and immolation. When an elder dares to challenge him, Joe lacerates the man's face with a Christ figurine's crown of thorns.
For all his open malice, Coffin Joe's countrymen initially regard him as an indiscreet eccentric, not a demon in the flesh. Even after he poisons his wife and drowns his best friend, the authorities hold back for lack of evidence. Patrons of the town's tavern may come to fulminate over his wanton cruelty but are too cowed to pursue vigilante justice. Joe fears no earthly power. What he dreads is the realm of the spirits. Fazed by a soothsayer's predictions, he wanders the wilderness and paces his home. "Nothing's stronger than my disbelief!" he howls at the heavens in an echoing voice. "Destroy me!" He rants and raves like a grindhouse Macbeth, in furious denial of his obvious terror. Marins seizes these outbursts as showcases for his own repugnant charisma. The auteur-star photographs Joe's agonies and homicidal rages with an emphasis on his distinctive face. Extreme close-ups leave little choice but to witness each hair in his twitching unibrow and each of the veins that spiderweb his eyes. As an actor, he's a slab of ham, yet he varies his expressions of delirious hatred just enough to keep Soul's crime-then-punishment plot from turning stale.
This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse follows much the same narrative pattern, with Joe sowing terror and bloodshed 'til finally he reaps a grisly revenge. Its structure, however, is a little more ornate, and it runs nearly half-an-hour longer. Soul feels like a homegrown folktale, while Corpse hews closer to the gore operas of Mario Bava and Herschell Gordon Lewis. Still desperate for an heir, Joe kidnaps several women and subjects them to salvos of spiders and snakes. The traces of prurience in the first movie (where a shimmering dissolve elides an act of sexual violence) grow more overt here; the camera leers unpleasantly at panties and sheer nightgowns. The story zigzags into melodrama as a young woman takes an unlikely shine to Joe's crudeness, then dies before she can give birth to his child. A local bruiser named Truncador, played by Vin Diesel look-alike Antonio Fracari, also steers a subplot of his own. Cheated repeatedly by Joe, he rallies a mob of townsfolk and chases his nemesis into a swamp. This comeuppance, especially when coupled with Joe's new mansion and underground lab, calls to mind Poverty Row horror films from decades earlier. They're old-fashioned trappings infused with an aggressive and au courant disdain for taboo.
The most experimental and sublime sequence in Corpse travels with Joe down through a crack in the earth for an 8-minute trip to Hell. The film suddenly breaks from crisp black-and-white into garish Eastmancolor as the pyjama-clad villain stumbles past rows upon rows of the shrieking damned. Bloody limbs protrude from a ceiling like stalactite. Nauseating greens, reds, and blues flood the walls of this winding cavern; the soundtrack is a collective moan interrupted only by blasts of smoke and flame. The women Joe has killed rise to confront him, and as they approach, he wakes from his nightmare like Scrooge out of a Kenneth Anger Christmas Carol. This segment's infernal corridors are but one (albeit superlative) example of Marins and his collaborators applying their imaginations in the absence of an effects budget. Phony thunderclaps, puffs of vapour from a fog machine, lousy backdrops simulating the night sky: these tools sustain an atmosphere of unreality. Soul even climaxes with a ghost whose spectral aura was drawn in glitter directly onto the 35mm film, and that ghost's glaring fakeness fits right in with the film's other transgressions. The mile-a-minute plotting, over-the-top violence, and Marins's larger-than-life performance all exist beside that ghost on the same plane of excess. Welcome to the rough and heightened world of Coffin Joe.
Synapse has opted to reissue At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul and This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse on DVD alone because the licensors would only provide the company with standard-definition materials, but it's worth noting that the 1.33:1 transfers on these discs were supervised by Marins himself and sourced from 35mm scans of the original negatives. At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul looks a little rougher than ideal. Due to shallow blacks and flickers of grey along the edge of the frame, its night-drenched scenery loses some seedy detail. A persistent crackling also plagues the crowded soundtrack (presented, like the sequel, in two-channel mono). At its worst, it renders the Portuguese-language dialogue a bit fuzzy. This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, on the other hand, is totally unblemished--the sound is immaculate, and even the dark gradations in the fur on a tarantula's back come through crystal clear. The primary colours of Hell look tart enough to lick right off the screen.
Synapse clearly intends these DVDs for fans of the series and has stocked them heavily with Coffin Joe miscellanies. (They released a third DVD as well, featuring the character's 2008 comeback Embodiment of Evil, but did not make it available for review.) In-character intros from Coffin Joe accompany both films (Midnight's runs two minutes, Corpse's four), and Midnight boasts two trailers, while Corpse offers only one but adds a gallery of stills. Talking-heads with the now-octogenarian Marins fall under Interviews (7 mins. and 8 mins., respectively) and Makings-of (10 mins./8 mins.). Brandishing his claw-like nails, Marins supplies useful information about his origins in São Paulo and his repeated clashes with the church. Anecdotes spread across the platters recount a lengthy career as a horror maverick. "Joe really gave me good luck," he notes with eerie pride. On Midnight, Marins also spends 8 minutes discussing his short film Reino Sangrento, while Corpse includes "A Visit to the Coffin Joe Museum" (4 mins.) and a vintage featurette called "The Universe of Mojica Marins" (25 mins.), both of which are dominated by the inveterate showman. The appeal of these segments depends on the viewer's tolerance for Marins, because he loves to talk about himself. Not a single independent voice intrudes. This leaves the set feeling a little superficial despite its wealth of featurettes. For better and for worse, these discs acts as a narrow gateway into a spellbinding filmography.