In reality, the closest thing most of us come to horror is crime, and even then, many and most of us only conceive of crime in the abstract. At best, crime is merely some sort of damage of property. But crime can be considered the basis of horror when it is taken to the panicked extreme–heinous, willful murder in the form of the serial killer.
We’re not going to be able to avoid serial killer movies this month; they’re the meat and potatoes of the genre. The trick is finding a killer movie that isn’t paint-by-numbers sprinkled with gory or the stupidly supernatural.
The Silence of the Lambs
It’s difficult to convey just how significant Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs was in 1991. The film laid the foundations for every police procedural littering television for the past 25 years, it invented the fetish for the criminal profiler manufacturing an entire suspense subgenre, and through its protagonist/antagonist (Agent Starling and Hannibal Lecter) relationship laid the blueprint for nearly every film coming after dealing with the inner life of a serial killer.
When we first started watching, I forgot all this and was tempted to conclude Demme’s film was overrated, simply a phenomena of its time. But in talking about it with my wife, she convinced me thinking so only reveals just how ubiquitous the qualities of the film have become since. It’s astonishing when you think about it.
But even if I ignored Silence of the Lambs‘ foundational status, Demme’s film does two things in particular confirming it as not only a premier horror/suspense film but also a great film. First, the quality of the misdirect in the final third of the film when Starling and Crawford each believe they’ve discovered Buffalo Bill is brilliant. Few sequences are as effective. It also creates a perfect platform for Starling’s final confrontation with Buffalo Bill–the haunting night-vision from the killer’s perspective.
The second is more thematic. Demme doesn’t give us a serial killer story. Rather, he gives us a story with serial killers. Silence of the Lambs isn’t about Hannibal Lecter or Buffalo Bill; it’s about Clarice Starling. I don’t think the subtle feminism of the film can be underscored enough. Starling is earning her status in a male dominated world by not being better than the men (although, yes) but by proving she can go toe-to-toe with them and their adversaries. This is an excellent metaphor for the transition between second wave and third wave feminism. The murderers are essentially side stories to Starling’s main story arc, which is the core of the film handled in such a deft way I think many of us forget.
Demme uses zero jump scares (audio/visual) while also keeping the violence or gore to a bare minimum. Yes, there is extreme violence in the film but it’s parsed out in such small snippets it is earned. For example, during the entire film Lecter is portrayed is profoundly dangerous. It would have been easy to simply leave that fact there as exposition. Yet Demme is able to choreograph a chilling escape sequence validating all of the things said about Lecter and more. This creates genuinely frightening moments which still carry weight even in our now further desensitize culture. The Silence of the Lambs shows us what a Hollywood horror/suspense film ought to be.
A brilliant film presenting criminality in a truly horrifying manner.