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At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul

À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma

José Mojica Marins

Brazil, 1964

Credits

Review by Glenn Heath Jr.

Posted on 22 October 2013

Source Anchor Bay DVD

Categories 31 Days of Horror X

Brazilian auteur José Mojica Marins might have inherited his filmmaking talents directly from the devil himself. How else can one explain the horror maestro’s innate ability to represent acts of mesmerizing brutality and ideological fanaticism with such effortless cinematic glee? An undeniable (and terrifying) charge of energy runs through Marins’ off-kilter and confrontational compositions. But whether this stylistic vitality exists to critique the evil acts being perpetrated on screen or simply relish in their heinousness is constantly in question.

In 1964’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, Marins introduces his alter ego Zé do Caixão (loosely translated in English as ‘Coffin Joe’) for the first time in a fittingly maniacal direct address monologue. “What is life? It is the beginning of death. What is existence? The continuity of blood,” howls Zé, staring so intensely into the camera that the viewer can’t help but cower back into their chair to ensure a safer distance. Here, we get a clear indication of the madness motivating this diabolical character that will commit multiple murders in order to sustain his bloodline.

Seconds later the film segues into a bizarre credits sequence where characters are introduced in striking close-ups during their eventual death scene. Not only do these flash-forwards mark every soul in At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul as pre-damned, they speak to Marins’ affinity for dark foreshadowing. There’s not a more frightening image in the film than the context-less shot of an obscenely large tarantula crawling over the soft skin of a gagged and restrained woman shaking with fear.

An undertaker perpetually dressed in a black hat and cape that compliments his thick beard and lengthy fingernails, Zé seems to be living in his own heightened version of an Edgar Allen Poe story. Abhorrent of religious symbols and doctrine, he takes every opportunity to shun popular belief systems by overtly defying their institutional guidelines. Upon seeing a town procession honoring Holy Friday, his lip quivers with rage. Later, not only does he purposefully eat meat, which stands at odds with church custom on this particular day, Zé forces another man to do so as well, cackling at the power he holds over God’s children.

In this sense, Zé is a terrorist. He flagrantly taints public spaces with his pagan views and intimidating tactics, turning innocent bystanders into his own helpless servants. Take for instance an early scene inside a cozy tavern, where denizens chat loudly while playing cards and drinking, that is until Zé appears at the top of the stairs. His mere presence drains all the life out of a room. Making himself comfortable at a poker table, he worms his way into the game and proceeds to bully the players incessantly. When one brave man fails to remove his hand from covering the pot of winnings, Zé breaks a wine bottle and cuts off his fingers, leaving the currency stained with blood.

Because it is inextricably tethered to a madman, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul envisions the world as a skewed and nightmarish place. In terms of production design, Zé’s apartment looks as if were decorated by a mental patient; creepy hand sculptures jettison out from nearly every wall, reaching out as if they were lethal extensions of their owner. The film’s editing style is completely fragmented by insane transitions, including wipes that spin the frame upside down and animated cross-dissolves. Not only is the narrative under Zé’s control, it appears that the filmmaking process has been hijacked by him as well.

Taking this into consideration, it’s clear that Marins wants to blur the line between artistic form and character, inhabiting both with the same tenacious verve for the grotesque. The result is something gloriously akin to religious blasphemy, a film that often sides with a monster brazenly convinced of his powerful omniscience. That is until the wonderfully stretched out final sequence that finds Zé calculatingly tortured by spirits in exactly the same fashion a gypsy witch had foretold moments earlier.

Here, Zé is pursued by supernatural forces until he loses his mind, but only once does a phantasm invade the frame. Instead, Marins utilizes layered sound design to slowly build doubt in his alter ego’s increasingly damaged confidence. The deafening ring of a church bell puts an exclamation point on the notion that God has finally taken a permanent interest in this earth-bound sinner, one who for the longest time has flung his murderous deeds in the face of the almighty.

Still, the fact that Marins brought Zé back for more films despite his demise in At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul makes this morally righteous ending far more complex and potentially problematic in hindsight. For an evil this pervasive and infectious to rise up again speaks volumes about its creator’s fascination with nefarious inspiration, logic be damned.

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