Tag Archives: Psycho

Dark Valentine: My Relationship with “Silence of the Lambs” On Its 25th Anniversary

On Valentine’s Day 1991, The Silence of the Lambs had its premiere in New York. It took several months to reach the other side of the Atlantic and didn’t open in Dublin until May 1991 – a particularly dull, chilly month. It was one of those event movies that everyone said you had to see. As with The Exorcist and Fatal Attraction, it dominated the media for weeks. There were TV panel discussions on the hysteria for this new phenomenon – the serial killer (they were common or garden psychopaths before that.) It was the last film that I missed out on seeing because the cinema was full. With so many multiplexes everywhere, you get in to see whatever film you want now. Having to make a second attempt to join the lengthy queue and get in made it more enjoyable, I found.

manhunterThe other Hannibal movie from five years earlier, Manhunter, got a boost from the huge success of Silence. It had slipped under the radar pretty much as there were no big names starring in it. People caught up with it in 1991 and a new fanbase for that film emerged. It’s also superb.

LecterI found my seat in the auditorium and the lights went down. I had no idea what I’d let myself in for. I saw Silence in the Savoy, at the time the biggest screen in Dublin. Silence features extreme close-ups of the faces of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as they stare directly into camera at each other but also at the audience. Audiences are used to being voyeurs and watching the actors, not having them stare back. As Lecter unpicks Starling’s psyche, he does the same to the audience. I felt like a baby in a pram with these massive faces looming down at me. I was pressing back into my chair to get away from them. That’s never happened to me with any other movie before or since. On television, with the faces shrunk, it has none of that power (if you ever get the chance to see Silence of the Lambs on the big screen, take it.)

That wintry May in Dublin was significant, as I can’t think of another movie that depicts the ravages of winter so well. The first sound you hear is the clarinet of Howard Shore’s brilliant score. It sounds like birdsong and then you hear it again. It perfectly sets the scene as we see FBI trainee Clarice Starling jogging alone on a deserted assault course with brown Autumn leaves still in evidence. The film later shows what winter does to the soft flesh of a dumped female victim in the mortuary scene.

Clarice-surrounded

Unusually, for a film written, produced and directed by men, it has a pro-feminist bent. The males, like Doctor Chilton and Miggs, are all sleazy pervs to a man who only want get into Clarice’s pants (even Hannibal has a go at innuendo until he’s put in his place by Clarice). This is not just a serial killer thriller (although you get your fix of that too). It touched on many important themes that movies in the early 90s just didn’t; gender, sexuality, the relationship between fathers and daughters, even how we judge people based on their height. You got your criminal profiling layer too. Despite Clarice saying that “transsexuals are very passive,” the movie (along with Basic Instinct in 1992) was picketed by LGBT groups. It was a tradition dating back to Psycho to have a “deviant” villain.  It’s one reason Silence of the Lambs could never be made today in the form it’s in right now, which makes it such an honest film. Director Jonathan Demme agreed with the protestors and made the apologetic Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer dying of AIDS. Demme won the Academy Award for Silence as best director but his career since has been patchy to say the least.

Clarice Pointing Gun

You could see the film as a battle for the soul of Clarice Starling between the “good” father figure, her boss Jack Crawford, and the “bad” father figure, Hannibal Lecter. Clarice has to break free of them and her childhood trauma (her policeman father was murdered and the killer never found) and grow up and become a woman in her own right.

Clarice with Lamb

The sound design is brilliant; just listen to how the sound grows more menacing as Clarice Starling essentially enters into the bowels of Hell to confront Hannibal Lecter in his plexiglass cell. There are atonal, womb-like noises. It’s got probably the most effective sound design since Alien in 1979 which does a similar job of setting the scene and unnerving the audience.

Hannibal Dungeon

The rich photography by Demme regular Tak Fujimoto is exemplary, particularly the ending in the basement with no light during Clarice’s fight-to-the-death with the serial killer Buffalo Bill. (Every woman in the audience screamed when Bill reached out to touch Clarice’s hair when she couldn’t see him in the pitch darkness.)

Ted Levine

Ted Levine played Buffalo Bill in the movie and he is probably the unsung hero of the whole thing, not even being Oscar-nominated for his terrifying performance while everyone else won Academy Awards.

The-Elephant-Man

There are so many great lines of dialogue. Anthony Hopkins had given up on a Hollywood career and moved back to the UK to appear in theatre. Hopkins got a call in his dressing room from his agent saying there was a script called Silence of the Lambs and would he take a look at it. Hopkins thought it was a children’s film based on the title alone. Director Jonathan Demme came to see him and offered him the part because he’d seen him play an intelligent doctor with a heart in The Elephant Man. Even though Anthony Hopkins is only in Silence of the Lambs for around 14 minutes, he dominates the whole thing, even when he’s offscreen. It won him the Oscar and changed his life and career.

Silence Oscars

Indeed, the film became only the third film after It Happened One Night and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to win all five big Oscars – Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay (Adapted). To date, it is the only horror film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. That was an incredible achievement at the time and it only grows even more impressive as the years go on.

Hannibal 2001

There have been other Hannibal books and movies (the sequel Hannibal opened on Valentine’s Day 2001, exactly 10 years later. 2001 was appropriate as Hopkins had based the voice of Hannibal on Hal, the computer from Kubrick’s 2001). None of the new material ever really recaptured the greatness of Silence of the Lambs. It is one of the best thrillers ever made with career-bests from all those involved on every level. There are great twists that you don’t see coming. Even that ending, which refuses to tie things up in a neat bow is daring (it so freaked out one couple in America, that they apparently refused to leave the cinema afterwards). It’s got everything you could ask for really. So, this Valentine’s Day, when you get sick of all the predictable rom-coms, put on that magnificent dark Valentine, The Silence of the Lambs, and luxuriate in a masterclass of acting, filmmaking, screenwriting, photography and production, sound and costume design. You will never see its like again.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

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The Science Fiction Faction

For me, the term science fiction is something of a misnomer. For me, science fiction is “science yet to be.” It’s amazing how the sci-fi films of the 80s and 90s have influenced our modern world.

1990’s Total Recall, seen as a classic at the time, is now pounced on by today’s generation as being not very good because its innovations are with us now from its then-futuristic webcam chats to body scanners at airports (although they still haven’t got around to making that touchpad device that turns a girl’s fingernails different colours on command). The pilotless flying machines in The Terminator(1984) that were called HKs or Hunter-Killers are quite clearly the prototype for the drones we have prowling our skies today (they’re even called Predator drones after another Schwarzenegger sci-fi film)

You could argue that H.G. Wells predicted all this with his Martian fighting-machines in his book The War of the Worlds in 1898. Or did the designers of mechanised warfare in the 20th century take their cue from Wells himself? I believe they did. Writers have the luxury of creating worlds in the freedom of their imaginations. There are no budgetary constraints. No chains of command or standard operating procedures to adhere to. They can play out their scenario in full and demonstrate its effectiveness which perhaps inspires those in power to emulate their proven hypothesis.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sits at the heart of the science fiction spider web. Her 1818 novel concerned itself with things we are still worried about today, especially in this interconnected online virtual reality world most of us live in 24/7. Where is all this technology going? Is our humanity being swamped by it all? Will it one day overwhelm us, its creators, and take over as Frankenstein’s creature did? What sort of world will that be? James Cameron extrapolated on those fears to spectacular effect in his Terminator movies (surely Schwarzenegger missed his calling with Frankenstein. In his prime, he did resemble something someone had constructed instead of a real human being or “a condom stuffed with walnuts” as Clive James once described him.) Those fears are also in everything from 1927’s Metropolis to Westworld in 1970s, Robocop in the 80s and The Matrix in the 90s.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde novella from 1886 is another cornerstone of the science fiction genre. He had two different personas inhabiting the same body. That idea is the basis of every comic book superhero movie from Superman (Kal-El/Clark Kent) and Batman (Bruce Wayne/Batman) to Spider-Man (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), etc. It has also served sci-fi’s cousin genre, the horror movie, well in Psycho (Norman Bates/Mother) and The Exorcist (Regan/Pazuzu The Demon).

Science fiction is the exploration of innovations, not necessarily in a futuristic world, but the very projection of forward-thinking ideas does shape the construction of those worlds. Even if the influence is indirect, it is still fuelling reality through pop culture filtering into the public consciousness. The science “fiction” tag is dismissive to me, as if to label it ludicrous and put it in an unreal box. The cliché that the pen is mightier than the sword, like all clichés, has a basis in fact. Ideas really can and have changed the world. It is happening every day all around us. Fiction has been the launch pad of progress so many times and will continue to be in the future. Dismiss it as science “fiction” at your peril.

© Stewart Stafford, 2014. All rights reserved.