After having too much fun celebrating Women in Horror Month here at CineDump, I’ve decided to keep that sweet thematic train rolling with my own mini-celebration of Hispanic-Latino films (more to come in September). To start things off in style, I bring you none other than Coffin Joe, the villainous undertaker, aspiring Nietzschean Superman, proto-Jigsaw torture master, and sharp dresser extraordinaire.
That’s right, America, Brazil was doing misogynistic bastards with killer fashion sense long before Freddy “Welcome to Primetime, Bitch” Krueger and his iconic sweater.
But who is Coffin Joe? If you’ve never heard of him, I almost literally cannot contain my joy at getting to tell you. His creator Jose Mojica Marins (who also portrays Joe in all three films and its many spin-offs) first dreamed him in a disturbing nightmare while working on a social issues flick about juvenile delinquents. It was 1963 in Brazil and a horror movie had never been made in there, that is until Marins woke up, washed off those night sweats, scrapped his Clockwork Orange schtick, and slapped on some razor-edged press-on nails. Oh yes, looks can kill.
I waxed oh-so-poetic about the amazing strangeness that can come from a culture’s first exposure to horror in my review for Mattie Do’s fabulous “Dearest Sister” and Marins was proving my thesis way back in the 1960s. The film has a flavor and identity that is distinctly different from American and European horror films of the time, and the murderous Coffin Joe, became a stand-in for all that the creator saw as evil within his culture and himself.
The movie’s plot is Hobesian, which is to say: nasty, brutish, and short. Set in a small village, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, the first of Coffin Joe’s many appearances, tells the savage tale of Ze de Caixao, the town’s undertaker, and his quest for a child. The village where Ze (or Joe) lives is devoutly religious and this annoys the virulently atheistic, Europhile Ze to distraction. When he’s not busy burying the town’s dead, he delights in trolling the locals: eating meat (lamb no less) on Friday, spouting blasphemous diatribes, and picking bar fights that sometimes end in an unlucky eye-gouge for the less-stylishly clawed participant. Ze only wants a child because he believes he is a superior human and desperately wants to pass on his “extraordinary” genes, but he’s constantly frustrated in this aim. His wife loves Ze and wants to give him a child, but he claims she is barren. He scorns all of her affection, and eventually kills her via a method that will become one of the series’ trademarks. Next, he sets his sights on the fiancee of the only man in town crazy enough to be his friend, Antonio. The rest of the film sees the wicked Ze caught in a trap of his own design as the religion and traditions he spurned come back to get revenge in unexpected ways.
Marins, the creator of Coffin Joe, endows his monster with enough cultural anxiety, a hefty book (or egregiously long blog post) could be written about it. The fear and insecurity around the idea of the Brazilian identity is one of the most profound aspects of the film. Ze sticks out like rotting thumb among his traditionally clad neighbors, sporting a Count Dracula style get-up complete with gaudy neck pin. His clothing is distinctly European, and this fits the contemptuous Ze. From his top hat to his long nails, Ze proudly sets himself apart from his neighbors and their “backward” ways. There’s a little grim humor in that Ze believes himself to be the great Ubermensch vaguely described in Nietzsche, and looks pretty fearsome to the people he terrorizes, but to an outsider he more resembles a child playing dress-up, becoming a silly caricature of the thing he admires.
But Ze adopts more than the clothing of an Enlightenment era aristocrat, he embraces the philosophy and morality of that time as well. While most movies about clashes of faith in claustrophobic small towns show the devout as closed-minded fanatics, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul turns this cliche on its overworn ear. The people of Ze’s village are certainly religious, but they don’t push their faith on others or even work to enforce the social norms of Catholicism. Yes, they’re scandalized by Ze’s flamboyant blasphemy, but it’s not until the second film (where the true extent of his evil is revealed) that the villagers take up arms against him. In contrast, Ze is a zealot for his beliefs, murdering or mutilating anyone who opposes him. Ze’s lack of Christian faith is the catalyst and motivator of his crimes, because he sees people as tools, he uses them as such. The film’s climax takes place on Day of the Dead, and the image of Dracula suited Ze being overpowered by the spirits of the deceased is a powerful one. European evil and philosophy is brutally brought down by the pure faith and spirituality of the people Ze hates so much.
At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is a rare treat: a look at the birth of a culture’s entire horror aesthetic achieved in an elegant hour and thirty minutes. Full of violence, sex, curses, and blood, Marins gave his countrymen and women a beautifully traumatic introduction to horror. But this vicious aesthetic was the right bloody midwife to rip the Brazilian horror industry scared and screaming into the delights of genre.