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 says you have 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 its 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.

Advertisements

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.

A Night At The Opera: A Peek Behind The Curtain

ANATOQueen’s 1975 album “A Night At The Opera” begins with Freddie Mercury’s flowery piano-playing drifting in out of nowhere. It’s lulling you into a false sense of security, however, as Brian May’s angry guitar riff kicks in with a siren for backing. It builds to a crescendo of stabbing, Psycho-esque licks before a sudden Exorcist-like scream cuts across it and we cut to silence before Freddie’s teasing piano comes in again. The late DJ Gerry Ryan once said this album was “the most over-produced record of all-time.” Look at all the sounds we’ve already had in the opening seconds and he may have had a point. He may also have been a tad unfair. As Brian May said, Queen had more tools to play with in the studio by the mid-70s than the The Beatles had enjoyed back in the 60s and they were determined to take full advantage of them.

Those opening sounds are the intro to a song written by Freddie called “Death On Two Legs” tantalisingly sub-titled “Dedicated to…” It’s Freddie at his most vitriolic recalling John Lennon’s goading of Paul McCartney in his “nasty” song “How Do You Sleep.” “Death On Two Legs” was rumoured to be about Queen’s first managers, the Sheffield brothers, they certainly thought it was about them as they sued Queen (even though they nor anyone else is mentioned by name in the song). What were they so annoyed about? Check out some of the lines Freddie wrote: “Dog with disease/You’re the king of the sleaze/Put your money where your mouth is Mr Know All/Was the fin on your back part of the deal?…SHARK!” Even Brian May asked Freddie if he was sure he wanted to be so full-on but Freddie was insistent. On their live album “Live Killers” four years later, “Death On Two Legs” was described as “the source of many tedious legal battles.” Freddie’s introduction to the song on stage has to be bleeped out three times, I’ll leave it up to you to decide what he said, he was clearly unrepentant. It does end on a positive note: “Make me feel good/I feel good.”

It’s straight into the Noel Coward-esque “Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon” and we’re back to the Music Hall (the British version of American vaudeville and something Paul McCartney was constantly accused of writing for). Freddie’s muffled vocals were achieved by feeding them into a tin can and re-recording them on a microphone. A simple trick that pays off brilliantly. Whimsical again, the media never got the humour in Queen’s songs and videos and always tore them to shreds.

Next, we’re piling into Roger Taylor’s “I’m In Love WIth My Car.” Freddie and Brian were the Lennon and McCartney of Queen writing most of the early albums between them with Roger Taylor struggling to get any of his early songs into the mix, this being one of them. Brian May couldn’t believe Roger was serious submitting a song with that title for consideration and took offence to it. It’s got this rolling waltz-time beat to it and showcases Roger’s astonishingly high vocals (“the dog whistle voice” Freddie accurately called it). The track became a live favourite in later years and Roger arguably saved Queen in the 80s with his songwriting on huge hits like “Radio Ga Ga” and “A Kind of Magic” when Freddie was more interested in partying than writing lyrics. Here, like the car engines at the end, he was just revving up.

“You’re My Best Friend,” John Deacon’s gorgeous ode to the usually unspoken love of friendship (it was about his wife, actually) is next. Freddie puts in a great vocal on a song that isn’t his.

“’39”, a Brian May composition, is next and it starts out with some folky guitar before a jaunty, country-and-western-style sing-along rolls out before us. The song is about exploration. With its “milky sea” and “new world” references, I always thought it was about The Pilgrim Fathers sailing from Plymouth, England to the New World on The Mayflower. Turns out it was about space travel.

“Sweet Lady” is the closest thing the album comes to filler but is a good rock song that kicks off with Freddie going “Ooh, I like it!”, so he’s clearly into it. The repetition of “Sweet Lady” does get on your nerves a bit but “Seaside Rendezvous” is straight around the corner. It’s okay, again a little bit fillerish for my liking, slight and forgettable.

Brian May’s “The Prophet’s Song” is next and probably the best Queen song you’ve never heard. It’s Queen at their scariest with this apocalyptic epic. Look at the use of words “warning” “storm” “bone-white haze” “Hell” “death” “madman” and you can see where they are going. It’s dark stuff with some absolutely glorious soaring harmonies from the band and a middle section where Freddie repeatedly sings “now I know” in multi-tracked a cappella that just builds and builds and is quite eerie when he starts singing “death all around” like a mantra. Brian said that when Freddie sang backing vocals to his lead vocals, the takes were so similar that the sound phased together. That is a mark of how accurate Freddie was as a singer and how much concentration he put into recording.

From the Book of Revelations to the Book of Love with Love Of My Life. It’s got Brian May on harp but was stripped back to just guitar and vocals more effectively for live performances. Freddie always got the crowd to sing along during it, occasionally standing back and letting the crowd sing it back to him while he stood and applauded their efforts. Even audiences that didn’t speak English knew the words. YouTube it, it’s quite an uplifting experience, spellbinding.

Brian May takes over vocals for his own composition “Good Company” and it’s hard not to hear an echo of The Beatles “When I’m 64” in there, from the cheerful tone of the song with its underlying theme of a despondent man ageing to the use of ukulele (George Formby, a famous British comedian and ukulele player was one of The Beatles favourites)  May has admitted that Beatles records, especially The White Album, were The Bible for Queen. All writers have to work out their influences through imitation before they find their own voice.

The second last song on the album is Bohemian Rhapsody, unquestionably one of the greatest songs ever written. A very strange magnum opus with many different parts (ballad, opera, heavy rock), it was actually three songs Freddie had written that he threw together with spectacular results. Freddie never explained what that song was about. If anyone put any theories to him about what they thought the song meant, Freddie just stared at them for a moment and then laughed. He gave nothing away about his songs or himself. The name Freddie Mercury comes from a line in the song My Fairy King on Queen’s self-titled first album from 1973. The line was “Mother Mercury, look what they’ve done to me.” So Freddie Mercury is the “Mama” of Bohemian Rhapsody. “Freddie Mercury just killed a man.” Who is the man? Freddie Mercury was born Farookh Bulsara, could his alter-ego Freddie be the one “killing” him? What sort of death is it? The next line is “Put a gun against his head/Pulled my trigger now he’s dead.” The gun, of course, is a phallic symbol and the use of “my trigger” is significant. Normally you would write “THE trigger”, why is the “my” so important? So Freddie Mercury is “killing” the old Farookh Bulsara by pulling “his” (Farookh’s) trigger (an orgasm? It’s all very Freudian.). It was around 1975 that Freddie Mercury became gay. He was leaving the old him behind, was he worried about having “gone and thrown it all away” meaning a possible negative reaction from family, friends, the media and the public? I’m sure it was on his mind, he’d put everything he had into music and becoming a star and he had a lot riding on this album. Queen were not just poor, they were in debt and needed a smash hit album. Although Bohemian Rhapsody is a very intense, heartfelt song, there is that intentional, overarching preposterousness that means it’s not entirely meant to be taken seriously.

The curtain comes royally down on the album with Queen’s version of the British national anthem “God Save The Queen.” Jimi Hendrix was clearly the influence here with his rock version of America’s national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” still fresh in the memory from a few years before. Freddie Mercury was obsessed with Hendrix and once saw him 14 nights in a row in various pubs and clubs around London.

“A Night At The Opera” is widely regarded as Queen’s best-ever album. Some of their later albums had big hits with some filler on them, particularly “News Of The World” and “Jazz.” It’s my favourite Queen album and one that I never get tired of listening to. The songs are so varied and timeless and universal like all great albums should be. With each passing year, the death of Freddie Mercury is felt more and more sharply. There never has been another one of him in the years since he died and there never will be. This album will be listened to for as long as music is played and that must make old Fred smile wherever he is.

Album produced by Roy Thomas Baker and Queen.

© 2014, Stewart Stafford. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.