There are a fair few genres that the Oscars have routinely turned their nose up, with Fantasy, Action and Horror rarely getting the nod when awards time rolls around. However, that changed for the realm of orcs and elves thanks to the crowning of the third Lord Of The Rings movie and an argument could be made that Gladiator is sort of an action movie; so where does that leave horror – long decreed to be cinema’s version of that weird, quiet kid in class who insists on staring at everyone?
“Hold up…” you may well be saying, “What in the blue hell has horror movies got to do with Silence Of The Lambs?”
Well, I’ll tell you… There may seem to be a bottomless void (or at the very least a well with a crying woman in it) that stands between the pulp slashers you may initially think of when you picture the horror genre and a multi-award winning “thriller”, but I suggest you try thinking of things like this: any horror movie deemed worthy enough to scoop up five Oscars probably wouldn’t, on first inspection, resemble your average scary movie at all. Dig a little beneath the skin (or in Buffalo Bill’s case, cut it off and wear it round the house) and you notice virtually every horror trope you’ve ever experienced is already there, glaring at you from behind a glass cell while sucking on it’s teeth.
Driven FBI rookie Clarice Starling has found herself plucked out of training by Jack Crawford, the head of the behavioral science unit, in order to assist with a rash of killings that involve partially skinned women. The killer, labelled Buffalo Bill by the press, has been thus far confounded his pursuers and Crawford feels that valuable information could be gleaned from having Starling interview the incarcerated serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lector; also known by the delightful moniker: Hannibal The Cannibal. Lector, a shrewd and almost supernaturally intelligent former psychiatrist sees this as an opportunity to not only probe the virgin territory of Starling’s vulnerable psyche but to fuck with the FBI in general (I guess it gets boring being under lock and key for committing numerous atrocities) and so the young agent and the murderer engage in a spot of quid pro quo; her giving up personal details of her life in return for any clue that could lead to the apprehension of Buffalo Bill.
As Hannibal gradually gets into Starling’s head, Bill manages to unwittingly pick a senator’s daughter as his next victim, starving her in his lair so as to make her skin more… user friendly; and so on top of everything else, Starling now has an impossible deadline to meet and the only way Lector is going to budge is if he gets some deals of his own. Could Lector be using all the mind games solely to procure a better existence for himself or does he have a larger plan and can Starling crack the Buffalo Bill case despite dangling herself into the jaws of a far greater danger?
The secret of revealing that Jonathan Demmes masterpiece of police procedure meets serial killer epic is actually a stealth horror classic is that of the use of Clarice Starling – horror has always desired a surviving female character, or “final girl” to survive proceedings as vanquish the monster and here the concept in the form of the mighty Jodie Foster. Small, intelligent and already suffocating under the stifling sexism that infests her line of work like dry rot (far less lurid than in Thomas Harris’ source novel but still prevalent nether the less) Starling meets with substantial male pushback virtually every time she does anything. The curious stares of deputies as she is the only female in the room during the examination of a body, the constant (false) assumption that her status as Crawford’s protégé has to be due to something sexual, Lector’s constant sniping at her class and cheap jibes at her cheap shoes – it’s an oppressive wall that’s almost as unnerving as the presence over her that Hannibal has, even when he isn’t on screen. But it’s the climax, where the young trainee finds herself stumbling around in the dark in a pitch black house of horrors while stalked by Buffalo Bill armed with a gun and some handy night vision goggles, that finally drives the parallels home. The damsel in distress menaced by a killer entirely in eerie green POV shots is given a post modern spin as the fear is heightened, not because she is a helpless damsel, but because she’s a highly trained agent and she’s STILL gotten into this mess. It’s these twisting of horror conventions, matched with Foster’s towering performance that really should have Starling put on the same pedestal as Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as bad-ass women who get the job done.
No mention of Silence Of The Lambs is complete without it’s obvious stand out contribution of Anthony Hopkins who’s gleefully theatrical (and highly quotable) performance not only gave us a brand new titan of cinematic terror but also launched a billion awful lip smacking impersonations. While perhaps not as subtle as Brian Cox’s interpretation in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, or as classy as Madds Mikkelsen’s small screen turn, Hopkins will always BE Hannibal Lector as he cheekily trims the ham (not to mention various other meats) the movie unloads numerous horror movie tricks to give the flesh eating shrink the creepy aura he effortlessly projects. Be it the barely perceptible fact of how still he stands in the centre of the room when you (and Clarice) first see him; to the explosive and brutal bait and switch near the film’s end, he is far more real and menacing than the gaudy pantomime of the Freddy’s and Jason’s of the silver screen.
The rest of the cast live up to the hype with Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill, an amalgamation of real life serial killers Ted Bundy and Ed Gein, being a creepy, wonky voiced treasure and whose notorious “tuck-back” scene instantly entered into film legend. Actually , the fact that the film plays so much on killers who have inspired such classic characters in other movies (Gein alone inspired Leatherface and Norman Bates) just adds yet another tick in the “definitely a horror movie” column alone and cameos from such legends as Roger Corman and George A. Romero further seal the deal.
As for the rest of the film, the filmmakers delight in intelligently wrong-footing the audience every chance they get, utilizing a smart script and some Hitchcockian rug pulling to create some genuinely amazing heart in the mouth moments – which is fairly ironic for a film involving a cannibal – and it certainly doesn’t skimp on the red stuff either with a clutch of legitimately gruesome images dancing across the screen that you usually see in your everyday, garden variety “thriller”.
In closing, it’s entirely down to you as to which genre you stick The Silence Of The Lambs in because what really important is that the film is utterly majestic no matter what labels you care to put on it. But the fact it has such a strong horror legacy behind it can’t really be denied and would you really want to strip the horror genre of such a rare win?
So take pride in those fear-inducing roots and celebrate in how revolutionary the film was in making such grotesque horrors more palatable to a major audience. So can we get behind Silence as a horror flick? Say it with me: YES, WE CAN- NIBAL!