Friday, October 29, 2010

2010 Geek Fright Fest: The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Rated R (for violence, language, and disturbing images)

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Jodie Foster
Anthony Hopkins
Ted Levine
Scott Glenn

The Silence of the Lambs is based on Thomas Harris's novel of the same name. The film was extremely well-received and swept the top five Academy Awards. It did come under fire, however, from gay rights activists (for the perceived negative stereotypical portrayal of the transgender Buffalo Bill) and from feminists like Betty Friedan (who decried the depiction of the evisceration and skinning of women).

FBI Academy trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is tapped to interview infamous psychiatrist-turned-cannibal killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Initially, she is told that the interview is for a routine update on Lecter's file, but Clarice quickly figures out that the FBI is probing the imprisoned doctor to glean information on a vicious serial killer, "Buffalo Bill" (Ted Levine). Bill kills plus-size women and removes sections of their skin. She must develop a give-and-take relationship with Lecter and discover Bill's true identity before a prominent senator's daughter becomes his next victim.

This was an unusual film for Demme to direct. His previous experience had mostly been in comedies, but he presents a dark, malevolent world in Silence of the Lambs. The architecture and several of the sets have a large Gothic influence and Demme's close POV shots during discussions between two characters (particularly those between Lecter and Clarice) make the audience intimately feel like part of the film.

There are some particularly nice sequences in the flick. One, showing moths fluttering around a collection of multi-colored thread spools, is both beautiful and foreshadowing. A short scene between two entomologists playing chess with bugs is humorous and wonderfully lit. The "butterflied crucifixion" scene is also beautiful in its own grotesque way - a testament to Tak Fujimoto's excellent cinematography.


Concerning the two major criticisms of the film (listed in the first paragraph), I do not agree with them. Dr. Lecter assures Clarice in the film that Buffalo Bill is not really transgendered. He is a psychopath with a deep sense of self-loathing - deep enough that he would go to great lengths to change his identity. He never identifies as gay (although critics point to his poodle named Precious as a clear sign), and indeed, most gay serial killers murder men, not women. Bill's motives for his murders are a huge part of the plot in the novel and to adapt Harris's story well it was vital to keep it intact for the film. As for Freidan and other feminist's views, I do not think that the film denigrates women simply because it shows women as victims of violent murders. The simple fact is that women are murdered, and occasionally, those murders include mutilation. For some serial killers, it is part of their M.O. The film portrayed this kind of murder in a realistic way - not in a way that condemns the victims. In fact, feminist critics should be overjoyed to see a brilliant, well-rounded female hero played by a talented actress who looks like a "regular" woman. If this film were made now, someone like Angelina Jolie would probably end up playing Clarice Starling.

I do take issue with the interpretation of the "good" serial killer and the "bad" serial killer, however. Because Lecter is intelligent, charming, and cultured, moviegoers tend to see him as sort of an anti-hero. Bill, on the other hand, is a "weirdo". He kidnaps women and keeps them in a pit in his basement. He sews their skin into a "woman suit". He is reviled as the villain, but when Lecter makes his escape near the end of the film (killing two guards and a paramedic in the process), the audience almost roots for him to succeed. Yet, both these men are guilty of the same crime - the ruthless slaughter of human beings for their own pleasure.*


Like so many of my favorite films, the gorgeous camera work and captivating sets are only the icing on the cake. The film's strongest success lies with the performances of the three principal actors. Foster is an amazing actress and she is so good in this film. Her own innate intelligence (she is a Yale honors graduate) helps add realism to her character and her appearance and the way she carries herself is in keeping with a female FBI agent. (Incidentally, I have to give props to the costuming department. It would have been very easy to dress Foster in designer clothes for the flick, but by keeping her wardrobe simple and functional it made her character very believable.) Foster's few emotional scenes are also played very well and give her character depth. Hopkins is also a brilliant actor and he manages to make Lecter cultured and extremely creepy at the same time. The ways he holds himself and the intensity of his eyes do wonders for his character. Levine is skin-crawlingly creepy, and it has a lot to do with his voice, which is deep, but warbly at the same time (He puts this to good use in the film Joy Ride, playing the voice of the psychopathic trucker, "Rusty Nail"). He makes a very good villain, but is probably most recently known for playing Lt. Stottlemeyer on the television series "Monk".

Fright Rating: 3 gasps out of a possible 5

The film has a combination of psychological and jump scares, as well as a few gory autopsy scenes, but the scariest scene is arguably Bill's dance (definitely NSFW!). This is an excellent, thought-provoking film and a wonderful flick for those who aren't usually horror fans.

*This is not the fault of the filmmakers, or even Harris, but the American moviegoers who interpret the film this way.

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