Zé do Caixão, a unibrowed, cape-wearing, atheist mortician, is the terror of his small town. Everyone is afraid of him and his anti-Catholic ideas, and he beats the residents for his own enjoyment. Disappointed that his wife is barren, and obsessed with immortality via a perfect son (hey, what atheist isn’t?), Zé murders her and rapes his best friend’s fiancée (why this guy has a friend is beyond me). While he carries out his vile deeds, he drops into soliloquy mode again and again and again. The subject of his never ending speeches: There is no God, no Devil, and man is supreme. He doesn’t back this up, but he does say it a lot.
Coffin Joe, as the lead character’s name was inaccurately translated into English (though not in the subtitles where he’s always called Zé), is a horror icon in his native Brazil. This does not say good things about horror in Brazil. Apparently, Brazilians are frightened of guys who won’t shut up. Or maybe they are terrified by poor film stock and muffled sound (but the hissing and crackling has a nice, full-bodied tone). This is amateur filmmaking, but history sometimes promotes the unworthy.
In 1964, Brazil’s national censorship board had only recently been disbanded (leaving it up to local areas to ban films) and homegrown horror movies were unknown. The Catholic church was extremely powerful with its fingers in everything, a situation that hasn’t changed that much over the years. Director and accidental star, José Mojica Marins, had already had his work banned for containing hard to see nudity and for only being pro-religion instead of being ecstatically pro-religion. In this environment, and with no money and not much knowledge of filmmaking, Marins created the first Brazilian horror film.
What so shocked audiences and the priests, besides the not-too-graphic killings, was the blasphemy that Joe spouted. I doubt that Freddy Krueger eating meat on Friday would count as one of his evil deeds, but it did for Joe. It is an indication of just how lock-stepped the country was with the church, that having any character, even the villain, being an atheist was unacceptable. Joe spends most of his screen time, and he’s seldom off screen, railing against superstition, Catholicism, and God. Since everything is seen from his perspective, he manages to drum up some empathy from most viewers. And while his philosophical position is defenseless (his attacks on religion amount to nothing more than name calling, and his own belief in the superiority of mankind and immortality through a perfect child is no more reasonable than the ideas he derides), atheism is given some clout through sheer strength. Faith gives the villagers nothing. All of the believers are weak nobodies and the Church, often called upon by characters to stop Joe, can do nothing. By merely challenging their blindly held beliefs, Joe defeats them.
But this is no pro-atheist movie. Joe is all the things extreme fundamentalists believe of atheists. He has no morality, no conscious, no ability to love, and his only motivation is his desire to procreate. In the end, he can’t stand up to either is own inherent doubts or to the power of God (it’s a bit vague).
In 1964 Brazil, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul may have been heretical filmmaking, but it is heresy in support of a mildly different attitude in the worship of the Christian god.
Coffin Joe would return many times in short films, anthologies, and comic books. His second feature, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, is even more religious.