FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Oct 16, 2007

Day 16- "You don't know what pain is."

As we all know, horror comes in many flavors, from straight-up monster movies to slasher films to supernatural flicks to everything in between. Though many people classify The Silence of the Lambs (1991) as a "thriller", I myself do not. Though it's a bit of a crime procedural to be sure, Silence features a killer who keeps women in a pit in his basement, skin suits, flesh masks, heads in jars, and cannibalism (not to mention cameos from Roger Corman and George Romero); it's all splitting hairs, perhaps, but to me that adds up as horror. Everyone's got their own definitions, but as a friend of mine remarked the other day- why is it that when a horror film is smart and serious and successful, people start calling it a thriller?

Though I've never talked about the film here at FG, I'm not sure what I can say about it that's particularly groundbreaking, fresh, or new. Everyone knows the story, and it can be assumed that only the Amish have no idea who Hannibal Lecter is. It's amazing what a caricature he'd become in the sequels, but then that's what happens when audiences start rooting for the bad guy- just look at Freddy Krueger for further evidence.

In my humble opinion, the major players involved with this film- director Jonathan Demme and stars Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster- have never been better than they are here. Demme's direction, though nearly flawless, rewards multiple viewings: each time, the viewer catches another clue or hint and understands just how perfectly the puzzle all fits together. I mentioned Dr Lecter already, but in his first turn in the role Hopkins walks the line between horrifying and campy- never too over-the-top, but outrageous enough to grab your attention and hold it. Foster, meanwhile, turns in a remarkable, layered performance as Clarice Starling. She's smart but not perfect, she's both tough and vulnerable, she's ambitious but doesn't ever resort to being a 'superbitch' as so many women in film (and yes, I suppose in life) seem to as she makes her way through the FBI training program, undoubtedly a true 'boy's club'.

The real villain of the film, Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb, is a bit Ted Bundy and a bit Ed Gein- he's the guy next door who's living in a house of unspeakable horrors; there's the pit in the basement, the skin suits, and the rotting body in the bathtub, all nestled snugly in your average working-class town in middle America.

When the film was released, there was a huge outcry from the gay community, condemning Silence of the Lambs as being homophobic- Gumb is, after all, a transvestite and a killer. That's simply a knee-jerk reaction, however, and it seems that those who cry "homophobia" haven't been paying very close attention to the film at all. Lecter himself speaks of Gumb as being confused- as not being homosexual or a true transvestite, but "a thousand times more savage"- a killer with a disturbing personal history who feels out of place and will try anything to fit in. The skin suits are but a metaphor: Gumb wants to be anything but himself. Additionally, Starling mentions that Buffalo Bill is an anomaly even in the transvestite crowd; the filmmakers, if anything, go out of their way not to point fingers at the gay community. Jame Gumb is a mysogynist serial killer, fostering a brutal hatred of women. The character mocks both women and homosexuals, with the taunting of his captive Catherine (Brooke Smith) and his lisping whispers to his dog Precious...but a film about homophobia doesn't a homophobic film make.

The simple brilliance of this film- and it is nothing short of absolutely fucking brilliant, from Howard Shore's score right down to the visuals of each and every frame- has been overlooked, it seems, lost in the shadow of Hannibal the Cannibal. He's become a movie maniac, the subject of subpar sequels, sure to be oft-imitated like Austin Powers- come on, who hasn't heard someone try the "fava beans and a nice chianti" line? It's not a film one tends to trot out at Halloween- that night tends to be reserved for ghosts, vampires, zombies, and Michael Myers. Nevertheless, The Silence of the Lambs is indeed one of the greatest horror films ever produced, and it sure as hell earned a spot on my list.


Jason Adams said...

We were on the same page today, Stacie! I lurve Silence and it's high on my list too. A perfect horror film, and it pisses me off when people try and label it with "thriller" too.

Greg said...

Thriller? I thought it was a musical?

Good write-up. I'm coming here to get to know more about horror beyond the seventies, of which I know little. My horror experiences generally end sometime around the recently covered Creepshow and Salem's Lot You seem to know quite a lot. And now I can say I have seen the words "Hannibal Lecter" and "Amish" in the same sentence together. Goddamn I'm lucky.

Now as for the genre classification. I think a lot of that has to do with the pursuit of the killer. In films like "Friday the 13th" there is no counter story running concerning catching the killer responsible for the deaths at the lake. The film's plot is principally concerned with the killings themselves. In a film like "Silence of the Lambs" the exploits of Buffalo Bill are secondary to the exploration of Starling and Lecter as they "work" together in pursuit of the killer. Even in a film like "Psycho" which has also been called a thriller there is the element of characters (Balsam, Gavin and Miles) trying to find out what happened. Same with "Seven". And so they become known as thrillers. When the focus is on the killing itself they tend to be labeled horror. However there is a point where this breaks down and, as your friend correctly pointed out, it usually has to do more with budget and big name talent than the movie itself. "Stepfather" has elements of both but is low budget and I've always seen it classified as horror. My solution would be to sub-genre the category into "Horror-Thriller". So "Dracula" is horror on one side, "FX" is a thriller on the other side, and "Silence of the Lambs" would be a "Horror-Thriller."

I'll run it by the Amish and see what they think.

Anonymous said...

I think Mr. Lapper makes a good point; in addition, Silence has all the trappings of a police-procedural mystery, which also lend themselves to the "thriller" classification.

In any case, I thought I'd raise the question to you (and the blood-soaked peanut gallery), which Hannibal Lecter you found scarier, Hopkins' in Silence or Brian Cox's in Manhunter (the original, Michael Mann adaptation of Red Dragon with William Petersen, Dennis Farina, Joan Allen, and terrifying Tom Noonan (...and Chris Elliott!)).

Me, I'll take Cox's any time. The languid menace in his casual, "Do you dream much, Will?" along with Graham's panicky, "Goodbye, Dr. Lecter" is many multiples more scary to me than any of Hopkins' undeniably brilliant, if stagier tricks.

In fact, for all Demme's brilliant direction, Manhunter has always scared me more, from the killer's-eye intro to the sight of Freddy the tabloid reporter's flaming soon-to-be corpse flying down the parking garage ramp in a wheelchair to the almost hallucinatory climax which pretty much made "Inna Gadda Da Vida" nightmare fuel for me... that is one scary effing movie.

And for all that Jodie Foster can act circles around William Petersen, his inhabitation of Will Graham as one recovered, barely, from the brink of madness by immersion in evil is so good, I think he even outclasses Clarice for me...

So, yeah, back to Silence. Totally deserved the Best Picture hardware it got, and when I first saw it at a sneak preview (such a fan was I of Harris's work at that point), it was like a clinic in genius movie-making, especially compared with the bloated, self-indulgent piece of crap that they followed it with. Dances With something or other...

Anonymous said...

Here's a fun fact if you're a Family Guy fan: Seth Green originally based his voicing for Chris on a bit he'd do for friends of Gumb working at McDonalds. He just made it more high pitched.

If you listen closely to Chris, you can still see traces of his Levine impersonation.

CampBlood said...

I love SOTL!!! It is truly one of the best horror films ever made.

I don't know why th gay commumity got their panties in a wad over this film. (WTF! Jodie Foster is in it... Um, hello????) They did the same thing with Basic Instinct. I'm gay & have tons of gay friends. All of which are big fans of both films. I've never known anyone personally who felt as if these films were derogatory in any way to gay people.

Homo fanatics aside, Ted Levine's performance in SOTL is superb. He has such a presence & a uniquely terrifying voice (which can also be heard in Joy Ride as Rusty Nail.) His character Jame Gumb is absolutely one of my favorite horror villains.

Joe said...

Put the lotion in the basket!!!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the whole "this is not a horror film" drives me nuts. I agree with Bill, Manhunter is great-way better than that Red Dragon nonsense.

theotaking said...

My girlfriend makes one major distinction between horror films and thrillers: is there a supernatural element? SOTL would be a thriller because there are no ghosts or demons in it.

Now, I can agree with that to an extent, but could you call The Devils Rejects a thriller for the same reason? Um, no. I think the distinction falls apart by that point.

I tend to fall on the "thriller" side of the argument with SOTL. Still, it's a great movie to watch this time of year. Thanks for making me think of this movie again, and if the whole "horror vs. thriller" argument.

Anonymous said...

Re: the other Lecter movies.
I originally read Harris' book RED DRAGON as a paperback because of the Stephen King quote on it.
I thought it was great.
I thought the ending was okay, but it seemed like a movie ending, for some reason.
Saw MANHUNTER when it first came out, knowing it was based on RED DRAGON.
I thought updating the Tooth Fairy to using videotape was great and that opening is scary.
But the ending I thought was weaker than the book. of course, this is based on when I originally watched it. So I haven't seen it in years.
I thought the movie RED DRAGON was a mixed bag.
In MANHUNTER, they kept the important detail of the Frances Dolarhyde being self-conscious of his hare-lip and then, completely letting his guard down when he realizes Reba McClain is blind. I thought that was important character info that wasn't in RED DRAGON.
But I thought RED DRAGON screenwriter Ted Tally strengthened the ending of the book. The expanded scenes of Will Graham and Lecter in RED DRAGON were okay, but also unnecessary. You had a sense they were padding their Anthony Hopkins mix.
I also think director Michael Mann had a much stronger bision in MANHUNTER, and I think RED DRAGON director Brett Ratner was just thrilled by his talented cast and had less control over the piece.
That said, I kind of pick and choose favorite parts from each version, so I'm totally going wishy washy here.
Although I've seen and read the first three books and seen the adaptations, haven't seen or read the last one HANNIBAL RISING.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Ted Tally deserves some mention for his Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation of SOTL, too!

Unknown said...

"That's simply a knee-jerk reaction, however, and it seems that those who cry "homophobia" haven't been paying very close attention to the film at all."

While that's true in a sense, someone who's seen as many horror movies as you have cannot have failed to notice how in (American) movies homicidal tendencies often go hand and hand with "loose" sexuality, or really anything other than uncomplicated heterosexuality. Sexual vagueness is almost the defining aspect of the horror slasher.

Stacie Ponder said...

Mr Lapper, I like your distinction. Good call.

You know, I like Manhunter (and Cox especially), but honestly it feels a bit dated- the blame for which falls directly on Michael Mann's shoulders. I don't know, it kind of feels like an especially dark episode of Miami Vice or something.

I read Hannibal and I kind of enjoyed it; I saw the movie and kind of hated it, and I decided that I'd leave all things Lecter in the past, that I'd simply stop with Silence of the Lambs.

Ford MF- I agree with you entirely; sex and horror (particularly slashers) often go hand in hand, and there's nothing wrong with discussing sexuality in regards to its relationship with horror or a particular film. Additionally, more often than not, homosexual characters in films (whether horror or another genre) tend to be either homicidal or suicidal.

I just think the hubbub over Silence wasn't an educated hubbub- there were protests and threats of boycotts, and I feel they were misguided. Protesters were even putting the onus on Jodie Foster ( know...maybe she's gay, I guess) to become a mouthpiece against homophobia. I think the anger was coming from people who 1) didn't see the film, or 2) saw it but didn't get it.

Unknown said...

All true points.

"I think the anger was coming from people who 1) didn't see the film, or 2) saw it but didn't get it."

Whence comes most outrage against art.

Greg said...

"Mr. Lapper." I feel so distinguished. Thanks.

I ran the subgenre suggestion past the Amish. They just stared blankly until one of them said, "You be on your way now English." I don't what that means but I think they liked it.

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Anonymous said...

I think the dismissal of the film's homophobia is a bit too casual in this review. I do enjoy the Hannibal series, but I will admit that I have a certain distaste for the way they always rely on having a queer/gay/infantile villain on hand to make Lector seem a more erudite and attractive anti-hero.

Really, the whole idea of Jame Gumb not being the typical tranny killer is just too pat; the man specifically desires transforming himself himself into a fantasy women, in my book a trait that qualifies him as transsexual. There are also two other gay characters mentioned briefly who also have a close connection to murder and violence.

I find myself trying to count the number of Queer Monster cliches the film overloads itself and Buffalo Bill with: the Neo-Nazi bedspread, body art, swishy poodle, mirror ball, creepy mannequins, sinister club music, the fetid lair of decay, mother fixation, envy of natural womanhood, social awkwardness, and the predatory black van of death. It's as if the project tried to hit every mark to make its killer queen as repulsive as possible,

mudpiegirl said...

Stacie, I love what you wrote about Clarice! This movie only works with a female protagonist because what guy would have the relationship with Lecter that she has? In a more male-centric movie, the protagonist would have to defeat Lecter, or at least get some small measure of revenge or power over him. But with Clarice, she only cares about saving the victims; stopping the killer is important, but her main motivation is saving the women and I love that about this movie. Hence, she's willing to be polite and respectful to Lecter and then vulnerable. Anyway, I'm not sure how articulate this is, but I've always appreciated this movie for Clarice and Foster's work.

As for the horror/thriller debate, I have no qualms with people considering SOTL as horror, but to me the distinction is that while the events in Silence as horrific, the filming itself has only one real "jump scare" moment, and that's Clarice's discovering the head at the storage facility. Bad horror relies to much on fake scares and gore, but even good horror needs to have those moments that make you hide your face or have a physical reaction to a scary surprise. You make a good point about smart, well done horror suddenly becoming a thriller, but in this case... either works for me.