Ginger Nuts of Horror
BY KIT POWER
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.
Whadaya Gonna Do?
It’s not like I don’t make plans. That wouldn’t be a fair observation at all.
It’s more just that life keeps happening.
Example: I have a list. My Life In Horror has a distinct shelf life, with a very definite end game, and a final essay I’ll almost certainly chicken out of writing, when the time comes. By the time I’m done, there will be 60 articles (and eventually, two books, is the plan), and we’re already over the halfway mark.
So, there’s a list. And, sure, it fluctuates. Things get added and, due to the finite nature of the project, that means other things have to come off. It’s a useful process, in a lot of ways - it forces me to focus a little, in a project that could otherwise become utterly and unforgivably indulgent - I have to keep asking myself, what are The Big Ones? Those moments, in childhood, as a teenager, in my twenties, that really got me where I lived, made me think, made me feel?
And this movie has been on and off the list from the very start.
There’s a lot to not recommend it for the project. It’s certainly not a horror movie, for starters (though regular readers will probably be chuckling at that - and no, you’re right, that’s never stopped me before). More seriously, the standard opening spiel just won’t fit. I can’t tell you how old I was, when and where, any of that. Truth to tell, though I’ve seen the movie a fair few times (being married to a woman who loves gangster movies has it’s perks), I really don’t have a clear picture in my head of much of the piece as a whole, if I’m honest. Though I know it’s not true, it feels quite a lot like a film I’ve only ever seen from the middle, tuned into halfway through and then been unable to tune away.
That said, there’s a reason I feel that way. There’s a gravitational pull about the back half of this one - a black hole of awfulness that seems to eat light and crush mass. Which I suppose explains how it stuck around as long as it did, and why it flickered so often, on and off, on and off, as other ideas jockeyed for attention.
Still, it had recently come off the list. I thought for good.
And then Frank Vincent died.
I was surprised by how upset I was. And then, not long after, suprised by my suprise. After all, he’d peopled some of my favourite art of… well, shit, my life, really. Raging Bull, Goodfellas…. And, of course, a show-stealing turn in the final couple of series of one of my Top 5 TV shows of all time, The Sopranos.
Sure, he was a character actor, and sure, the roles all had certain elements in common. That didn’t change the fact that he was there, and not only did he not let the side down, he was an amazing asset to whatever story he was a part of. He had everything you’d want - charm, ruthlessness, intelligence, pride, even arrogance, and an aura of power and menace. He may never had had the lead role, but he was always a powerful addition to any crew, always someone you felt you had to watch.
So, yeah, I was sad. And as I thought more about why, I thought about him telling Pesci to go home and get his fuckin shine box, and I thought about how he explained to Tony Soprano about how he’d ‘compromised’, the chilling fury juuuuuust under the surface. The look on his face when he finally cornered Vito in the hotel room.
Most of all, though, I thought about this movie.
I thought about Casino.
Now, if you’d taken a look at the list of things I was going to write about for this column, and you’d seen Casino, I’m betting that you’d nod and say to yourself ‘the vice scene’. Like Reservoir Dogs and the ear, it’s the kind of totemic cinema moment that was whispered about on the playground - ‘Oh my God, did you see the bit where he…?’
And I’m not going to deny how fucking horrible that scene is. Nor am I going to deny how utterly gruesome the emotional car wreck of Rothstein's marriage to Ginger is, Sharon Stone and De Niro knocking it out of the park with their merciless, unflinching portrayal of a poisoned, poisonous relationship.
As you’ll know, if you’ve seen the film, there’s all of that and more - brutality upon brutality, and misery feeding misery.
It’s all true, but none of that is why this movie sat on my list for so long, or why we’re talking about it now.
We’re talking about this fucking movie because of the climax in the wheatfield, and the execution of Nicky Santoro and his brother.
Nicky - played by Pesci - has been pretty much vileness personified the entire movie. He’s cheated and murdered and murdered and tortured his way all across Nevada and back. The head-in-a-vice scene? Nicky was the one cranking the handle.
Nicky is unrepentant. Nicky is irredeemable. Nicky is self destruction in an expensive yet still tasteless suit. Which would be sort-of fine, if he wasn’t also such a voracious, malevolent cancer for everyone who comes into contact with him.
By the closing of the movie, even he realises he’s going to be persona non grata in Vegas for the rest of his life. Too many hits, too many missing people, just too fucking much. He understands this. In voiceover, he accepts it. And as the scene opens, he’s driving up a dirt track in a corn field. The corn is tall - eight, ten feet maybe. The track leads to a clearing at the end. There’s a few cars, maybe a dozen mobsters waiting. Nicky’s crew.
With them, Nicky’s right hand man - the man who's been by his side throughout his decades of carnage. The man who lied to the big bosses about Nicky’s transgressions - covered for him when he was fucking his best friends wife.
The man’s name is Frank Marino. Played by Frank Vincent.
As they drive up, Nicky explains the score to us, in voiceover, in that same arrogant, hectoring voice he’s used throughout the movie. Sure, Vegas is too hot for him, so he’s here with his brother, to hand over the reins. He’s going to introduce him around, make sure the gang - his gang, Nicky’s people - know what’s what. As he and his brother get out of the car, and the group starts to huddle around them, he says, to us, ‘what’s right is right…’
And then, mid sentence, there’s a dull clunk, and he says ‘Oww!’.
He drops to his knees, clutching his head, a look of stunned confusion on his face.
My stomach drops right with him. An express elevator, going all the way down.
Two of them grab Nicky’s arms, hold him down on his knees. They grab his brother, drag him away. His brother is yelling, furious, scared, ‘You rat bastards!’.
They force Nicky’s head up. Nicky looks.
He looks at his brother. Maybe the only other human being on the planet Nicky has any genuine feelings for. Helpless. Trapped. Yelling.
He looks up, eyes following the baseball bat, up to the impassive face of Frank.
His friend. His right hand man.
Frank looks back at him. And his face…his face is a mask.
Nicky - this sociopath, this monster, this vile brutal killer, hardened by a lifetime of unchecked fury and sadism… Nicky starts to beg.
Frank nods, once. Then he swings the bat.
The bat falls again and again. Others join in. The sound is relentless - metal colliding with meat. Nicky sobs. He tries to look away. They won’t let him.
By the time they stop, his brother is unrecognisable - his face a mask of blood, his body shattered. Nicky, sobbing, keeps begging. ‘Please, he’s strong, he’s still breathing, leave him…’ Begging Frank. Frank looks at him. ‘Yeah?!?’ He brings down the bat once more on Nicky’s brother's skull.
He walks over to Nicky, now just begging, the same word ‘please’, over and over, a broken machine. Frank shows him his brother’s ragged, still breathing form once more. Then he swings the bat at Nicky’s head.
The cuts start to fracture now, as the attacks rain down on Nicky. Freeze framing, then cutting forward - as though we’re sharing the concussive effects of the blows with our former narrator. Finally, De Niro comes in on voice over, telling us what we already know - that Nicky had taken it too far, and that an example was made.
As the bodies are stripped, torsos blue and purple from their battering, as the two no-longer-men are thrown into a hole in the ground, there’s a final, gut twisting moment. As a shovel of dirt falls over the blood basked faces, a puff of breath from one of the broken jaws disturbs the soil, sending it out in a plume.
“They buried them alive”, De Niro intones, just in case your mind is somehow refusing the information your eyes are sending it.
And sure, it’s horrific on a number of levels. The sadism of it reaches levels even Nicky couldn’t - yes, he trapped a man’s head in a vice to get information from him, and he murdered lots of people… but battering a loved one beyond repair in front of someone, forcing them to watch, in the knowledge that they are next - and, crucially, that there is nothing they can do to stop it, escape it, even hasten the outcome? Even for a sick fuck like Nicky, that is some next level brutality.
And let’s not forget the extra/meta-textual fuckery that Scorcese pulls, here. Every time I think about that voiceover being interrupted by the thunk of a bat, and the surprised ow that follows, the hairs on my arm stand up - and not in a good way. It’s a rule of cinema so iron clad, so ingrained, we think of it not at all, never examine or question it. And then he oh-so casually violates it, in a moment absolutely calculated to deliver maximum shock. It’s a bold, punk, brutal, unfair moment of unbridled cinema genius, and I cannot immediately think of a better example of understanding just when, and how, and how hard you can break the rules, providing that you are doing so with a purpose. It’s also a trick that can probably only be done once - but fuck me, what a moment.
So there’s that. And there’s also the fact that it plays on the mind, long after it’s done. Because, dig it: It’s a lesson for who, exactly? Nicky? His brother? They are going in the ground and they ain’t coming back. If the lesson is for them, a bullet would do the job.
No, this horror show is to send a message. But to who? The men who did this would have to be very fucking careful who they talked to about it. Orders came from on high, sure, but still, loose lips sink ships. They will talk, of course - worse than a sewing circle, as a future moll will memorably put it, in a movie that may or may not make a future column, as the list shifts and the last 30 move inexorably to the last 20 and I need to make some very tough evaluations about what, exactly, fucked me up the most - still, it’s not something you’d exactly feel good bragging about, I don’t think.
No, the real horror is this: the message is for each other. For Nicky’s whole crew.
And the message is: fuck up like your friend did, and this is what your friends will do to you.
Which brings us back to Frank. Nicky’s right hand man, who has protected and enabled and shielded and covered, again and again.
Frank Marino. Played by Frank VIncent. His face a mask, as he meets Nicky’s eyes. Telling him everything he needs to know about what the rest of his short life will consist of. There’s little emotion - either regret or rage, sorrow or anger.
But there is something. Something glittering, deep down in those eyes. Something dark and strong and real.
It’s a look I will never, ever forget. It’s a look that will haunt me, as long as I draw breath.
Here’s to you, Frank Vincent.
Here’s to you.