Toying with the violence and self-destruction of his tormented central characters is about as far as Martin Scorsese goes in terms of horror. Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle is a lonely individual plagued with hatred and resentment, whilst The King of Comedies Rupert Pupkin dangerously egocentric personality is unnerving in his own right. The material leans on the right side of horror, dipping its toe in every now and then, but look no further than Todd Phillips’ Joker to know that with just a few tweaks, these two characters can easily become something far more psychotic.
Before his launch into the Hollywood stratosphere with 1973 film Mean Streets, Scorsese wrote and directed the closest he’s produced to a stand-alone horror film, The Big Shave. The film very much precedes the stylistic and visceral direction that his later works would soon follow, peering over the shoulder of a man going about the mundane job of shaving his face.
Entering into the pristine white bathroom, Scorsese focuses on the porcelain features, the shiny tap fixtures and the drips falling from it. The man then begins to shave, covering his face with a squirt of foam, all appears normal at first. Though, as he continues to shave through a clean face, he pierces the skin and blood seeps from the dotted wounds, peppering the flawless white floor.
Shaped as a criticism of the Vietnam War, the films original title was Viet ‘67, attacking the conflict itself as a dramatic and bloody act of self-mutilation for the USA. The man in the subject seems unphased by his own self-destruction, rinsing the razor off as if it were a clump of stubble, despite the red dilute spinning down the drain. It’s a knowing act of mutilation, walking headfirst into a losing ‘battle’.
In an interview between duo Josh & Benny Safdie and horror aficionado Ari Aster for the Criterion Channel, they discuss The Big Shave among the rest of Scorsese’s early work, noting here, the early emergence of the director’s notable style and his obsession with ‘ritual and process’. Aster notes that the film expresses Scorsese’s experimental side, showing his willingness to explore and improve, he comments: “You also see it as an exercise. He’s thinking about, ok I’m going to take on something really banal, really mundane, and I’m gonna see how I can shoot this thing in a way that’s compelling.”
At its core, this is a simple, squeamish gore film, cleverly laced with a political context that is in no way overt. Such as in the 1976 film Taxi Driver, Scorsese wished to express certain deep-rooted anger, bubbling beneath the surface of society like the ocean of blood that lies dormant beneath the faces thinly-stretched skin. In the original 1967 script written by Scorsese, he expresses this very same sadness, stating as a final conclusion to his piece: “I feel that the intent of the film is evident in the script. However, I would like to state that I hope the film will express my sad feelings concerning the present general moral condition of my young country and a sentiment (reflected in the song)—a personal one—of an America I never knew.”
See the film, below.