My Life In Horror
Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 30 years ago. Sometimes I will revisit the source material contemporaneously, further compounding the potential bullshit factor. Finally, intimate familiarity with the text is assumed – to put it bluntly, here be gigantic and comprehensive spoilers. Though in the vast majority of cases, I’d recommend doing yourself a favour and checking out the original material first anyway.
This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review.
This is my life in horror.
I Never Had A Son
A love story, this time.
It’s the winter of 2003, and my living arrangements have gotten… interesting. The guitarist from my first band, his girlfriend and I are living in a huge 2 story terraced house in an area of town the landlady optimistically calls ‘up and coming’. It’s walking distance from work, which is nice, and the rent split 3 ways is cheap, and it’s big.
But not, it’s transpiring, big enough for the three of us.
The girlfriend and I, predictably enough, do not get on. She’s a neat freak, I’m kind of a slob. She’s a big fan of passive aggression, and while I can ignore it when aimed against her chap, I can't tolerate it coming my way, and she increasingly can’t control herself.
And then, there’s Bill.
Bill - not his real name - is a refugee from the girlfriend’s place of work. He’s seventeen or eighteen, and literally the red headed stepson. And he does not get on with his step dad. The Girlfriend asks if he can stay in the spare room on the ground floor for a while, and of course we say yes, and of course once he’s in, well, he’s in.
He’s not a bad kid, to be clear. In fact, I grow to really like him. He has a tendency to get into scraps of a weekend, he smokes copious amounts of weed, but he also shares generously, and never brings the aggro home, and what the hell, he’s young and adrift and a bit angry, and I’m never going to seriously condemn someone for any of that.
As relations deteriorate in the house, between myself and The Girlfriend, and from there with The Guitarist, I see less of Bill - Bill and The Guitarist by this time being weed brothers, and me only ever a very occasional smoker, it was inevitable, really. Still, we remain friendly. And my recollection is I recommended the movie to him, even though I’d yet to see it.
Nope, I couldn’t tell you why. But that’s what happened.
And he went to see it.
And he loved it.
I mean, as in it was all he could go on about, the next time we met. Being, well, who he was, he couldn’t go a great job of articulating why is was soo good - bless him, he knew it too, and his frustration was palpable - but, well, passion has it’s own language, and it was clear this movie had done a pretty serious number on him. So, having talked him into seeing it, he went on to talk me into it.
So I went. And I saw.
And I, too, fell in love.
Goddamn, this movie. I mean, it has it’s critics, and it’s hardly considered a classic of the director’s work - but holy shit, what an energy, a ferocity, this thing has. The opening sells it completely, this huge, rotting structure of timber, peopled with dirty, desperate people. The camera just pulls back and back and back, revealing bedlam. It’s kinetic chaos, way too much going on, swarming, noisy. And yeah, it feels like you can almost smell the worked-in grime.
I remember Liam Neeson, in leather armour cut to represent a priest’s robes, entrusting his medallion to his son (‘Who is this, boy?’ ‘St. Michael!’ ‘And what did he do?’ ‘He cast Satan out of paradise!’ ‘Good boy!’).
(Brief digression - there’s a fun synchronicity regarding Neeson, here the slain father figure and cause of Leo’s long quest for vengeance, given how much he will later become the face and voice of THE revenge flick of the last ten years, Taken.)
The priest leads a parade, through this murky torch lit underworld, more and more figures joining his ranks, all tooled up for hand to hand combat. The drums are drumming, the pipes are blowing, and the air crackles with violence. They take communion, and then a final mercenary waits by the door. After a brief exchange, the priest and he agree a price per head, and then the door is kicked open…
It’s a huge city square, under a blanket of snow. It’s breathtaking. The army marches out, lines up. Plumes of mist as they breathe, waiting.
They wait. And then, the Natives arrive.
They are led by a tall man, made even taller by the stovepipe hat. He has a classic silent movie villain mustache, and his face is hard. He also has a glass eye with an American eagle at the center.
He and the priest regard each other across the tundra.
At first, his gang seems pitifully outnumbered by the Catholic army. His men resemble him, similar stove pipes, blue striped trousers, military style tunics. Them, more appear. Many more, as they emerge from the buildings, like termites pouring from a mound, all armed with brutal looking, crude melee weapons, and by the time they are lined up, they fill the widescreen.
I remember my mouth dry, hairs on my arms standing up, scalp fucking tingling. Utterly transfixed.
The two leaders exchange dialogue, making it clear this is a turf war to decide (‘for good and all’) who control the area of the city known as The Five Points. The man with the stovepipe hat invokes God, asking him to guide his hand as he strikes down his enemies. Liam Neeson pulls a long dagger from his staff and yells ‘prepare to receive the true Lord!’
And then, all hell breaks loose.
The two armies meet, and it’s fucking carnage. Blood flies. Skulls are fractured. Ears are bitten off. Men are stabbed, beaten, bludgeoned. The snow turns brown with mud, crimson with spilt blood. A man is fish hooked, his cheek pulled from inside until it splits. Through it all, the man with the glass eye and the priest move towards each other, dispatching members of the opposing army en route, before clashing. The combat is brief, and at the end, Liam Neeson is impaled through the chest on the end of the other man’s knife. His son watches on, tears in his eyes, as the other man stops the fight, before executing the priest.
And ten minutes into Gangs Of New York, I’ve fallen in love.
I really can’t do justice to the epic scale of this movie in words. And frankly, nor can the DVD release. This is a cinema film and it demands the cinema experience. It really is the only context under which it makes sense. It’s massive, overwhelming, and that only works if you’re in an environment where it can overwhelm you. Daniel Day Lewis got some stick for the hammyness of his performance, but it’s only hammy on the small screen. When his leering face fills the entire wall, sneering out at you with such clarity that you can see small blobs of wax in his moustache hair, it manages to go through big and out the other side; it utterly transcends camp and becomes terrifying. Bill The Butcher is one of THE great movie villains, for me - not least because he doesn’t remotely see himself as a villain.
And really, I spent the rest of the movie in a state of shock, as it battered me, with the soundtrack, the setting - my God, the setting! - the performances. I am not a big DiCaprio fan, and I think he’s the weak link in the film, especially the second half, but he’s good enough, and everyone else is so far off the chart good that it simply doesn’t matter. Also, it becomes clearer and clearer as the story goes on that he’s not necessarily the hero anyway - more just another rat caught in the trap of history, of violence, of fury and vengeance.
Because the real monster, the real horror of the story, isn’t Bill The Butcher, or the gangs in general.
History is the real monster that sits at the centre of this tale, the bloody beast with chomping jaws and an insatiable appetite for human flesh. It is merciless, and by the end of the running time almost every character we meet that isn’t killed by it will be permanently disfigured.
That which doesn’t kill us, makes us older, and sadder, and weaker.
There’s a microcosm within the movie itself, told in a single tracking shot that for my money is Scorsese's finest - better even than the moment when Henry Hill and Karen walk through the back door of the Copacabana in Goodfellas. Yeah, really.
The shot starts with the immigrants from Ireland, coming off the boats at the docks. It follows them as they shuffle in a line off the boats into the waiting arms of the army recruiters, who are signing them up for go and fight The South. The camera pans over from that queue to the next, showing more men, now lined up in their uniforms, boarding another boat to take them to the fighting. As the camera pans over them and up to the boat, an Irish voice says ‘Do you think they’ll feed us now?’ As the words, plaintive and resigned, reach our ears, the camera pans up for the grizzly punchline - the coffins being unloaded from that same boat, returning the fallen to New York.
And of course, worse is to come, as Leo first befriends Bill the Butcher, and then is betrayed to him, before finally raising his own army to take on the man who killed his father, while in the background the rumblings and anxieties of the population explode into the draft riots. It’s another mesmerizing, breathtaking sequence, Scorsese pulling out all the stops as only he can, the cutting, music, action creating a symphony of discordant, nightmarish violence before the union conscripts arrive back in their hometown, and simply gun down the rioters in the street.
Like I always say, you can’t make up a horror story that can hold a candle to human history - a point underlined with brutal poignancy in the closing shot of the movie. The graves of Bill The Butcher and The Priest are slowly overgrown by weeds, as a series of fades shows the bridge, river, and landscape transform, from the smoldering slums to the manhattan skyline. And there’s a final blow, as the very last crossfade shows the twin towers, reaching into the sky and out of shot, before the fade to black. And I have no idea if that was always the final shot and they just left it in, or if it was a last minute add, but I have to tell you, in January 2002 it packed one hell of a punch.
Ah, who am I kidding? It still does.
It’s a long movie - but I have to say, it didn’t feel long. Epic, but not long. I was utterly transfixed, and I knew when I left the cinema that I had to go and see it again.
And I did. Three more times. It’s the only movie I’ve seen that many times at the cinema, and I bitterly regret not going more. Because it’s utterly a cinema movie, and the small screen - even the big small screens of today, with the surround sound and sub - do not, cannot, convey the power of this film.
Some things, only cinema can do. Gangs Of New York is one of Scorsese's best movies, and one of the finest horror movies ever made. But if you’ve only seen it on the small screen, you’ll never understand why.
You really had to be there, I guess.