There’s horror and there’s horror. Pretty obvious, right? Or not. When we get into this whole issue of genre, we see it’s anything but clear. I’ve been watching horror and science fiction films and TV shows for, let’s say, a very long time, and we at the Tates Creek Classic Horror Film Club have watched a batch of horror flicks over the last 6 or more years. One thing I’ve learned is that when you say horror, it can mean a lot of different things.
Okay, I’m rambling my way into the topic, but I’ll get there eventually.
One definition of a horror movie that I’ve read (or made up) before says that it produces a feeling of horror. So, let’s start fresh by heading to the ‘net for a quick definition. Merriam-Webster, the online version, says, among other things, that horror is defined by “a very strong feeling of fear, dread, and shock.” Hmm, they used the word ‘and’ in that sentence. Does that mean I have to feel all three emotions for a horror film to be truly classified as a horror film? If so, many horror movies would fail on that account.
We’ve watched horror films with classic monsters such as Frankenstein’s creature (although in some of the Frankenstein movies it’s not the creature who is the monster, it’s the doctor who made him), werewolves, mummies, ghosts, vampires, and zombies, and whereas they frightened audiences at one time, most of the times they no longer scare us. Unless a mood is created.
Last night we watched Brazil’s first horror movie, a low-budget shocker called At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. With this film, we pushed into rougher waters than we’ve been in for a while. It’s edgy, a true horror film, but a little hard to watch for some folks. A lot of times, no matter the movie, our crew makes comments, sometimes humorous. Not this one. We were all stone quiet, totally involved. Though a bit disturbing, it was an excellent film.
Comparing it to other films we’ve seen in the past, it’s up there with Night of the Living Dead as far as true horror, or Island of Lost Souls as far as some real jaw-dropping horror moments. With Night, though, it’s flesh-munching zombies; Island it’s a mad doctor with his animal-to-human experiments. But one thing that Island shares with At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is the human monster side of things. A common thread I’ve seen with many horror films is the human element, the human monster, produces the most horrific, frightening, and unforgettable moments.
Let’s look at some monster movies that are known for scaring the s**t out of us. Alien. The Exorcist. Jaws (yes, among other things, it’s a horror movie). The Mist. Cloverfield. All of these cross genres, but they all have a monster or monsters, whether it’s an alien beastie, demon, killer shark, or something we just can’t figure out. But there’s always that feeling of unreality. Plus an Us vs Them sense that no matter how bad things look, or how high the body count goes, we’ll finally get enough firepower, willpower, or just plain orneriness to squash the beasties.
But for real horror, human monsters are the scariest and most disturbing. Dr. Moreau as so creepily played by Charles Laughton in Island is much worse than any of his creations. He’s sadistic and cruel. The Fredric March version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is terrifying because he enters the realm of psychological horror. And last night’s bad guy from Brazil, Zé do Caixão, or as he is also known, Coffin Joe, takes us at full gallop into the brutally sadistic world of human horror. Is there a supernatural side to the film? Can’t tell you. But I can tell you that the character of Zé, played so unendearingly repulsive by writer/director/actor José Mojica Marins is one none of us will forget. An undertaker with a dark side, he’s as human as the rest of us, but then again, he’s also inhuman. And not in a supernatural sense. Wearing all black, with a cloak and top hat, he’s an undertaker who never seems to do any actual undertaking, although he’s always at the funeral, most of the time, for people he’s killed in the community.
Zé wants one thing above all else – a child. Problem is, he needs someone who’ll have a child with him, and that’s the difficult part because Zé is definitely not a nice guy. At all. He doesn’t like you, he’ll just stamp you out of existence. Why doesn’t anyone stop Zé? Well, pretty much the entire town is afraid of him, and the local gendarmes are ineffective or just don’t care, so Zé gets away with, yeah, you guessed it. Murder.
Zé is also a blasphemer and is condescending towards anyone of the Catholic faith, which is the whole town. This, and the fact that the character is sadistically brutal are the main reasons why the censorship boards in Brazil wouldn’t let Marins’s movie play everywhere. Still, according to what I’ve read, audiences loved it. The character of Zé became their Freddy Krueger, or Jason. Big difference is that he’s human, and that’s what makes this character so disturbing. Much more disturbing than, say, a werewolf or creature assembled from spare parts. Hand me my silver bullets and I’ll square off against the wolfman, but Zé? Nope.
Still, this is an important film to study. It’s another example of what can be accomplished with very little money. The studio was only 600 square feet. There were exterior shots, but they got more out of that 600 square feet of space than bigger studios. Great camerawork and over-the-top acting made the movie feel large. And you have to admire the crew’s determination. They got in trouble with local authorities when they chopped down some trees to create the film’s “forest”. Gotta hand it to them — it was a good-looking forest.
Zé is one of those bizarrely outlandish characters that we’ll always remember. But he wasn’t the only one. There was a Gypsy woman, Velha Bruxa, who taunted Zé throughout the movie, and she was just perfect. Great witch-like cackle. Played so effectively by Eucaris Moraes, she only acted in four movies that I could find.
That’s enough for now. More on Midnight later.
‘til next time…Adios.