We Talk Horror with Martin Scorsese


It's not always easy to believe someone when they tell you they love many different genres of film. For how can any heart, no matter how big, adore experiences as disparate as that of the crime drama and the musical, or the romance and the horror film? With Martin Scorsese, however, nothing could be easier. America's greatest living filmmaker makes no attempt to hide his limitless affection for movies, having worked in at least a dozen different film genres – and championed the preservation of many others – in a career that now spans six decades. His latest work, Shutter Island (based on the novel by Dennis Lehane), is at once a police procedural, a suspense thriller and a psychological drama. But a good portion of it is infused with the look and feel of the horror films of directors like Mario Bava and Jacques Tourneur. I asked Scorsese about these influences when I spoke with him at last weekend's press conference for Shutter Island in New York City.

Scorsese first addressed my question about his bold use of color in the film, which is very reminiscent of the work of Mario Bava and creative progeny like Dario Argento.

"Well," he said, "there's always [with] Mario Bava the sort of singularity, that use of very powerful colors. I mean, he was a wonderful cinematographer, and I always loved the thriller-horror films he made in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. I keep referring to them – Black Sunday and the trilogy, Black Sabbath they call it. [They have] some remarkable stuff. There's no doubt about that. And Bava's use of less being more, the use of a little bit of mist, a twisted branch. That sort of thing. It's something I always use for inspiration in a way."

I also asked the maestro if he could supply an example or two of how he found inspiration in the work of director Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton – the legendary beleaguered writer-producer who, with Tourneur, crafted a series of moody, dreamlike masterpieces for RKO in the ‘40s.

"The Lewton films," said Scorsese, "are really the key films. There's no way… [Shutter Island] is not on that level, it's a different kind of picture. But there's no doubt, particularly in certain scenes in the mansion. Val Lewton's films had terrible titles – we all know – Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. Those two, being directed by Jacques Tourneur, are beautiful works of poetry. I always talk about these films. They never… Out of the Past is the other one – that's not a Val Lewton film, but it's directed by Tourneur, with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. All three films, to me, they're very modest but they have to do with memory and time. And I don't know, when I look at these films… I look at them repeatedly, and I don't know what's the beginning, middle and the end. I can't tell you what scene it is. It's like a piece of music; I keep listening to it or looking at it, and it's kind of new every time. So [Shutter Island] has a lot to do with certainly the pictorialism of Tourneur. I mean, I Walked with a Zombie is really Jane Eyre in the Indies, as we all know; it was a terrible title. Cat People is a beautiful film – you can take it on a supernatural level, or you could take it on the level of suggestion. It's all about suggestion, you see. And of course Out of the Past is the web. It's the net that's cast for this poor guy, who, you know, does say at one point, "Build my gallows high, baby." He knows he's doomed from the beginning [laughs], and you watch Mitchum go through it! And I never know – is it Douglas? Is it Kirk Douglas's character? Is it Jane Greer who's doing all this? I never quite know. He seems to be doing it to himself in a way. But it's about memory; and so is this to a certain extent, the memory. And these were inspirations. I can't reach that level of Tourneur. He was remarkable."