Transporting the dense fog and menacing shadows of gothic fiction to São Paulo, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul shuns Cinema Novo’s staunch realism, favoring operatic performance and lurid, sanguine images. The thundering force of the sound design, culled from snippets of static-laden moans and warped laughter, creates an agitated atmosphere, bearing a striking resemblance to the sonic overload of a carnival funhouse. Though the milieu is pure horror fantasy, right down to its highly-stylized villain, a chilling sadism bubbles beneath the surface, bridging the gap between the innocuous creature features of the 1950s and the forthcoming wave of brutal exploitation pictures.
Advising his audience to exit the theater before they lay eyes on a decomposing corpse, José Mojica Marins gleefully trades in structural gimmicks, opening his film with two content warnings, each bursting with horrific hyperbole and baleful waves of echo. His lead performance as Zé do Caixão is just as extravagant, sporting a Stygian three-piece suit and towering top hat, each persuasive point of his finger embellished by curled fingernail and demonic cackle.
Refusing to subscribe to the tenets of Catholicism, Zé spurns the communal fast on Good Friday, demanding a dinner of flesh from his browbeaten wife (Valéria Vasquez), even if it requires a human sacrifice. Fiendishly gripping his horned billiard pipe and smirking at the superstitions of the devoted, Zé vigorously dines on a leg of lamb before a passing holiday procession, demonstrating his mental fortitude and freedom from conventional morality. His narcissism has transformed him into a god, expressing an atheistic temperament that would be commendable, if not for his future transgressions.
Zé exposes his corrupt nature during a hand of poker, severing the fingers of a fellow gambler with a splintered wine bottle after he declines to cough up his monetary losses. Marins personifies this fury through a constrictive “Italian shot,” closing in on the whites of Ze’s eyes as they turn bloodshot with rage. The source of this wrath is his wife’s infertility, severing his bloodline and forcing him to seek a more appropriate vessel for his seed. We hear the cold calculation of his thoughts as he binds his loving spouse and plots to covet his best friend’s fiancée, depositing a scurrying tarantula onto the chest of his scantily-clad victim, spawning an uncomfortable marriage of the tortuous and titillating.
A latent eroticism seeps into all of Ze’s methods of execution, each smack of his black-gloved palm and thrust of his pelvis producing a jubilant chuckle and pool of crimson blood. This indifference to human pain and adoration of sexualized cruelty even extends to his male counterparts, making his desecration of a detractor’s lips and cheek with a miniature crown of thorns an intriguing merger of the prurient and sacrilegious.
Unfortunately, a whirlwind of supernatural retribution falls upon Zé do Caixão during a nocturnal stroll, contradicting the boldness of his practical atheism and validating blind faith. Political unrest and audience allegiances may have twisted José Mojica Marins’ arm in the opposite direction for his finale, but the strength of his inspired direction and profane protagonist are enough to ensure absolution, solidifying At Midnight as a startlingly modern and antagonistic vision of ideological autonomy.
At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (Industria Cinematografica Apolo, 1964)
Directed by José Mojica Marins
Written by José Mojica Marins (story and screenplay), Magda Mei (screenplay) and Waldomiro França (screenplay)
Photographed by Giorgia Attili