Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Silence of the Lambs

If The Silence of the Lambs (1991) isn't a horror movie, why does it have two serial killers, one who's a cannibal and another who skins women? Why, if it's not a horror movie, is it frequently listed among the scariest movies of all time and Hannibal Lector included among the creepiest of villains? Why is Buffalo Bill's basement dungeon the kind of place Leatherface would be at home in? Why all creepy-crawly bugs? Why the cameos by Roger Corman and George Romero?

Sorry for that little rant. I get defensive of the genre when people insist The Silence of the Lambs isn't a horror movie but a "psychological thriller." Yes, it's a mystery and a police procedural, but why can't it also be a horror movie? Because it won Best Picture? Regardless of what label you put on it, The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most absorbing, thrilling, unsettling, and disturbing of movies, and it deservedly swept the Oscars.

Most people are familiar with the story. FBI trainee (Jodi Foster) is sent to interview Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lector (Anthony Hopkins) in the insane asylum to see if he can assist with the search for serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), a moniker he received for partially skinning his victims. So much of the movie has become boilerplate and almost impossible to be done again with any seriousness, and many moments have become embedded in pop culture and been parodied to death: "I ate his liver with some fava bean and a nice chianti," Lector being transported around in the mask and restraints, and Buffalo Bill, um, listening to "Goodbye Horses" and dancing around (that's the best I'm able to describe that scene in a tactful manner). Despite the familiarity, it doesn't impede the power of the original.

There are two narrative tracks in The Silence of the Lambs: the hunt for Buffalo Bill and the mental duel between Starling and Lector. Before she meets him, Starling is warned not to let Lector inside her head; he's a monster, she's told. Yet, despite being a cannibalistic psychopath, he is in his own way charming and cultured. He also won't offer up any information to help the case without Clarice offering up some personal information. Quid pro quo, he tells her. Lector is a caged monster, and since he can't physically destroy his victims, the best he can do is destroy them mentally, climbing inside their heads and messing around. After his first meeting with Starling, Lector, off screen, drives another inmate to suicide because he was, to put it delicately, rude to her. A gentleman and a monster. When he finally breaks out, mutilating a couple of guards in the process (cutting off one's face, crucifying the other and disemboweling him), the audience is ready to believe he's capable of anything.

If Lector is a killer we can sort of admire, then Buffalo Bill is a killer we can sort of pity. He's sick, deranged, and quite dangerous, but as we learn more about what shaped him and what he thinks he's doing in his own mind, there is a realization that something very awful occurred in his life to make him the way he is. Unhappy with himself and who he is, Buffalo Bill is trying to change that. Sick and depraved, he's ultimately a sad, pitiful creature.

Between Lector and Bill is Starling. Like Lector, she's smart and in her own way isolated. Lector's locked away in his cell while Clarice, a woman in what is traditionally a man's field, has to put up with condescending superiors, leering eyes, and disapproving looks from all these big, burly guys who dwarf her in the elevator or at a crime scene. Like Bill, she too is haunted by something that occurred in her childhood, but instead of breaking her, that incident drives her to law enforcement, to challenge Lector, and to save people.

Director Jonathan Demme knows how to build up and draw out suspense. Take the first time we meet Lector. All this dialogue informs us what a monster he is, how sick he is. Starling is shown a picture of what he did to a nurse (we don't see it but it sounds ghastly). The camera follows her through several locks, doors, and gates and down a flight of stairs past a line of cells filled with lunatics, each creepier than the last, and when we finally see Lector, he's standing at attention in the middle of his cell, like a patient gentleman. Demme also gives us point of view shots, like when Clarice descends a flight of stairs and at the end  from Bill's perspective as he stalks Clarice in the dark. When Hannibal attacks a guard, he lunges right at the camera, and it feels like he's about to chomp on the viewer.

Demme also uses reflections in a spectacular way during the encounters between Starling and Lector. When we get a close up of Clarice, Demme shows Lector's visage reflected in the glass that separates them, giving him the aura of a ghost, making his remarks about Clarice and her past all the more unsettling. It seems like nothing physical or mental can keep him locked away.

The Silence of the Lambs is a deeply unsettling movie to watch, both because of what is shown and what is implied. The movie has an atmosphere of sickness and death. Buffalo Bill's basement dungeon is a filthy pit filled with grime, body parts, mannequins, bugs, dirt, and unsettling photographs and other trinkets. An autopsy on one of his victims limits views of the body, but the reactions of the characters conducting it, plus the fact they have to place something under their noses to withstand the smell, sells it. Helping is another wonderful musical score by composer Howard Score, a haunting and at times mournful classical composition.

No comments:

Post a Comment