Thursday, January 29, 2009
In my ongoing quest to grow the hell up and get over my childish fear of the horror genre-- though I believe most horror filmmakers would be delighted that I spent the first 17-18 years of my life desperately avoiding the genre-- I've been going through the classics and finding most of them to be too entertaining to frighten. When I watched Alien about a year and a half ago, it served as my gateway into the genre, a beautifully crafted example of how a gifted filmmaker could actually get scares out of something other than things popping in front of the screen (though there's plenty of that). Well, after slowly working my way through some of the more notable names, I've finally gotten to The Silence of the Lambs, the horror thriller renowned for giving us what, for many, is the greatest screen villain of all time.
I became less eager to see this film a while back when I heard Lecter only shows up for 16 minutes of screen time, and I'd seen at least half that on any TV show that mentions him. However, having watched it, I agree that Anthony Hopkins' performance is justly famous. The film is about Clarice Starling, and the villain is Buffalo Bill, but Hopkins walks away with the show. His Lecter is mannered, erudite and fiercely intelligent, which makes it all the more shocking when he suddenly reaches out to eat someone's face.
His performance is so good that it sadly overshadows the excellent work put in by both Jodie Foster and Ted Levine. Foster plays Clarice Starling as a cauldron of insecurities and trauma simmering under a collected yet clearly nervous exterior. At the start of the film she's in training to become an FBI agent and, for reasons that somewhat escape me, her boss Crawford sends her to interview the infamous, cannibalistic psychologist Hannibal Lecter in order to gain some information on a serial killer known only as 'Buffalo Bill.' Before she leaves, Crawford warns her "Don't let him inside your head."
She visits Lector's maximum security cell and, of course, immediately lets him inside her head. But he does not do so because Starling is some bubbly fool like most horror females; instead, we see how he uses his psychological knowledge to weaken and destroy his victims. The scene is less an insult to Clarice as it is a testament to Lecter's fearsome reputation. After all, with 16 minutes of face time, you have to hook the audience fast.
The two enter into a sort of a waltz; Lecter speaks in cryptic riddles and slowly extracts pieces of Starling's past and persona, while Starling solves his misleading advice. Starling uses that nugget of information, then the process starts again. You get a sense from Lecter that he's almost proud of Starling; after all, he got into her head early and stayed there, but she never backed down and she's learning enough about him to figure out his lies.
Demme cranks up the thrills as the film goes on. Buffalo Bill, a wannabe transsexual who, instead of elective surgery, has chosen to kill women and piece together a suit out of their skins, captures a senator's daughter, suddenly putting even more pressure on the Feds. Meanwhile Lecter stages a bold escape attempt, and at some point the psychological drama kicks into action overdrive. Eventually, Clarice finds Buffalo Bill, and it plays out in moments of incredible suspense aided by Craig McKay's skillful editing.
Overall, I found the film to be taut and intelligent. Though people always refer to it as a horror, I don't know if I'd call it one. A thriller certainly, but just because there's a cannibal and a killer doesn't make it a horror film. Then again, true horror stems from suspense, I think; I derive much more visceral terror from, say, North By Northwest than I do The Exorcist. The Silence of the Lambs isn't perfect, but it boast stellar acting, great writing and great direction, and I imagine it'll entertain audiences for generations to come.