Oct 16, 2007
Day 16- "You don't know what pain is."
As we all know, horror comes in many flavors, from straight-up monster movies to slasher films to supernatural flicks to everything in between. Though many people classify The Silence of the Lambs (1991) as a "thriller", I myself do not. Though it's a bit of a crime procedural to be sure, Silence features a killer who keeps women in a pit in his basement, skin suits, flesh masks, heads in jars, and cannibalism (not to mention cameos from Roger Corman and George Romero); it's all splitting hairs, perhaps, but to me that adds up as horror. Everyone's got their own definitions, but as a friend of mine remarked the other day- why is it that when a horror film is smart and serious and successful, people start calling it a thriller?
Though I've never talked about the film here at FG, I'm not sure what I can say about it that's particularly groundbreaking, fresh, or new. Everyone knows the story, and it can be assumed that only the Amish have no idea who Hannibal Lecter is. It's amazing what a caricature he'd become in the sequels, but then that's what happens when audiences start rooting for the bad guy- just look at Freddy Krueger for further evidence.
In my humble opinion, the major players involved with this film- director Jonathan Demme and stars Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster- have never been better than they are here. Demme's direction, though nearly flawless, rewards multiple viewings: each time, the viewer catches another clue or hint and understands just how perfectly the puzzle all fits together. I mentioned Dr Lecter already, but in his first turn in the role Hopkins walks the line between horrifying and campy- never too over-the-top, but outrageous enough to grab your attention and hold it. Foster, meanwhile, turns in a remarkable, layered performance as Clarice Starling. She's smart but not perfect, she's both tough and vulnerable, she's ambitious but doesn't ever resort to being a 'superbitch' as so many women in film (and yes, I suppose in life) seem to as she makes her way through the FBI training program, undoubtedly a true 'boy's club'.
The real villain of the film, Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb, is a bit Ted Bundy and a bit Ed Gein- he's the guy next door who's living in a house of unspeakable horrors; there's the pit in the basement, the skin suits, and the rotting body in the bathtub, all nestled snugly in your average working-class town in middle America.
When the film was released, there was a huge outcry from the gay community, condemning Silence of the Lambs as being homophobic- Gumb is, after all, a transvestite and a killer. That's simply a knee-jerk reaction, however, and it seems that those who cry "homophobia" haven't been paying very close attention to the film at all. Lecter himself speaks of Gumb as being confused- as not being homosexual or a true transvestite, but "a thousand times more savage"- a killer with a disturbing personal history who feels out of place and will try anything to fit in. The skin suits are but a metaphor: Gumb wants to be anything but himself. Additionally, Starling mentions that Buffalo Bill is an anomaly even in the transvestite crowd; the filmmakers, if anything, go out of their way not to point fingers at the gay community. Jame Gumb is a mysogynist serial killer, fostering a brutal hatred of women. The character mocks both women and homosexuals, with the taunting of his captive Catherine (Brooke Smith) and his lisping whispers to his dog Precious...but a film about homophobia doesn't a homophobic film make.
The simple brilliance of this film- and it is nothing short of absolutely fucking brilliant, from Howard Shore's score right down to the visuals of each and every frame- has been overlooked, it seems, lost in the shadow of Hannibal the Cannibal. He's become a movie maniac, the subject of subpar sequels, sure to be oft-imitated like Austin Powers- come on, who hasn't heard someone try the "fava beans and a nice chianti" line? It's not a film one tends to trot out at Halloween- that night tends to be reserved for ghosts, vampires, zombies, and Michael Myers. Nevertheless, The Silence of the Lambs is indeed one of the greatest horror films ever produced, and it sure as hell earned a spot on my list.