The Silence of the Lambs
I had intended to write about The Silence of the Lambs at some point in the future as part of my series of bullshit about influences in my life, but in light of Mr. Gibson’s write-up, I feel the need to say some about it now.
I first saw The Silence of the Lambs on a Saturday night in 1991. That weekend, there was a free preview of Showtime, and Silence was the big movie they were playing that weekend. While cable TV in the early nineties was not the ideal way to watch a film, I was blown away. I absolutely loved it. The overcast cinematography, the sardonic humor, the dirge-like score, the tense direction, the misleading editing, the iconic performances. I absolutely fell in love with horror movies all over again when I saw this. I was instantly riveted.
It opens like an FBI procedural. But when Jodie Foster’s Agent Starling goes to visit convicted serial killer Hannibal Lector in a jail, she descends into a dungeon, filled with lunatics tossing their sperm willy nilly. Creepy guardians making passes. Heavy clanging iron doors. Man, this was disturbing, but fun. Graphic gory details of the victims are shouted at top volume to be heard over the sounds of a helicopter. Off hand jokes are made about cannibalism. We are subjected time and again to extreme close-ups of eyes staring out at us from the screen. The audience is constantly descending into dark places and just as everything feels like it may be too grim, the dialogue lightens the mood with its smart black humor.
Jodie Foster manages to craft a performance that doesn’t fade into the background considering the parade of lunatics populating this movie. Anthony Hopkins could never quite recreate the calm terror he exudes in this film but here he masterly exudes a flirty cheekiness fueled by a creeping, dangerous menace. He often claims he was trying to crreate a voice that crosses Katharine Hepburn with HAL from 2001. And Ted Levine is absolutely terrifying as the serial killer Buffalo Bill. Clutching a white poodle named precious, creating make-believe tits and mocking a victim lying at the bottom of a well. Tucking his dick between his legs and asking “Would you fuck me?” This man’s performance is fearless and skin-crawling. Even Brooke Smith makes an impression in the thankless role of the no bullshit victim who attempts to take matters in her own hands and berates Starling when she’s not rescued fast enough (“Don’t you leave me here you fucking bitch!”).
But there are two moments that absolutely blew me away. The first: Lecter's escape from the Shelby County Courthouse. I assume most everyone here knows how it goes down. But in the interest of not spoiling it for any cavemen who haven’t seen this film, the audience is masterly misled by director Demme. Granted, it’s not very likely that such a thing could ever happen (it's a bit over the top), but it’s a thrill to see in action. With the cut-away to the ambulance, the trick washed over me. I couldn’t believe I’d been duped. And the carnage left behind. Charles Napier, string up on the cage, his skin sliced open and spread out like wings. Demme later pulls another clever slight-of-hand that has Clarice Starling show up unexpectedly at the door of Buffalo Bill - subverting traditional editing techniques to pull the rug out from under the audience. Again, I’d been tricked expertly.
Most of the best horror movies are about survival. However, this movie is about overcoming your own demons. And Clarice Starling has to embrace her own demons (represented by Lecter) in order to defeat a real life demon (Buffalo Bill). And in terms of its ending, the movie even manages to have it both ways. Clarice wins, but we’re left with the imminent threat of something evil still out there. Danger still lurks. And somehow it feels balanced, as Lecter is a guinely likable character. This is how it is. There will always be something out there that could harm us. The hardest part is getting over what’s inside that’s doing damage. This horror movie is about a struggle to preserve something a little less tangible.
This is the only horror movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Since it has such a fancy pedigree, some will tell you it’s not a horror movie at all. Don’t listen to them. It’s every but as pulpy and twisted as something Roger Corman (who cameos) would produce. By this time, serial killers were somewhat mainstream in dramas thanks to television, so many of the shocks weren’t as visceral as some might expect. Regardless, it cast a dark shadow over film and television for the next decade. Just a passing glance at the pilot for X-Files reveals a heavy influence, right down to Gillian Anderson’s lead character. When it won Best Picture, the Academy Awards gained a level of credence that I hadn't afforded them before. I began exploring other Best Picture winners, and this is what led me to discover Hitchcock and Billy Wilder. The fact that this movie won Best Picture inspired me to learn more about film history. For that reason alone, I am forever grateful this movie exists.
When the novel Hannibal was released, I tore through it in a matter of days. I loved it. It referenced prior events too much and overly-relied on its predecessor's reputation, but it was creepy and over the top and, once again, fun. Sadly, the film adaptation falls short in its commitment to absurd darkness. For one thing, the book's dark and disturbing ending was eschewed for a kinder, gentler one. This may be the only opportunity where Hollywood decided the guy-getting-the-girl at the end was unacceptable. Anthony Hopkins had stopped even trying to be subtle by this point in his career, and Julainne Moore replaces Jodie Foster as a much angrier, bitter version of Clarice. The real win in this film is Gary Oldman as Mason Verger, the parapalegic who, under Hannibal's influence, sliced off his own face. ("It seemed like a good idea at the time.")
This year, I got to see Silence of the Lambs on the big screen for the first time. My roommate works at a local art house theater, and I bugged him enough about showing this movie that he got it done. It plays infinitely creepier on the big screen with an audience. The close-ups. The sound design (so many slamming doors and screams and breaths). I would argue this movie is practically faultless. As I always do, I sat through the entire credits, which, after Hannibal delivers his infamously sardonic final line, roll over a static shot of Lecter disappearing into a crowd in the Bahamas. As the end music comes to a close, there is nothing but the sounds of wind and birds in the trees. I’ve always loved that ending. How it lingers. How I can sit there and let it creep through me, contemplating the dark things lurking in paradise, in a crowd. Although Demme says in the Criterion commentary that this was a director who didn’t know how to end his movie. There are clearly faults. For one, there's too much reliance on pop psychology, but hey, it's a horror movie. And one that manages to feel both pulpy and absurd, yet classy, authentic and terrifyingly possible. I feel it’s a damn near perfect movie with a damn near perfect ending.
Body count: 9