The Silence of the Lambs (1992) *
Unquestionably, this is an important film, perhaps more important even than its continued high standing would suggest.
I'd place it as one of those watershed films that totally changed the direction of the thriller and horror genres, every bit as decisively and permanently as the Lugosi Dracula, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead or Halloween. Indeed, of all the above, I'd say only Psycho rivals it for lasting influence and impact.
By influence, I don't mean those awful rip-offs that appeared in its wake and still occasionally show up today; I mean the way it has influenced the whole shape and substance of what a horror-thriller should be and could do.
Psycho had made it okay to be fun-scared by savage murder in a modern setting, and this took the terrible reality of sadistic 'serial' murder and made it de rigeur to a) centre a film on the clinical detailing of the killer's methods and activities, b) make those killers enigmatic, charming, fascinating, witty, and gamesplayers who set challenges for the cops to solve. The only way to catch such killers was to hope for a sympathetic, maverick cop capable of treating them with the dignity they deserve and, most of all, able to 'get inside their heads'.
At the time, the film was shocking and stunning, and breathtakingly new. There was much concern that it was going too far and too non-judgementally into the world-view of the sadistic and depraved. But it had - don't they always, first time round? - both a patent sincerity and obvious merit as a thriller, that enabled it to deflect such criticism. It romped home with the Oscars and Anthony Hopkins's wisecracking cannibal fiend became a cultural hero.
And now, we have Saw, and Hostel, and even worse films, existing solely to show killers torturing and mutilating victims in vivid detail, the victims whimpering and pleading in terror, and all with no excuse needed, just for fun - and Silence of the Lambs is unquestionably the reason why.
It is still a well-made film that may still provide an exciting evening of thrills for those who don't like to think too much about what they're watching. There's a very clever bit towards the end, now copied so much as to have lost its original power, where cross-cut editing is used to thoroughly mislead the audience and provide a very effective narrative surprise. The climax is still fairly nail-biting.
But nearly twenty years on, it is possible to look at it more clearly and see how thoroughly duped we were by its pretence of seriousness and sobriety. The dialogue and performances are more or less roundly ludicrous, the psychologising is many rungs below even Hitchcock's Spellbound. The central character of Hannibal Lecter, the supposed sophisticate and genius who also enjoys grabbing people and ripping off pieces of them with his teeth, is one of the stupidest ever to be absorbed into the cultural fabric.
But the real giveaway, to me, is the title.
Just stop and think about it. Think first about the phrase itself, the formulation of it; how silly it is. Now consider the supposed relevance of it to the film in question; that embarrassing scene in which Hopkins psychoanalyses Jodie Foster and scores bullseye after idiotic, risibly quasi-Freudian bullseye, and reduces her to tears, and we are supposed to nod our heads and conclude we understand her so much better now, and have stumbled upon the perfect defining motif for the entire film...
What laughable nonsense! It's terrible, terrible writing, built on terrible, terrible Hollywood psychoanalytic cliche, and then to twist it into such a pretentiously ungrammatical phrase, and make that the title, as if it in any way summed up (or disguised, more to the point) the ghoulish swamp of pure sensationalism hiding behind its self-regard... Well, I fell for it same as you back in 1992, so don't get angry with me just for pointing it out now.
Roger Corman and George A. Romero appear in cameos.