Sunday, April 19, 2009

At Midnight, I'll Have a Snack (and if I'm still hungry, I'll take your soul)

There’s a place for cheese and I’m not just talking about nachos. At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul is the first entry in the long-running "Coffin Joe" franchise, a collection of low budget Brazilian films that follows an enigmatic mortician as he pisses off townspeople by killing some men, raping some women, and proving that a cape and top hat never go out of style. All in all, it’s an entertaining romp that never really scares but often amuses.

Quick Plot: We begin with not one but two prologues set against thunder and extreme close-ups. First, Coffin Joe himself (writer/director Jose Mojica Marins) spins off some deep and dark philosophy, followed by a Gypsy witch ominously warning us to abandon the theater before it’s too late. Five seconds later, it’s too late and the story gets rolling as Joe prowls through his little village with the power of Monty Burns and the fashion sense of Mr. Hyde. Married but childless, he comforts himself by eating lamb on Holy Friday, whipping bar patrons who question his poker winnings, and lusting after the nice young woman engaged to his best (and understandingly) only friend. All the while, Joe keeps his funeral services in business by occasionally providing his own clients.

Poor CJ. Despite his refreshingly lack of a boggy conscience, the man is bored. Neither God nor Satan seems to want to play, even after he spends an agonizing ten minutes inviting the pair during a dark-and-stormy night rant. Having killed anyone around him that has the guts to engage in conversation, Coffin Joe is forced to make new friends and wait for the return of the souls he's wronged.

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul is something of a cult classic, as it introduced the world to South America’s most charismatic sicko. Jose Mojica Marins' films are still being made today (the most recent, Embodiment of Evil, is newly available on DVD) but this was my personal introduction. As a horror movie, it’s more than dated and fairly weak with no real scare value to keep you up at night. As a piece of entertainment, however, it has an earnest (although a little more disturbing) John Waters-esque sense of camp that is hard to resist. I love an indie whose budget feels scrapped from used sofa cushions, and Coffin Joe's debut is sincere. Any film that uses Elmer’s glue and glitter as a visual effect deserves at least some kind of genuine praise.

High Points
The opening credits are scored to a weird and unsettling mixture of drums and screams, creating the mood for a much more atmospheric film than the one we’re given

I’m a sucker for anything set during Day of the Dead, and Joe’s midnight stroll does get a boost from its time and place

Low Points
Maybe this is addressed in a flashback sequence from subsequent films, but a little explanation of a) what made Joe such a jerk and b) how he still managed to have (an admittedly daft) friend would have given the character something extra

Lessons Learned
Expressive eyebrows will instill a very high level of fear amongst small town barfolk

If your prediction is death, you get a free fortune reading from the local Gypsy witch

Brazilian tarantulas bite very gently

If you’ve never met Coffin Joe, then this is worth a rental. Its minor infamy is a great starting point to a 50+ year series and you have to admire some of the work done with such limited time and resources. One DVD extra is a thorough interview with the chatty (and still long-nailed) director-star, who reveals quite a few details about just how bare bones production really was. I’m curious to see how Joe’s quest for the perfect family evolved over the years, but I’m not about to shuffle the queue just yet. Your life won’t be incomplete if you skip this film, but ff you’re a true horror fan interested in older films with more camp than thrills, then I recommend At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul for a fast and fluffy 90 minutes of popcorn enhanced fun.

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