Martin Scorsese’s subtle talent for horror

scorsese horror in 1976's Taxi Driver
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Across a career lasting more than 50 years, Martin Scorsese has created some shocking imagery worthy of the darkest horror films. 

NB: The following contains spoilers for Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Casino and to a lesser extent Shutter Island.

Even today, the scene has the power to shock. New York loner Travis Bickle, head shaved into a mohawk, fists clenched, marches up to a rundown building, pulls a gun, and starts shooting. What follows is a blood-drenched fever dream: greasy pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) slumps over from a bullet to the gut; a second man’s hand is blown to pieces by a point-blank shot from Bickle’s pistol. A third man is hit at least twice in the face.

This is, of course, the volcanic finale from 1976’s Taxi Driver, and its sheer viciousness is still withering even from our jaded standpoint in the 21st century. The dingy lighting; the grainy film stock; the detail of bullets entering and exiting flesh. Far from the soft-focus violence of, say, a 1950s western, it’s closer to a vision of hell. Scorsese ends his simmering drama with a horror-infused crescendo.

scorsese horror in Taxi Driver (1976).

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976).

Scorsese’s matter-of-fact approach to violence previously came to the fore in 1973’s Mean Streets. Although it wasn’t Scorsese’s first film, it was his most personal up to that point, with its story of Italian-American life in 70s Manhattan reflecting his own experiences growing up in the city. Like Taxi Driver three years later, Mean Streets ends bloodily: protagonist Charlie (Harvey Kietel) and his brother Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) friends are driving along when a second vehicle pulls up alongside and a gunman opens fire. Johnny Boy reels and writhes as a bullet strikes his throat; another hits Charlie in the wrist.

Again, it’s Scorsese’s commitment to realism that generates the horror – the expressions of pain and fear, the frantic gasping for air. Amid the chaos, the victims’ car careens through a fire hydrant and crashes into a wall; the camera then lingers on a final, startling image: a bloodied hand, poking out of a shattered windscreen, shuddering. Fittingly, it was Scorsese himself in the role of the gunman who caused all the carnage.

In his long career to date, Scorsese has yet to direct an outright horror film – though a couple, Cape Fear and Shutter Island, have come close. All the same, his work is filled with moments that are as fearsome as just about anything in that genre. Anyone who’s seen his movies will have their own recollections of his most blood-soaked moments: Joe Pesci’s gory demise in Goodfellas. Joe Pesci’s mouth filling with earth as he’s buried, beaten but alive, in Casino. The crucifixions and burning bodies of Silence.


Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito meets a violent end in Goodfellas (1988).

Far from reveling in violence for its own sake, or giving it an aesthetic gloss, Scorsese zeroes in on its ugliness. Real shoot-outs rarely see people ducking behind conveniently bullet-proof furniture; they unfold more like Taxi Driver’s – they’re nasty, flailing, and end almost as abruptly as they’ve begun. Scorsese offers a detached perspective in these sequences that’s almost certainly informed by his childhood; as an asthma sufferer, he spent much of his youth observing Little Italy and its melting pot of inhabitants at a remove. He later described, in an interview with GQ, his childhood stomping ground of Bowery as being like “a Bosch painting.”

Couple this with Scorsese’s Catholic upbringing – he even had designs on becoming a priest at one point – and you have a filmmaker whose storytelling is both rooted in the ugly truth of everyday life and a sense of morality and justice. His films leave us in no doubt that violence is the product of broken, morally bankrupt people.

As a result, Scorsese’s more horrifying moments are seldom gratuitous; the one glaring exception for this writer is the graphic assault suffered by the character Lori (Illeana Douglas) in Cape Fear; it’s debatable whether we needed to see Max Cady (Robert De Niro) bite off his screaming victim’s cheek, particularly given plenty of other scenes establish just how ruthless his character is. It’s all the more jarring given that Scorsese’s approach elsewhere is that of a polished, affectionate pastiche of both the original Cape Fear (directed by a more restrained J Lee Thompson) and post-Hitchcock thrillers in general.

cape fear

Cape Fear (1991).

After Cape Fear, perhaps Scorsese’s most horror-infused film was the sorely underrated Bringing Out The Dead, which saw the filmmaker re-team with Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader. Centered on a burned-out paramedic, Frank (Nicolas Cage), seemingly drunk from his own chronic exhaustion, it offers a tour of a benighted Manhattan that feels somehow vampiric. Frank himself is haunted by the ghost of a homeless teenager whose life he failed to save. At times manic and blackly comic, Bringing Out The Dead is also quietly bleak in its depiction of a city populated by misfits, drug addicts and lost souls.

Although sumptuously shot, 2010’s Shutter Island is hardly less downbeat; indeed, its moments of quiet horror build to a climax that is simply too pivotal to reveal here. It’s probably enough to say that Scorsese’s restraint in one sequence – complete with its heartbreaking overhead shot – only serves to make it even more horrifying. (Looking back over these scenes, it’s fascinating to note how many cut to an overhead shot to underscore the tension, going right back to Taxi Driver’s post-bloodbath tracking sequence.)

Death from above in Casino (1995).

Key to Scorsese’s ever-changing, versatile approach to filmmaking is his omnivorous taste in movies. Back in the 1980s, he was professing his love for Hammer horror films. Last year, he expressed his enthusiasm for Ti West’s period horror, Pearl (“West’s movies have a kind of energy that is so rare these days… I was enthralled, then disturbed,” he told Slash Film).

Even at the age of 80, Scorsese remains a student of cinema, and is willing to soak up ideas and techniques from other, younger filmmakers. Conveniently for this article, Scorsese recently told the Irish Times that the deliberate pacing of his latest film, Killers Of The Flower Moon, was inspired by Hereditary director Ari Aster. “I very much like the style and pacing of good horror films like Ari Aster’s Midsommar or Beau Is Afraid,” he said. “The pacing of those films goes back to the B films of Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People or I Walked With A Zombie. Just going a little slower. A little quieter.”

True to form, Killers Of The Flower Moon – a detailed, unsparing account of corruption and murder among the Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma – boasts several of its own disturbing moments. As in so many of Scorsese’s earlier films, its moments of violence are anchored in the director’s horror and fascination at our species’ capacity for evil.

Killers Of The Flower Moon is out in UK cinemas on the 20th October.

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