Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Lambs, Still Screaming

For openers, let me just say that I never claimed to be a great parent.

The girls are getting old enough now that I find myself eagerly taking opportunities to build up their film canon a little bit.  For example, as I feel it is the best movie of the 20th century, full stop, I was compelled to watch The Godfather with Fenya a couple of years ago.  We watched Schindler's List with Glory a while back in order to give her another perspective on the Holocaust, which she was learning about in school.

I'm not sure how we initially got onto the topic, possibly through Fenya's recent absorption of the entirety of the BBC's Sherlock TV series (which I have seen a handful of and want to see the rest), but we got onto the topic of thrillers, or possibly the Hannibal TV show with Mads Mikkelsen, and I asserted that, at some point, she really needed to see The Silence of the Lambs.

Two nights ago, she sent me the link to one of the Epic Rap Battles of History, this one featuring a showdown between Jack the Ripper and Hannibal Lecter.

Don't get me wrong, it's well done and funny, but the not-good doctor has become such a staple of pop culture, this humorous video brought home the realization that genuine surprise is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain in this day and age. My eldest needed to see this movie while there was still a chance of one of cinema's greatest villains being frightening and relevant.

So we watched it tonight.

As the only 'horror' movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture (two others have been nominated, can you guess what they are? answers later!), Silence of the Lambs holds up as well as you might expect, maybe even better.

Even though it is not quite a quarter-century old yet (next year!), parts of SOTL still feel like a period film: not only does no one carry a cell phone, almost every other phone shown is corded.  There are no computers to be seen, although they are referenced; images are transmitted by 'electro-fax', and archived records are accessed on enormous microfilm viewers.  When Agent Starling (Jodie Foster, in an Oscar-winning performance) checks her weapon in before visiting Lecter, a speed loader is shown, and I had to explain to Fenya that the bullet-holder actually had a practical purpose.  The only people she sees using revolvers in films are typically cowboys.  Aside from big-bore handguns shown to make a point, I think the last cop I saw using a six-shooter may have been Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon.

Anyhow, the movie still works masterfully; the exchanges with Lecter, the courthouse escape, the FBI Hostage Rescue Team storming a house (to little effect); the tension never lets up. There is not a wasted frame in this movie and a ton is left unsaid.  Director Jonathan Demme is content to let the film unfold at a languid pace, far more suited to movies of the seventies, and rarely bothering with the jump scares so prevalent in modern thrillers.

Best of all, there is not a single stupid person in the film.  Buffalo Bill, Clarice, Lecter; they are all smart, and even Lecter's captors, like Dr. Chilton and the two unfortunate cops who end up at his mercy, are not stupid; they take reasonable precautions and either get a little sloppy or caught unawares by a superior intellect.

I still have a soft spot for the first portrayal of Hannibal the Cannibal I ever saw, which was Brian Cox in Michael Mann's Manhunter.  It's a good movie from the man who would eventually bring us Heat, and Collateral, but you would never believe me if you watched the trailer; it is gawdawful.

Cox, however, plays Lecter with a similarly sinister and serpentine manner: still a genius, but less tormented and maniacal, and more bored, as masterful a manipulator as Anthony Hopkins, but with far, far less screen time.

Not that Hopkins got a lot; at less than 25 minutes, only David Niven ever won a Best Actor Oscar while being on screen less, and only by one minute, at that.  And yet Sir Anthony breaks all the rules, looking directly at the camera, almost never blinking, giving very little reason to have sympathy for someone who is a monster in any useful sense of the word,

Horrifyingly enough, we do though.

Fenya was curled up pretty tightly into the corner of the downstairs sectional by the time the credits rolled, but to her credit, she says she would like to see it again.  I'm glad, because in addition to just being the best thriller of the 20th century (please feel free to dispute this assertion in the comments section!), I think there are some lessons that can be taken away from SOTL, despite the grisly subject matter:

  • There are some scary, scary people in this world of ours.
  • But there are just as many brave and good ones, too.
  • There is, more often than not, a reason behind the things that people do, even the mad things.
  • Always treat others with respect, even when you mightn't feel they deserve it.
  • Keeping your wits about you in times of intense pressure will help you triumph, and may even save your life.

It is an intense film, far too much so for everyone to enjoy it, and certainly more than Glory is up for at this point, but expanding Fenya's film canon to include this particular winner of 5 Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay) was immensely satisfying.

Huh. Maybe I'm not so bad a parent as I think...

(Oh, and the other two horror films nominated for Best Picture were The Exorcist and Jaws; at least, as per IMDb.)


  1. I look forward to a few years from now when you'll regale us with the story of the ashen faced horror the two will be shuddering to recover from after watching that light hearted romantic comedy "Seven" some night when Audrey is away.

    1. Not a chance, ace! Haven't seen that movie since the original release. Made Audrey go see it with someone else so I could unload about it without seeing it again!

  2. I, too, have a soft spot for Brian Cox's Lecter. I just rewatched Manhunter on one of the movie channels a few months ago when I stumbled upon it one lazy Saturday evening.

    And I also knew both of the Oscar winners. Yay me.