Wednesday, October 20, 2010

31 days, 31 faves: The Silence of the Lambs

So how does one write about an Academy Award winning horror film? Very carefully.
Seriously though, it hasn't happened a whole lot over the years. There have been films nominated, including Psycho (four noms, zero wins), and most notably The Exorcist (nominated for ten, won two - sound and adapted screenplay). But it's no secret that horror is mostly overlooked when Oscar time comes rolling around. I don't know if Marty Scorsese can change that with Shutter Island (I'm thinking no), we'll see.

In any event, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is an absolutely, no-doubt-about-it fantastic film.
Based on the novel by Thomas Harris and directed by Jonathan Demme (Best Director Oscar), it tells the story of Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, Best Actress Oscar), a fledgling FBI agent on the cusp of graduation who has been chosen by her superior, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) for a special assignment.

Seems he'd like her to interview a serial killer, Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter in order to gain insight and possible information about a current case - another serial killer named Buffalo Bill who skins his victims.
Lecter was a renowned psychiatrist who had a penchant for eating his victims. But he's a brilliant mind, and any help or information he may be able to give them will be greatly appreciated.

It's likely Crawford chose Starling due to her fresh good looks, the fact that she's a female, and because Lecter simply flies right through all their standardized testing. They need someone to just plain talk to him. Ask him questions. Feel him out, so to speak.

Upon arriving at the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Starling seems quite nervous, and she should be. The prison is where they house some of the worst the world has to offer, and she gets a first hand look at these pillars of society when she visits. She first meets Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), a cheeky and thoroughly obnoxious director at the prison. He's a pervy asshole who thinks he's the right kind of guy to show Starling a good time. Like I said, swarmy.

Able to avoid his advances she proceeds to be taken to Lecter's cell. Barney, the night guard, has set out a chair for her to use in front of Lecter's cell. You know something is going to go down when you see that singular chair, just waiting.

When we first see Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, Best Actor), he stands in front of his cell in his bland prison confinement clothing, staring Starling down. He becomes quite upset when he finds out Starling hasn't even graduated, exclaiming, "Jack Crawford sent a trainee to me?"

He gives her a chance though, and after convincing her to hand over the case file and answering a few questions, he proceeds to rip her apart, shattering any sense of self worth she had and making her feel cheaper and less important than the battered shoes on her feet. She scurries away but Lecter calls her back for one tidbit about the Buffalo Bill case.

Giving her an anagram which she takes no time in figuring out, Starling is off to a storage facility where she finds a severed head tucked away in amongst the junk in a private garage. Rushing back to Lecter, he does give her a piece of information, stating that Buffalo Bill was connected to that head (not in the traditional sense). Lecter swears he will help with the case and further her career if she can finagle some way for him to get out from under Chilton's roof.

The Buffalo Bill case takes on greater importance after Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), the daughter of a U.S. senator, is kidnapped.

At this point, the audience gets to see the workings of a serial killer as we are allowed into the home and the life of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine).
He's one sick puppy, and works very much in the way of Ted Bundy, procuring his victims by pretending to be handicapped and asking for help moving something heavy into his van. We're privy to his life - and his lifestyle - which is more than a little nutso.

As Catherine Martin screams continually from the bowels of a dry well, Buffalo Bill dances around his spacious (never-ending if I do say so myself) basement - singing songs, making clothes out of skin, applying more makeup than the cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and giving some love to his little white poodle, Precious. We also find out he's making an entire shell of a person out of skin. And that Bill wants to be a girl. He tucks his bits and pieces away and stares at the mirror, claiming that of course, he'd do the nasty with himself. If he were a boy, that is. There's a whole lot going on in that head of his - but nothing good.

Meanwhile, Starling has begun a precarious game of quid pro quo with the demented doctor. He's agreed to give her choice pieces of information and insight into the Buffalo Bill case in exchange for stories about her childhood.

Starling was warned at the start not to let Lecter get inside her head, but she shrugs it off, determined to advance her career. What she gets instead is a madman asking questions about such tender things as the death of her father and how she ended up living with her relatives on a sheep and horse farm. Lecter in turn explains that Buffalo Bill is changing, evolving into what he truly wants to be, like how a pupa turns into a butterfly. He tells her she is so close to the way she's going to catch him. But he won't elaborate further. It's a game to him, and he's going to stretch it out as long as he can.

When a fake deal thought up by Crawford that promises Lecter a prison transfer away from Chilton is uncovered, Chilton makes one of his own. Lecter is transferred to Tennessee, where Catherine Martin's mother meets with him on the tarmac. Lecter is vague at first, but eventually comes up with a name for the agents and they race off to begin a manhunt for Buffalo Bill.

When Starling sneaks in to visit Lecter in his confinement cell in the middle of a large empty museum room, he confronts Starling with the fake deal mistake, but then agrees to do a bit more Q & A with her. In his incredibly frightening manner, he is able to get her to tell him her darkest secrets and fears. In particular about how she discovers exactly what happens to the lambs in the spring on a farm. It's a source of obvious pain for Starling, and Lecter revels in her honesty. Just as the police shoo her away, Lecter hands her back the case file through the cell bars, stroking her finger once as she grabs it. A chilling moment.

While agents attempt to find Buffalo Bill, Lecter is about to have dinner in his cell - lamb, cooked rare of course. He voices that he is ready when they are, and he assumes the position - he has to be locked to the bars while the officers come in.

Once inside, Lecter, using a piece of a pen he stole from Chilton previously, opens the cuffs and escapes, but not after he pummels one of the guards and guts the other - hanging him from the cell to look like a butterfly.

Starling, on the other hand, has been studying the case file that now has notations in the margins from Lecter. Making sense of some of it, she determines that Buffalo Bill knew his first victim personally. She calls Crawford to tell him, but they already have Lecter's info and are on their way to his supposed location as well.

Starling agrees to go to the first victim's hometown to gather more evidence. Instead, Crawford's men are led to the wrong place and Starling comes face to face with Buffalo Bill himself and begins an unpredictable showdown in the killer's lair.

Where has Lecter gone, you ask? The Caribbean. Where he's planning to have an old friend for dinner. Classic.

The Silence of the Lambs won the Best Picture Oscar for a reason - it's just that damned good.
I know I've said probably a hundred times that part of the film was literally filmed in my hometown, so every time I watch it and see some of the places they used I feel all nostalgic and tingly inside.
But the real reason I love the film is that it is sheer perfection. The acting is just insanely good, in particular by Hopkins, and this film will be forever remembered for his chilling portrayal of Hannibal the Cannibal.

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