Here is Coffin Joe (José Mojica Marins) to tell us all that life is the beginning of death and death the beginning of life and the continuity of blood the reason to exist. After that is cleared up, a witch appears and warns us not to watch this film or else... or else at midnight she will take your soul! Ah, it's too late, you cannot leave now, you must watch the rest of this, which is the tale of Coffin Joe, a gravedigger whose main purpose in life was to intimidate his fellow townsfolk and blaspheme. Such as today, a holy Friday where meat is forbidden: Joe is having none of this and demands his wife find him some lamb to eat...
It all started here for Coffin Joe, or Zé do Caixão as he was known in his native Brazil, although his creator José Mojica Marins had been making films for a few years. This is the one which brought him success and notoriety as he cashed in on new and relaxed censorship laws in his home country, which meant his violence and sacrilege as mapped out in this effort could be seen in any state that didn't choose to ban it. Now he was the talk of the land, and watching this initial instalment today you can only imagine what the general reaction would have been.
There cannot have been much like At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul, or À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma as it was called in Portuguese, around in 1964, as it revels in its main character's evildoing; we are well aware he will be punished for it by the end, but Marins set about the role he co-wrote with inordinate gusto. The Coffin Joe costume was set in stone here: the top hat, the black suit and cape, and the long fingernails, with Marins' visage bearing an unusual resemblance to what British viewers of a certain age will recall as Timothy Claypole from Rentaghost. Joe is far more despicable than Mr Claypole, of course.
Among the antics he gets up to is cheating at cards then cutting off the fingers of his opponent with a broken bottle when he won't hand over the winnings, but his chief mission in life is to continue his bloodline. His wife, Lenita (Valéria Vasquez), cannot bear him children, so he has to work out a method of making babies, sons preferably, that does not involve his missus. Easy enough to do: simply tie her up and set a poisonous tarantula on her, making it look as if she was accidentally bitten by the spider, thereby letting Joe off the hook. Now he can set his sights on Terezinha (Magda Mei), his friend's girlfriend, whether she wants him to or not.
It's interesting that there is no real hero in this film to stand up against Coffin Joe, as he pretty much gets to bully anyone he chooses without fear of retribution until the climax. There's a scene where a potential good guy attempts to stop the campaign of intimidation, but ends up with a crown of thorns from a Christ statuette in his face for his bravery, summing up the film's blasphemy and wickedness in one neat shot. It has to be said, the film is such a low budget and hokey experience that its power to shock has diminished from its original scandalous appearance, but you can still enjoy this as a "man you love to hate" style of over the top terrors. Marins took such obvious glee in being controversial that his enthusiasm is infectious, and by the time the forces of light have banished his darkness, you'll be wanting to see more of this character, which is just as well considering how many returns he made. Music by Salatiel Coelho and Hermínio Gimienez.
[Anchor Bay's Region 2 Coffin Joe box set includes this film and eight others.]