The Test of Time: Silence of the Lambs (1991)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.



Jonathan Demme was one of my favorite directors. He was an underrated great, whose diverse canon of movies were just as eclectic and offbeat as this crazy ball of confusion we all find ourselves on. But no matter the project, whether a comedy, drama, a genre-tinged thriller or musical documentary, Demme never lost sight of what we’re calling the Triple H: Heart, Heroism, Humanity. These characteristics were never absent in any of Demme’s films. There’s undeniable triumph of spirit at the core of each of his movies that lets you know that he knows, understands and cares deeply for his fellow man. And as much as he’s bound to be missed by the ones who knew and loved him personally, the cinematic landscape as a whole just got a lot worse with the loss of Jonathan Demme. I miss him already!

Cutting his teeth in the no-budget independent world of Roger Corman, Demme got started with such empowering female exploitation joints as CAGED HEAT and CRAZY MAMA before changing lanes with stuff like FIGHTING MAD, CITIZEN’S BAND, LAST EMBRACE to close out the 1970s. In the 80s, Demme turned in three of my all time favorites – MELVIN AND HOWARD, STOP MAKING SENSE and SOMETHING WILD – before closing the decade with the equally entertaining SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA and MARRIED TO THE MOB. All this would lead to his career-defining, Oscar-winning moment three years later when Demme directed SILENCE OF THE LAMBS!

One of only three movies to ever win Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Actress – in the history of cinema – we’re about to find out what, if anything, has aged since its release in 1991. Full disclosure, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is among my three favorite “horror” movies ever made (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE SHINING), but will try to be as unbiased as possible. Ladies, gents, no further adieu needed. It’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS vs. The Test of Time!


THE STORY: Adapted by Ted Tally from the acclaimed Thomas Harris novel, one of the brilliant diegetic designs of LAMBS is the bracket-parenthetical narrative. Some geek shit here, I know, but the way in which Clarice Starling is introduced, then challenged via Lecter, tasked with tracking Bill, capturing Bill, then resolving Lecter, is a brilliant mathematical formula that looks like this: Clarice(Lecter[Bill,Bill]Lecter). It’s this beautiful symmetry, much like the exotic Deaths Head moths in the film and promo material (I’m looking at the poster on my wall right now), on which the sturdy structure still stands.

As for the story itself, the notion of a budding female FBI agent with emotional scars being tasked with sussing puzzling information from a cannibalistic genius in order to apprehend an even viler serial killer, is downright inspired. The therapeutic interplay between Lecter and Starling (a type of bird, mind you, ultimately set free from her past tragedies) is a compelling two-way subplot that not only strengthens and enriches their personal characters, it makes the overarching Buffalo Bill case easier for Clarice to handle. The tacit bond forged between the two empowers both to do good, even if both are wracked by unspeakably horrendous pasts.

Of course, one of the unassailable aspects of LAMBS is that it simply transcends genre. It’s at once a detective procedural, a vexing psychological thriller, a kidnap horror film, as well as holed-up-hostage crime picture. Straight up, all of these ingredients are dashed together with just the right amount of directorial seasoning and cooked masterfully by the head chef, Mr. Demme. His personal directorial flourishes, including casting, are one primary reason the movie holds up so well today!

WHAT HOLDS UP: Really, it’s all about Demme’s trademark double-direct-address to the camera that allows us to get into the intimate headspace of the characters. Often imitated, never recreated, it’s a technique Demme has used from day one, perfected and made his own. By having his characters look directly into the camera lens, often during a dialogue scene, where we cut back and forth from one set of eyeballs to another, in essence closing the gap between the two, physically inhabiting the space between them, is not only a brilliant technique on its own, it’s absolutely paramount in LAMBS as a means of depicting the psychology of both Lecter and Starling. That interrogatory “covet” scene in which Lecter challenges Starling is nothing short of arresting, and aside from the high caliber of acting, it’s Demme’s boldly unconventional framing of the interaction that, without one hardly noticing it, makes the scene forever timeless.

As for the aforementioned acting, we all know many different actors/actresses were considered before Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster were cast as the principal leads. Demme muse Michelle Pfeiffer was considered, but my girl dumbly dismissed the material as too dark to want to play Clarice. Jeremy Irons, Sean Connery and others were considered for Lecter, that is until Demme saw Hopkins as a diametrically opposite character in THE ELEPHANT MAN and decided to give him the role instead. How the hell did Demme know that such a goodhearted man in one film could portray such abject evil in another? What visionary foresight!

Because, let’s be real, Sir Anthony Hopkins, whether it’s an honor or a burden, will forever be synonymous with Hannibal Lecter. That’s how legendary the performance is – A Best Actor winning turn for a mere 20 odd minutes in a two-hour feature – that tows the line between a high-brow enlightened academic and the low-brow animalistic coarseness of flesh-eating madman. It’s such a brilliant balance of both poles. It’s as if you’re both scared of him and scared of being judged by him, he’ll either rip your face off or pick your brain as to impugn your intellect. Either way, you’re f*cked!

As for Foster, remember, she’d already won Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of gang-raped teen in THE ACCUSED. Having gotten her start at such an early age, working with the likes of De Niro and Scorsese, she was already as formidable an actor going in to LAMBS as anyone else. Thing is, given her demure demeanor and wide-eyed newbie mien as Clarice, you’d never be able to tell. She plays Clarice with such purity, such innocence, such submission to Hopkins’ psychological dominance that you almost forget we’re dealing with such a world-class actor. By the end, she proves to be equally smart, strong and fully capable hero. It’s a wholly rounded performance!

No Oscar for Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill, but goddamn we’d be remiss not to mention his deeply dedicated performance. The scenes in his labyrinthine house in particular, cross-dressing, tucking his junk, smearing lipstick, gyrating and muttering lewdly to himself in a mirror to Q. Lazarus – it’s all exacted too specifically that it cannot be disbelieved. It’s too real. Too lived-in. Too authentic. By the time Clarice comes knocking at his door, totally unsuspecting of who and what he is, we the audience already know how odiously dangerous he’s proven to be. This creates a wonderfully taut sequence of suspense, where we know what Clarice does not. When she does finally put the pieces together, the scene ratchets up to another level of abject tension, as Bill knocks outs the lights, rocks night-vision goggles. Clarice is not only blind to see, she has no clue of the house’s interior layout, as Bill does. Yet because of her training, because of her strength, she foils the f*cker anyway!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Absolutely nothing! The only possible negative one can muster is how ludicrous it seems to give Hopkins a Lead Acting Oscar when he’s clearly a supporting player in the film. Other than that, perfecto!

THE VERDICT: Truly. 26 years later and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS has only appreciated, it has not depreciated. If we could track Jonathan Demme’s career as a parabolic arc, then indeed, LAMBS rests atop the apogee. The movie is faithfully scripted, brilliantly acted, masterfully directed and features two of the most infamous onscreen villains of all time. But it wasn’t the last for Demme. The man would go on to do the superb PHILADELPHIA, the underrated MANCHRIAN CANDIDATE remake, the intimate home-movie-like RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, the Ibsen adaptation of A MASTER BUILDER. And honestly, there could be no better descriptor for Jonathan Demme than that last title. He was a master builder and mover of the human heart. RIP Jonathan Demme, you were one of the best!



Extra Tidbit: What do you make of LAMBS after all these years?
Source: AITH



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