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 who’s hot to trot, and yes, she wants to save poor Catherine.  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. 

Rating: A   

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