Introducing Coffin Joe In Brazil’s First Horror Film

Coffin Joe in At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul

When it comes to Latin American cinema, Brazil has one of the longest active filmographies in the horror genre. Modern films like The Nightshifter, Good Manners, and Bacurau have been entering discussions within the horror community. According to writer Natalia Barrenha in their piece Hungry Final Girls: Brazilian Horror Films in the 21st Century’, the recent growth within Brazilian horror can be partly accredited to the release of Embodiment of Evil in 2008, the final entry in the Coffin Joe trilogy. This would be the second time a film featuring the iconic Coffin Joe helped jumpstart the horror genre within Brazil.

Who Is Brazil’s National Boogeyman?

While you may be unfamiliar with the name Zé de Caixão—or Coffin Joe in English—his character is iconic within Latin America. Coffin Joe is arguably South America’s most recognizable horror character in place of El Santo in North America. Just like El Santo, both of these characters jumped off the screens and became cultural icons. El Santo is most famously known for never removing his mask until his final public appearance in a television interview. José Mojiaca Marins who created and played Coffin Joe took a similar approach. Coffin Joe was more than a character within Brazilian cinema. Marins took his character outside of the films and into the streets.

Coffin Joe soon became a cultural icon with the introduction of the show Além, Muito Além do Além (Beyond, Far Beyond the Beyond). In the series, José Mojiaca Marins hosted in character as Coffin Joe. The show was dedicated to presenting short horror stories by screenwriter Ruben Luchetti. The stories of Coffin Joe also appear in several comic books and music videos. Thus, Coffin Joe became Brazil’s National Boogeyman.

At The Brink Of A Fascist State

The introduction to Brazil’s National Boogeyman was with the release of the country’s first horror film At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. It’s important to note the country’s political climate at that time to fully understand director Marin’s perspective. The filming of At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul took place in 1963 and was released on November 9th, 1964. 

During the 1960s, Brazil saw a lot of political change. The administration at the time was led by President João Goulart who was in office from 1961 to 1964. During this time, Goulart was public about his leftist ideals through his Reformas de Base (Base Reforms) which included agricultural, financial, and educational reforms that favored the poor and working class.

This of course received backlash from the upper class, the military, and, the conservative Catholic community. Goulart also managed to aggravate the United States by continuing Brazil’s relationship with Cuba during the Cold War. All of this led to a military coup led by the United States and placed Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco in power. This started a military-run state that lasted decades. With Brazil being on the brink of a dictatorship and leaning towards a more god-fearing conservative ideology, it’s no surprise At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul denounces all forms of organized religion.

Coffin Joe’s Atheist Perspective

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is a film that wears its themes on its sleeves. José Mojiaca Marins doesn’t hide his atheist perspective. Instead, he hands it to the audience on a silver platter. He does, however, give the viewers a warning before the beginning of the film via a fortune teller appearing on screen. Behind her is a room adorned with skulls, spider webs, and other gothic decorations. Let’s keep in mind the relationship between the gothic ambiance and Catholic imagery. The Romanian woman breaks the fourth wall and continues about how the film takes courage to watch. This sequence feels as if we are watching something traditional and familiar. Almost as if the story will be about God overcoming evil entities and won’t delve into depravity. Only, this is where the traditional influences stop and the film enters into constant sadistic acts. 

But before everything, we also get a small monologue with the introduction of Coffin Joe. He states, 

“What is life? It is the beginning of death. What is death? It is the end of life. What is existence? It is the continuity of blood. What is blood? It is the reason to exist!”

 Coffin Joe’s ideals are front and center. He does not care about life or death but simply to stay immortal through his offspring, his blood. Afterall, this is the plot behind the film. In between these uncomfortable acts towards women and men in the rural village, he attempts to find the “perfect” woman who will bear him a son. 

The film strays away from your typical style of cinematic storytelling and instead presents vignettes of Coffin Joe’s daily life. The majority of the film follows him and how he antagonizes the locals and their religious beliefs. One of the first condescending acts he does towards the village is during the ritual of Holy Friday.

During this time, it’s forbidden to eat any kind of meat. So what does Coffin Joe do? He orders his girlfriend Lenita (Valéria Vasquez) to bring him some lamb. As the rest of the village walks down the road in a ritualistic manner, Coffin Joe sits at eye level to purposefully show off his blasphemous act to the whole village. His antics with the lamb don’t end there. Later he goes to a bar and insists on one of the locals to eat the piece of lamb with him. The local refuses and Coffin Joe turns aggressive as he won’t take no for an answer. These two scenes with the lamb are important because they depict how deep the locals are into their faith.

There are plenty of other instances within the film where Coffin Joe challenges the religious beliefs of everyone around him. One of them also shows the true colors of his character. Towards the beginning of the second act, we find Coffin Joe at his best friend Antônio’s (Nivaldo Lima) house. During a drink among two friends, Antônio states how he doesn’t understand the rebellious nature of Coffin Joe. In another monologue, Coffin Joe rants about how the only thing worth believing in is life itself through children. Everything else is fabricated through manmade superstition and useless symbols. He then proceeds to kill his best friend in cold blood as he feels Antônio’s fiancee Terezinha (Magda Mei) is the perfect woman to carry his son. 

This is Coffin Joe in a nutshell. He’s a ruthless sadist with a thirst for blood, destruction for organized religion, and challenging the status quo. By modern standards Coffin Joe doesn’t necessarily scare viewers anymore and his character comes off as obnoxious at times. But in 1960 Brazil, when over 90 percent of the population were practicing Catholics, Coffin Joe was a character going against any and all religious ideologies. This garnered him his reputation and through him, Brazilian horror cinema has been able to prosper. 



Sign up for The Harbinger a Dread Central Newsletter