At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (José Mojica Marins / Brazil, 1964):
(Ŕ Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma)

The birth of Brazilian horror as a direct act of blasphemy (the crown of thorns from a Jesus figurine becomes a tool for mutilation), set up against the conformism of both nation and cinema. José Mojica Marins opens with a gnomic soliloquy, creating Zé do Caixăo before the camera with Wellesian beard, top hat, cape, and extended talons. The satanic boulevardier is a grave-digger and grave-defiler, he lords it over the superstitious townsfolk and does a spit-take upon hearing of the lack of meat during Good Friday: "Today I feast on flesh, even if it's human flesh!" Zé believes in nothing other than perpetuating his lineage, but his wife (Valéria Vasquez) is barren and, as such, fit to be "death's mistress," tied down with a spider set upon her décolletage. A chortling desecrator, the protagonist proclaims himself a "free man," rebelling against rules, symbols, and belief itself; when his friend (Nivaldo Lima) counters with an ode to God and virtue, Zé blithely reaches for his fire poker and then for his pal's fiancée (Magda Mei). It would be easy to envision the wicked bully as a stand-in for Brazil's oppressive, newly installed military dictatorship, if it weren't for the way Mojica Marins perversely sees the razzing character (and, by extension, himself) as a slash-and-burn liberator, downright De Sadean in his faith in depravity. Morality is annihilated, transgression is exalted -- a confrontational close-up makes Mei's mauled mouth as bizarrely erotic as Barbara Steele's punctured face in Black Sunday, a note from Renoir's A Day in the Country is adduced in the midst of her ravishment as her hand crushes a small bird. Opposing the humanism of Vidas Secas and the restrictions of the coup d'etat, Mojica Marins instead posits a land governed by Poe, Shamanic gypsies out of The Wolf Man's, and a bottomless supply of ecstatic cruelty. Zé do Caixăo receives the mandatory comeuppance, only to return slyer, nastier, and more threatening to societal piety. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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