At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul introduced the world to Brazilian writer/director Jose Mojica Marins and his alter-ego, Coffin Joe. Mojica Marins, now over 75, is still directing. An incredibly low-budget production, Mojica Marins reportedly had 13 shooting days and 13 rolls of film, the movie has a similar homemade aesthetic to the 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead.
13 rolls of film is equal to approximately 143 total minutes. Considering that the end product of At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is 84 minutes, that gives Mojica Marins less than a 2:1 shooting ratio! To put that into perspective, a modern low-budget film would likely shoot a minimum of 5:1.
The low production values mask some really nice camera work, imaginative sets, and clever, if not cheesy, special effects. Unfortunately the plot, wherein a feared, possibly supernatural gravedigger Ze (Mojica Marins) searches for a woman to bear him a son and murders a variety of people along the way, is as flimsy as the low budget.
Still, Mojica Marins is a man with a vision. His closest antecedent is probably Mario Bava, in the latter’s pre-giallo world. The end of At Midnight, where a maniacal Ze descends into an underground tomb, feels pulled straight from Bava’s Black Sunday, made four years prior:
Not surprisingly, both directors are often accused of being form over content. In a genre that arguably values style over substance, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
It’s clear that Mojica Marins wants to create an iconic character and the introduction of his Ze (Coffin Joe). The film opens on a funeral, and soon after the necessary shot of the casket, cuts to various groupings of funeral-goers, as each group looks up:
These three shots, featuring clustered grouping, serve ends when combined with the following shot, where Ze is introduced. First, they introduce the society as tightly knit. Second, the characters look in different directions – right in the first shot, left in the final two – implying that all are aware of Ze’s presence. Third, their composition is so different from Ze’s that it further implies his separation from them. The next cut introduces Ze:
How great is this frame? It’s almost comical (as with a lot of the film) in his positioning with the hands on hips, straight back, and negative space. The blackness of his costuming overwhelms the surroundings. And he’s just staring back at them, as though he’s been there the whole time. I imagine it’s difficult to introduce an icon to the screen. Think of Michael Myers’ introduction in Halloween, or even Mother’s in Psycho. These are moments that are built heavily off the preceding context, so that, at the point of the literal introduction, there is already enough anticipation that any reveal will be a payoff. This intro of Coffin Joe is sort of like a rudimentary form of those.
As mentioned, Mojica Marins’ camera is pretty well-choreographed. Here’s a shot – one long dolly – as Ze enters his house, pours ether on a rag (from a conveniently labeled bottle), climbs the stairs, and kills his lover:
The craning and dollying camera making up this long take add a sort of slow-burn tension, which is helped by the foreground elements (the railing, the bedpost), and the odd set design (that hand!). Mojica Marins’ film is very much one that relies on the content for its scares and not the frame. Nothing really jumps out. There aren’t any closing mirrors revealing Ze lurking behind the soon-to-be-victim. No, instead, Mojica Marins counts on the pure horror of murder and uses his camera not as scare tactic, but as support for the creeping dread of the narrative.
This long take ends with a nifty transition:
The frame sort of splinters – you can probably do this in iMovie or Final Cut now – and then dissolves to the gagged victim. While this is, in part, a reflection of the production value, it’s also emblematic of the kind of fun that Mojica Marins has with the medium. When later Ze starts to see dead spirits in the woods, the director uses a negative effect:
And also an odd halo-look:
Sure, these look corny today, but in 1964 they hold up and push the idea of a crazed mental state. As importantly, they fit the overall mise-en-scene, where monetary constraints forced Mojica Marins to get his aesthetic across in clever ways.