Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Silence of the Lambs

"A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti."

"It puts the lotion on it's skin or else it gets the hose again."

These were not phrases which were part of the cultural lexicon until The Silence Of The Lambs was released in 1991. These are not lines remembered because of their camp factor, like so many action movie throw away lines which have become immediately recognizable. These are lines remembered because they scared the daylights out of people everywhere.

I thought given the release of Hannibal Rising, and the release of the Collectors Edition of The Silence of the Lambs, it would be a good opportunity and fitting time to revisit one of American cinema's greatest horror films.

And yes, I called it a horror film. I didn't call it a thriller. I didn't call it a police procedural. I called it a horror movie, because despite all the attempts to name it otherwise when it was released, this is a horror movie. Two of the main characters are a cannibal, and a man making a woman suit out of women. It's nasty, mean, scary, horrific, but most of all, it's subtle.

The Silence of the Lambs is a special film to me. It's the only horror movie I've ever seen with my father, who detests horror movies. It's also the only time I've ever seen my father, a brawny New York Italian, cover his eyes like a little girl. I love my father, and this would probably embarrass him, but it's a great memory.

Moving past the personal anecdotes though, there's something to be said for the fact that Silence can probably be credited as the film which brought the horror film back to the popular consciousness in 1991 when it was released. The eighties had beaten the horror film, not only into near obscurity, but probably closer to it's demise than any period of time before. The glut of low budget (and big budget) slasher films was choking the horror film market, and I think the horror film fan too.

Don't get me wrong, I love slasher films as much as the next guy. I do like to see horror movies which are well made and intelligent also. Let's face it, the better number of slasher films being pumped out in the eighties were of poor quality (and calling them poor is kind). At the end of the eighties, horror was dead. As far as Hollywood was concerned, and most of the movie going public, except for those like myself, who are loyal fans of the genre.

But, in 1991, the film The Silence of the Lambs, based on the Thomas Harris novel, not only showed horror was not dead, but that it could still be an artistic force in the world of cinema. Filmed for an estimated $19 million, it would eventually bring in over $130 million in ticket sales, and another $60 million in rentals. Granted, to your everyday Joe, $19 million dollars is an exorbitant amount of money, but for a Hollywood film, even in the late eighties and early nineties, it's not much.

More than just another blockbuster at the box office, it was critically acclaimed and audience approved. Hannibal Lecter would immediately become one of films most recognizable icons, propelling Anthony Hopkins from the level of respected actor, to the household name and superstar we know him to be today. In 1992, he'd win the Academy Award for best actor in a leading role. Jodie Foster would win for best actress in a leading role, Jonathan Demme would win for best director, Ted Tally for best screenplay based on material from another medium, and the film would ultimately win best picture. The Silence of the Lambs became the eight hundred pound gorilla of worldwide cinema for 1991, and the 1992 Academy Awards. It's the film everyone dreams of writing, starring in, directing, and studios executives pray to the movie gods will be the film they're giving the green light to today.

Hannibal Lecter was introduced to the popular culture in a book called, Red Dragon. Published in 1981, Red Dragon followed the exploits of Will Graham, retired FBI profiler asked to return to duty in order to catch a new serial killer, The Tooth Fairy. Graham's retirement had come after his investigating and capturing of Lecter. Lecter had left Graham with some scars to remember him by. The book was well worth the read. In my own opinion, it has yet to get it's due on screen though, even as it's been adapted to film twice. Brian Cox, another respected actor from the UK, played Lecter in the first film adaptation, Michael Mann's Manhunter. Manhunter is worth checking out too, if you can get past Mann's post Miami Vice, eighties pastiche. Following the success of Silence and it's sequel, Hannibal, it would be adapted again into a film called Red Dragon, directed by Brett Ratner. Hopkins, now the world's Hannibal Lecter, played the character in both of those films.

Ten years after The Silence of the Lambs, a sequel, Hannibal was released to mixed reviews, and good box office receipts. Had Hannibal been a film from a completely different continuum or not at all related to The Silence of the Lambs, it probably would have been received better. On it's own, it wasn't a bad film, it just wasn't anywhere near what The Silence of the Lambs was in quality or in scope. Hannibal was also a much more straight forward, popcorn movie, Hollywood norm, kind of film. It didn't have the heart Silence did. Although Julianne Moore is a great actress, her Clarice Starling was a much more familiar film character, where Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling was familiar too, but more because she came across as someone we could actually know, struggling with the things any of us would struggle with in a situation like the one she was facing. Check out the new collectors edition DVD of Silence for plenty of good information on Foster's approach to the Clarice Starling character. The how and why she went about becoming Clarice Starling is interesting if you're a movie geek like me.

Speaking of the new DVD, it's packed full of great stuff about this seminal film. There are a new documentaries, The Silence of the Lambs: Page to Screen, in two parts, and Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster, a documentary concerning the score (a score well worth it's own documentary), 22 deleted scenes, a photo gallery, an Anthony Hopkins phone message (included on older versions of DVD's) and some other usual suspects for a DVD. My girlfriend rocks, she gave me the DVD for my birthday!

One thing I'd like to touch on which for years has been overlooked when it comes to The Silence of the Lambs. This is a film which has two villains. In itself, this is unusual for a Hollywood movie, other than super hero movies. The way the movie is structured though, if both villains, Hannibal Lecter and Jamey Gumm (Buffalo Bill) weren't terrifying in their own ways, it would never have worked. Anthony Hopkins has become one of the great treasures of the film world, very much because of Silence. Ted Levine, who played Buffalo Bill has been shamefully overlooked. Maybe we're much less surprised by Buffalo Bill. It's a character much more recognizable in the film world. The insane mastermind, working away in his basement on his mad, disgusting masterpiece, is a film cliche'. But Levine's performance is absolutely chilling. Befitting the rest of the film, his performance is much more subtle than usual, especially considering the subject matter Silence takes on. He's not a flashy, drooling on himself kind of insane. What Levine brings to the extremely disturbing subject matter is a sense of pathos. We are watching this madman and in his scenes (and Levine is probably given some of the most shocking scenes) and there's this sense to it that we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg, that the things going on in this man's head to make what he's doing acceptable to him are even more terrifying than what we're being shown.

I've since seen Ted Levine in some of his other work, including the USA show Monk, and it's almost inconceivable that the same actor is playing both roles. Ted Levine is an actor I'd like to see in some much more substantial roles than he's gotten since Silence. I think Jonathan Demme had the ability to find not only the best actors for the roles in Silence, but some of the best actors in the world. Levine has been the only one who hasn't received the same acclaim and the same success following the film as the other actors.

The Silence of The Lambs is an incredibly rare film. It's commercial success, and it's relevance fifteen years following it's release, can only be attributed to it's artistic success. It's not a typical blockbuster kind of movie. It's not a typical horror movie. It's subtle, powerful, engulfing and enthralling. It's a character study in more ways than not. Without the attention given the characters, it could have been something so much more conventional and a throw away in the serial killer sub-genre of the horror world or the history of police procedural films. The economy with which it approaches it's much bigger, action oriented sequences pays off in the freedom and foundation it finds in it's characters.

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