Wednesday, October 29, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 28 - The Silence of the Lambs

#2 (Tie) - 15 Votes

Few films hook me from the beginning the way The Silence of the Lambs does. The opening notes of Howard Shore's haunting score, which would fit a fantasy movie as well as a horror movie, over the Orion logo, give way to the first shots of the movie's heroine, Clarice Starling, making her way through a daunting obstacle course at Quantico. This introduction was Jodie Foster's idea - originally, the movie was to open with Clarice on a dangerous mission that is revealed to be a training simulation. Foster wanted to do the movie because she saw Clarice's story as the rare female version of the archetypal hero's journey in film, a woman who saves women, and we meet her as she's preparing for the journey the movie will send her on though she doesn't know it yet). It'soften easy to look too hard for symbolism in a film, but the way that cinematographer Tak Fujimoto shoots the forest path as murky and foreboding while emphasizing Clarice's strength and tenacity can't help but serve as foreshadowing for two things about the movie we're about to see: that, like the archetypal hero, Clarice is going to be sent into the dark wilderness to defeat a monster, and that she's more than up to the task.

While the things everyone remembers first about The Silence of the Lambs are the quotable lines from the story's two murderers - fava beans, lotion in the basket, Chianti, great big fat person, etc. - it's Clarice's journey that provides the movie with its narrative backbone and much of its emotional resonance, and director Jonathan Demme proved to be the perfect person to bring that story to the screen. Demme seemed like an unlikely choice at the time, as there was little in his filmography of quirky, humanistic comedies to suggest he could tackle such dark material. The one hint that he might have it in him was the second half of Something Wild, a New Wave version of a screwball romantic comedy that, with the introduction of the character of Ray (Ray Liotta), the obsessed ex-husband of Lulu (Melanie Griffith), takes a sharp left turn into violent thriller territory, a very jarring tonal shift that the director was able to pull off.

Demme's ability to create a very direct sense of audience identification with his characters works brilliantly in The Silence of the Lambs, particularly in emphasizing Clarice's sense of other-ness as a female trainee trying to catch a killer in a male-dominated field. It's a theme that dominates the movie, even though it almost never comes up in dialogue; it doesn't have to, thanks to Demme's so-simple-it's-brilliant manipulation of our perspective. We adopt Clarice's point of view when she walks into a funeral home filled with local cops and all eyes are on her, or when a nerdy entomologist hits on her (she handles both situations like a total badass, incidentally). Demme finds the perfect balance here, encouraging us to empathize with Clarice and understand the ever-present specter of the male gaze without being too on the nose about it (okay, maybe the smarmy Dr. Chilton is on the nose, but he's hilarious).

The director makes choices like this throughout the movie that would be too obvious if they weren't so perfect - take, for instance, the introduction of Buffalo Bill's future captive, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), as she's singing along to Tom Petty's "American Girl" in her car. In ten seconds, you know exactly who this character is. And the movie is pretty much a master course in shot composition and editing. This is most obvious in the scenes between Clarice and Dr. Lecter, which depend on us believing that our hero and a psychopathic cannibal (albeit a very charming and polite cannibal with exquisite taste) develop an intimate relationship for the rest of the film to work, and with the added visual barrier of a constant wall between them (first glass, then a literal cage). Demme is forced to cover the scenes with a shot/reverse shot pattern, which doesn't lend itself to visual fireworks; however, the next time you watch the movie, pay attention to how each cut, each time the camera pushes in closer on Foster or Anthony Hopkins, is perfectly motivated the dialogue and the emotional through-line of the scene, and how any sense of a barrier, literal or otherwise, between the two actors is completely erased. It's incredible work, and the movie is one of those rare ones that could double as a textbook on how to make a movie; when I was making my first movie, I was surprised to find that it was Demme, more than any other filmmaker, that I turned to for inspiration when I was stuck on how to shoot a scene.

Demme's work here was strong enough to help earn Anthony Hopkins win the Oscar, even though he's onscreen for less than half hour -his performance looms over the rest of the movie even when Dr. Lecter is elsewhere. Some people consider Hopkins' performance hammy and over the top; these people will inevitably bring up either Mads Mikkelsen (he's terrific, but it's apples and oranges) or, if they're hardcore nerds, Brian Cox (I like Manhunter too, but come on) as the superior Hannibal. And it's true that Hopkins goes big, especially in Hannibal's early scenes, but it's important to remember where the character is at this point in the story. In Hannibal (the show, not Ridley Scott's endearingly silly movie), he's a monster in hiding, and in Manhunter, we only see him interacting with the protagonist who caught him, prison guards and a secretary he's trying to get information from over the phone. When the fava beans scene arrives in The Silence of the Lambs, Ted Tally's screenplay has already cannily used supporting characters to describe the horrible crimes he's committed, stoking our sense of anticipatory dread. When Clarice first sees Hannibal, he's standing still and at attention, waiting for her (Hopkins' idea, and a good one). So all the business with fava beans and "pft-ft-ft-ft-ft" and what have you, as big as it is, works because it's Hannibal that's deliberately being theatrical in order to screw with this "hustling rube with a little taste."

As he starts to care about her and wants to help her succeed, Hopkins mostly drops the theatrics, and it's here that we can see why Demme was inspired by Hopkins' performance as the good Dr. Treves in The Elephant Man to cast him here. You can hear a little of the doctor with the patient determination to teach John Merrick to speak in this monster with a brilliant mind who genuinely wants to help Clarice catch another monster and conquer her own demons. Thomas Harris' next book made Hannibal's affection for Clarice explicitly romantic, and that's left open as a possibility in The Silence of the Lambs. However, I prefer to think of him as a dark counterpart to the father figure of Jack Crawford; this is as good a place as any to mention, too, that Scott Glenn, who is often left out of conversations about the movie, is just as good as his two co-stars in a much less show-y role. He plays Crawford perfectly so that you don't know how, on the first viewing, whether he's really trying to be a mentor to Clarice or just exploiting her to get information from Lecter, until that great moment, during the late-film fake-out, when he realizes he's put Clarice in real danger.

In the first three books featuring Lecter, Harris makes the story's progressively more repulsive and devoid of Lecter's humor and charisma, making Lecter seem much more, er, palatable by comparison. Red Dragon's Francis Dolarhyde was at least pitiable, but while we have to assume that Jame Gumb was created out of some kind of hellish upbringing, we're never privy to it; we meet him as a horribly, irreparably broken person. There were protests and complaints from the LGBTQ community, at the time, that Buffalo Bill perpetuated stereotypes of crazy, dangerous transsexuals, and it's a fair point to bring up. However, even if one shrugs off Lecter explicitly stating that Buffalo Bill isn't really a transsexual as a quick bit of ass-covering on the part of the filmmakers, it's pretty clear from one look around his house, where swastikas rest next to feather boas and Polaroids of Jame with strippers, that this guy is confused in ways far beyond his gender identity (and while it's a clich√© to commend a "brave performance," Ted Levine's work here earns it). Also, Lecter and Clarice might not be straight either; after hearing Keith Uhlich suggest that this might be the case, I have to say that there's at least a possibility that Kasi Lemmons' character, Ardelia, is more than Clarice's buddy and roommate. 

In any case, the final descent into Buffalo Bill's lair is the perfect climax to Clarice's journey, in addition to being intensely frightening. Some have dismissed The Silence of the Lambs as a tasteful, A-list gloss on rape-revenge cycles that had been present in horror and exploitation movies for years. That's not untrue, but who cares, and besides, as much as I love even the most crudely made '80s slasher movie, The Silence of the Lambs is so much better crafted than 90 percent of horror movies that it seems weird to me to essentially criticize it for being above average. And it's not like Demme shies away from the gruesome aspects of the story - it's still remarkable that a movie with a severed head, decaying corpses, a disemboweling and Ted Levine tucking his sack back won Best Picture. By the time Clarice is in Bill's dark basement, the camera taking his POV through his night vision goggles, it's the most terrifying scene of its kind since Wait Until Dark; then our hero slays the monster and begins her return from the wilderness, permanently changed for better or worse. It's a perfect ending - empowering in a genre that, admittedly, rarely has that effect for women - in a movie that never hits a false note, and while the final two movies I'll be writing about are both great, The Silence of the Lambs is easily my choice for the best horror movie of the decade.

U.S. Release Date: February 15, 1991 (Also released that day: King Ralph, Nothing But Trouble, Iron and Silk)

What critics said at the time:

"Dr. Lecter is no Boy Scout by comparison; he likes to eat the body parts of his victims. And right now you are probably thinking, "Maybe I'll go see "Home Alone" again.' Smart move. Or you could take a chance and screen on home video 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,' which was a fascinating, illuminating, deadpan portrait of the same lethal subject. Instead, director Demme superheats 'The Silence of the Lambs' to the point of silliness, in terms of both gross behavior and a pulsating soundtrack. The conclusion of the film is nothing more than a grisly version of every mad-slasher picture you've ever missed. Jodie's in trouble. Shoot, Jodie, shoot." - Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune
"If the movie were not so well made, indeed, it would be ludicrous. Material like this invites filmmakers to take chances and punishes them mercilessly when they fail. That's especially true when the movie is based on best-selling material a lot of people are familiar with. [...] The director, Jonathan Demme, is no doubt aware of the hazards but does not hesitate to take chances. His first scene with Hopkins could have gone over the top, and in the hands of a lesser actor almost certainly would have. But Hopkins is in the great British tradition of actors who internalize instead of overacting, and his Hannibal Lecter has certain endearing parallels with his famous London stage performance in 'Pravda,' where he played a press baron not unlike Rupert Murdoch. There are moments when Hopkins, as Lecter, goes berserk, but Demme wisely lets a little of this go a long way, so that the lasting impression is of his evil intelligence." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

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