Halloween is in the air this week, and after you have finished passing out goodies to all the ghosts, goblins, zombies, monsters, and superheroes that knock on your door, I suggest the best way to spend the rest of Halloween night is to make some popcorn, pour a drink of your choice, and curl up to watch a good, old-fashioned scary movie.
Now notice I said, “a good, old-fashioned scary movie.” I’m not talking about the modern thrillers that equate gallons of fake blood, graphic scenes of severed body parts, and segments of horrific mutilations with the way to elicit fear. My idea of a truly frightening film, however, is one that gets inside your head so much that you think about it long after it has ended.
I have dipped into the 10 File for my suggestion, and I consider this 1991 film the very epitome of the thriller genre. It is so good in fact that at the 1991 Academy Awards, it became only the third film in history to win Oscars for best film, best director, best actor, best actress, and best adapted screenplay. (The other two films to achieve this are 1934’s “It Happened One Night” and 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”) Without further ado, let’s have a look at “The Silence of the Lambs,” starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster and directed by Jonathan Demme.
“The Silence of the Lambs,” based upon Thomas Harris’s novel of the same name, begins at the FBI training facility in Quantico, Va., where we find agent trainee Clarice Starling (Foster) doing a practice run on the obstacle course. Before Clarice can finish her workout, however, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), chief of the FBI’s psychological profiles for serial killers division, summons her to his office.
Crawford has a special assignment for Clarice: She must travel to a mental hospital/prison in Maryland, where Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) has been sentenced to nine consecutive life terms for murders he has committed. Lecter, a genius in the field of forensic psychiatry, has earned the nickname Hannibal the Cannibal because of his propensity for eating parts of his victims’ bodies. Clarice’s assignment is to deliver a questionnaire to Lecter, but Crawford hopes Clarice will be able enlist his help in tracking down a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. This wacko preys on women whom he skins before he dumps their bodies into rivers.
At first Clarice manages to establish a little rapport with Lecter, but the ploy with the questionnaire insults him and leads him to tell Clarice, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” After revealing this little gem, Lecter dismisses Clarice, but on her way down the hallway one the other prisoners does something so grotesque to her that even Lecter is appalled. He calls her back and gives her a clue that may prove helpful in the hunt for Buffalo Bill.
From this point on, the film evolves into an incredible blend of a mystery, a horror story, and a psychological thriller as Clarice manages to establish a strange relationship with Lecter in which he gives her clues about Buffalo Bill as long as she agrees to share with him things about her childhood that she has spent a lifetime trying to forget.
The acting in this film is absolutely brilliant. Foster successfully imbues Starling with a perfect combination of naïveté and determination, and as the film progresses, we watch her mature as she gains more and more confidence in herself. Starling’s first interview with Lecter is a showcase for Foster’s talent because her character is terrified of this legendary monster, but she must overcome her fear to carry out her assignment, and Foster conveys all of Starling’s conflicting emotions flawlessly. In an online interview, she offered some insight into her character.
“She’s an amazing heroine — this kind of archetypal heroic character who has to learn something about herself by going through this forced experience with these gnomes and demons and horrible monsters. To find a part like that with that real heroic basis was amazing to find in a female character.”
As far as Hopkins is concerned, he has created one of the most frightening villains of all time in Lecter. His gaze is so chilling it could stop a clock, and his tone of voice is hypnotically mesmerizing. When we first see Lecter, he is imprisoned within a cell of glass unlike the other prisoners who are simply behind bars. And he is so dangerous that Clarice receives explicit instructions not get near the glass. Before the film is over, Lecter definitely lives up to his reputation.
Now in most films of this genre there is only one heinous killer, but in this one we get two because remember that a nut named Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) is the target of the FBI manhunt. Lecter is disturbingly demented, but Buffalo Bill is every bit as horrifying. Both his method of killing and his motive for doing it are as twisted, perverted, disgusting, gross, and all other forms of insane as you can get. And Levine is chillingly effective in the role
In addition to the outstanding acting, this film also features exceptional sets, and Demme has succeeded beautifully in creating an atmosphere conducive to horror. Early on when Clarice visits Lecter, her trip to the bowels of the prison is incredibly eerie, and Buffalo Bill’s “home” will make your skin crawl.
“The Silence of the Lambs” is a true classic, and it’s a prime example of how a film can be outrageously suspenseful and frightening without resorting to gross gore for shock value. It is a definite 10 a and great movie to watch on that haunted night coming up. Happy Halloween!