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The Best Horror Movies of the 90s: The Silence of the Lambs

silencelambsIn 1991, the year of its release, I became obsessed with The Silence of the Lambs

It is now 2014.  The movie is 23 years old, the book 26.  You’ve seen the movie.  So, as the blogosphere turns, I have but a few stray observations:  

~Ted Tally’s script is faithful to the source material.  The movie hammers on the humor a bit more forcefully, but that’s because it’s a movie.  The filmmakers also show us just how grisly “grisly” is.  Still, Lambs is nicely modulated.  Isolate some of these things, see how they add up:  The sad frank way that (mangina alert!) Buffalo Bill tucks in his frank ‘n’ beans in order to be all he wants to be.  The theatrical way that Dr. Hannibal Lecter enjoys the campy, clever epigrams his alien mind engineers.  The bitchy way that Clarice Starling tries to assure the size-14 Catherine—the same Catherine who, trapped in her pit with Precious, can’t help but bitch back.  (Precious is the bitchiest bitch of them all, though.)  But—notice the way we open on Clarice, scanning Jack Crawford’s wall of horror (still a chilling moment).  The way we intuitively buy it when, at the morgue, she mutters, “Bill.”  Even now, after repeated viewings, our breath stops when Hannibal executes what can only be described as a Houdini-like escape.  Our spirits ache when Howard Shore’s score refuses to jolt us from our seats.  There it is—melancholy in the extreme.  Together, these elements make a film of real lasting power.  Thomas Harris’s novel is a giant, a model of precision and structure, binding all the elements at play (horror, shock, comedy, drama) without once overplaying his hand.  The script stays close to the book, dutifully so, and that is nice.  But there’s more weight here.  The filmmakers demonstrate a knack for the grace note, the take, the feeling that is just a little bit off, or right beneath camp.  A lot of this power comes from the talent assembled and the choices they make, and the editing team’s gift for knowing which choices work best and how they should align.  A lot of the film’s power comes from knowing its place, as both thriller and think-piece, and being serious about it.  The Silence of the Lambs is not just a geek show.     

~The director, Jonathan Demme, gives us a lot of front-profile close-ups.  These shots establish point of view.  You could say, naively I think, that it’s easier for a novelist to bring the reader into a character’s mind.  After all, that is the chief benefit of a first-person narrative.  Harris, though, is a great writer.  He knows what the f*ck he’s doing.  And lest you forget, a good writer or filmmaker shows rather than tells.  So, by having characters look directly into the lens, Demme gets under our skin.  Clarice already is relatable.  The trick of having her and others look head-on into the camera makes her even more so.  

~Two implausibilities bug me to this day: 

One, the calling in the SWAT team to contain the Lecter SAFU.  Yeah, Lecter’s a brain, a criminal mastermind; but he’s just a guy in a building.  Beside the security detail already present, does a whole army need show up? 

Two, Clarice’s flight down the basement.  When first I saw the film, I believed she was doing the right thing.  Subsequent viewings of the film changed my mind.  She’s a trainee and she’s hot to trot—yes.  But pursuing the killer in his lair (Clarice has the exits covered!) makes her seem incautious.  She’s only been cautious up till now.  Without backup, does she not know it’s suicide to GO DOWN THERE ALONE?  (Her going solo ratchets the suspense, but I want to be a smart-ass about it.)   

~Hannibal is a super-heroic super-villain, Nietzsche’s superman rotted the f*ck out.  He is the bad side winning.  He is the duality-of-man incarnate.  Consider:  Even in custody, he exerts a great deal of pull.  He controls.  Hannibal fascinates because he is detached from his own empathy—an empathy so keen it would hobble the rest of us to house that kind of force.  To always look and see; to know that in the perfection of our seeing we could not relate—that is Hannibal’s curse, and his gold.  Before Harris drew the last of him with primary colors in the novel Hannibal (an underrated book), he had the doctor down.  Hannibal is a self-knowing god among men.  He holds everyone in contempt, including those he finds useful to have around.  Naturally, then, given his role in the food chain, he should consume those he finds inferior.  He has a limit, though.  He knows it.  He knows that he lacks goodness.  This is why he is attracted to Clarice, and to Will Graham in the Hannibal series on TV.  However unrefined they are, they complete him.  They share his ability to empathize with the subjects of their trade.  Yet those two characters fight against the natural chaos he welcomes.

The Silence of the Lambs sees the world as bleak.  Like Buffalo Bill, Hannibal wraps himself in darkness whole.  Clarice would silence the memory of the lambs that screamed, but Hannibal knows better.  If God exists, God is silent.  The pitiless world is full of monsters, many of them human, and we would all do well to understand this.  God kills.  Hannibal accepts this malignity.  This is why we (secretly?) admire him.  With confidence, gaminess and ease, he plays God and God is a bastard.  Bill and Clarice are confused.  They want to change themselves, the world they live in; they can’t accept the ugliness.  This is their failing. 

In that sense, the film is a cry to heaven.  A lament—that the gross, meaningless slaughter visited on those hapless victims shown is basically unanswered.  Maybe The Silence of the Lambs is pretentious schlock.  Maybe it’s still better than anything Ingmar Bergman committed to the screen. 

~So.  Any claim that the film is an attack against patriarchy (as it is represented by the FBI, and by the male serial killers that Clarice meets) misses the forest for the trees.  We don’t doubt that Jodie Foster took the part of Starling because of this feminist slant.  We don’t doubt that Starling’s vulnerability is tied to the fact that she is a woman who is very good at a job commonly seen as man’s work.  To us, though, Clarice is just a relatable heroine.  If we only read and insist upon the one subtext (the objectification of women by men), we cheat the film, and ourselves, of richer goods.  The Silence of the Lambs excels because it stays true to its source and the cast and crew operate at the peak of their powers.  More importantly, it excels because it understands that this is a story about deep things (e.g., the seeming absence of God, the perhaps futile struggle for control in a chaotic universe). 

For my money, it is the scariest film of the 1990s.     


The Queen of the Damned

queendamnedI hate abandoning books I have bought.  
Last night, after getting 200 pages in, I let go of The Queen of the Damned (Anne Rice, 1988).
The first two Vampire Chronicles, Interview With the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat, are supremely entertaining books.  I was of high school age when I read them; and today, as a fledgling novelist of no repute, I am intent on reading more of her work:  I am fascinated by her success — at how the writer’s market has responded to her, at how she markets herself online (she has a great Facebook feed; she sounds like a nice lady).  Late last year, when I found a copy of The Queen of the Damned in my garage, I sat down and –
Had problems right away:  
1. It gets off to a great start, with Lestat, the brat prince of modern vampire fiction, narrating.  His voice is so strong, so commanding, that we miss it when Rice trades it for that of other, less interesting characters.  The book, then, becomes an unintentional tease.  Thumbing ahead, I see that Lestat resumes speaking to the reader at around the 250-page mark.  I, however, can’t bring myself to endure another fifty pages to see if the story, what little of it there is, picks up.  
2. The book is almost all backstory, presented about as dully as can be.  The setup for the The Queen of the Damned is that Lestat, having become a rock star in the age of MTV and written about his tribe’s secret history in The Vampire Lestat, has so affronted his own kind that Akasha, the pre-Egyptian queen mum of bloodsuckers, wakes from her slumber to teach him (and others) a lesson.  Unfortunately, the reader must wade through so much waxing-in-the-wind by so many secondary and undifferentiated characters — the setup becomes an excuse to fill in backstory.  With one exception, though, I didn’t care about these characters.  I failed to see the necessity of presenting them in such an extended manner:  Many of them get a chance to drive the narrative, but why should they?  Why can’t we stay with Lestat instead?  By doing this, by giving so many of them the same refined yet desiccated viewpoint, the book comes off as anemic.  I wish there was at least one loser, one meathead, among this insufferably serious and self-aware lot.  It’s Rice’s world, that I get.  She is free to build it as she pleases.  Still, I am not as into it as the book would have me be.  In The Queen of the Damned, Rice writes for the Rice obsessives.
3. The series, then, here in installment #3, feels played out.  The first two books were rooted in pain and self-discovery.  They were first-person accounts of transformation-through-tragedy, of the outsider’s quest for purpose and reason — and the curse in having to succumb, over and over again, to the same base urge — of having to feed on other people in order to survive.  One subplot in The Queen of the Damned glimmers with a similar sort of self-conflictedness (a play on the man-on-man “rape” between Louis and Lestat in Interview, it involves Daniel, the interviewer of the first book, and the vampire Armand, and I would happily have read more about it), but there is very little else to sink our teeth into (look, ma, I’m punning).  In this book, the world we enter is closed off to mortals, and without an immortal- or mortal-in-crisis to chart, the flaws have nowhere to hide. The Queen of the Damned is overstuffed, overly expository, and just plain boring.
I’m sorry, Mrs. Rice.  I tried.

Fleetwood Mac – Sara

fleetwoodmacsaraStevie Nicks has said that “Sara” is about the doomed affair she had with her best friend’s husband — who just so happened to be Mick Fleetwood, her own drummer.  Fans have said that it is about the doomed affair she had with Don Henley of the Eagles — and the abortion she had by him.  Other suggestions: Sara refers to the name of her inner child — or the name, actual name, of Fleetwood’s wife at the time.  Well, whatever.  Stevie’s stay at the Hotel California may be legendary, but “Sara” needs no such baggage in order to remain the saddest song on Tusk. 

Borne of much vamping in the studio, the song sounds quite literally haunted.  Fleetwood drums using brush-sticks.  Sun-dappled harmonies wash in and out.  Lindsey Buckingham, the guitarist and nominal leader of the band (for this version of the Mac), coats Stevie’s simple piano lick in effervescent waves of sound.  If you listen hard enough, you get an overall impression of guilt and self-ruin — but no more.  Who started the fire and whose house did it burn down?  Is the house a metaphor like the sea is?  Is Stevie a castaway, slave to the drift?  The basic repetition of the same few cryptic lyrics has a kind of zoom-lens effect.  By pairing it with the slow build-and-release of the mix, the song lingers in the mind.  ”Sara” refuses to resolve itself (I see Stevie waiting, steeling herself for still another storm), yet by song’s end you feel a journey is ended.  Someone’s heart is on the mend.  

Stardust Memories

stardustmemoriesIt is easy to mistake Woody for the unappealing director he plays in Stardust Memories, his overt tribute to / ripoff of Fellini’s 8.5.  Never mind that Stardust Memories is not that funny, or that its smooth cutaways to fantasy and daydream add nothing new to the Fellini playbook:  You just don’t like the hero.  He’s an ugly little narcissist.  You never find a reason to go the distance with him — and the distance traveled covers something like the navel to the eye.  His complaints (which amount to “No-one appreciates my genius!” and “Must I always be funny?”) sink beneath the weight of their self-regard — and the Woodman’s inability to match Fellini’s gift for comic fantasy.  And hey, admit it.  You never cared all that much for 8.51.
Verdict:  For Allen fans, this is a curdled curio with some great b&w cinematography by Gordy Willis.  For everyone else, beware.   
1 8.5 was fairly autobiographical, so Woody tripped in deciding to play the lead.  Granted, many of his leads play Woody anyway — but it’s a cop-out for him to have made a film that apes another guy’s film about director’s block (turning it into a neurotic’s full-blown existential crisis), and to have played that director, and to have told the trades (then, when he first released Stardust Memories, and later) that he had simply played a role.  He defies us, basically, to not identify him with the character, so any conflation of the two is natural.

Alien: Resurrection

alien_resurrection_ver3It is strange that a story that came from a single source, Joss Whedon’s screenplay, can feel as tonally disjointed as the previous Alien outing which was some devil’s spawn of several competing ideas, none of which were ever made into one complete shooting script.

But Alien: Resurrection is disjointed, oddly cast with weird characters – and not weird in a delightful or amusing way.

As the title implies, there is a lot of resurrecting going on. Ripley, dead at the end of the previous film, is brought back to life along with the alien that was inside her. She’s cloned, you see. And has these genetic memories, because this is science fiction. She’s brought to existence by evil military scientists who are still all hubrisy about turning the alien into a weapon. It has always been the weakest element in the Alien series, this notion that an uncontrollable creature of unknown origin and literally alien properties would be “the ultimate weapon.” A weapon is only as useful as it is controllable – nukes that would go off at random are worse than useless, biological weapons, and aren’t just avoided for ethical reasons, but because the gun that will just as easily kill your own soldiers when they fire it is not that great a gun.

But, still, evil scientists and evil military guys (taking over from the evil corporate Weyland-Yutani) want to make their own aliens, and to do so they get humans to experiment on from a group of pirates, including the evil-mouthed Michael Wincott, the always useful Ron Perlman, and the lil pixie Winona Rider. These are all colorful characters, because they wear weird clothes and swear a lot.

Eventually, of course, the aliens break loose and the pirates, along with the reconstituted and not entirely human Ripley, try to escape from the ship which is inexplicably heading back to Earth – and will get there in about an hour. Despite mass distances in space…blah blah blah. It isn’t worth thinking about, because the movie doesn’t think about it. People are killed, there are character revelations it is impossible to care about, and there is some new alien that’s a weird hybrid, just as the alien mother that comes out of Ripley is just as transformed by their connection as Ripley was.

This notion, about the joining of human and alien into some kind of horrible hybrid…isn’t that interesting. The whole not-quite-human Ripley isn’t that interesting. None of the ideas are fully baked, so none of the ideas have any real impact. There’s a couple (maybe) interesting set-pieces – the entire chase under water is ludicrous, but well-made. Leland Orser knocks it out of the park in his small part as a test subject who hasn’t had his alien come out yet. But in sticking to Ripley, in staying off Earth, in making yet another movie about running down corridors and getting off a ship and that has the third airlock ending in the series, Resurrection is tired, and empty.