By Stephen Palmer
In 1991, something rather amazing happened. A horror film swept the board at the Oscars. Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director.. and something that no other horror film has done.. it won Best Picture. At the time of writing, no horror film before or since has achieved Best Picture (“The Exorcist”, “Jaws”, “Get Out”, “Black Swan”, and “The Sixth Sense” have all had unsuccessful nominations), and to sweep all five? Well, it joined “It Happened One Night” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as a member of a unique triumvirate of films to achieve this. It solidified the reputation of its Lead Actress. Made a superstar of a Welsh Stage Actor who was about to give up on his dreams of Hollywood-level fame. It changed the place of Law Enforcement and Serial killers in the Pop Culture firmament. Not bad for a movie that was an unofficial sequel to a film that nobody saw, in a genre nobody respected, and released in February (it was the first Best Picture Winner to be available on home video at the time of the ceremony), usually the dumping ground for Studio movies that are not expected to do well.
It got the public at large interested in the work of the modern FBI. No longer was the organisation thought of as faceless men in suits; it showed the organisation to be one of physical excellence, drenched in science, open to all genders and races. In fact, the FBI worked closely with the filmmakers as they thought it would encourage more women to sign up. It paved the way for other notable pieces of entertainment – from “The X-Files” (Dana Scully was modeled directly on Clarice Starling) to Netflix’s “Mindhunter”, to innumerable CSI shows and their clones. Along with “Twin Peaks” – well, it kind of made the FBI sexy. Words like Behavioral Science and Quantico popped up in everyday talk (and less specifically the phrase Quid Pro Quo), in TV Shows and hundreds of Novels. Yes, some of this media existed before. But “The Silence of the Lambs” made it mainstream. That’s all without forgetting its sequels, prequels, and two TV adaptations.
It’s not as though this film’s broad subject matter, the world of Serial Killers, was new to the world. It just wasn’t this successful before. “Peeping Tom” had killed Michael Powell’s Career. “Frenzy” was considered a lurid postscript to Hitchcock’s curriculum vitae. “The Boston Strangler” pretty much killed Tony Curtis’s cinematic career. And that is just the quality side of the scale. Sure, there was the subculture of straight-up horror movies, the Jason’s and the Freddy’s which thrilled their audience, that helped fuel the Home Video boom of the 1980s; but they were not going to take home anything other than genre awards. Serial Killer movies simply just didn’t star Academy Award Winners. Let alone bring the statuettes home.
“Is it a perfect film? No, not quite. It struggles with making plain the relationship between Starling and her mentor Jack Crawford, with Lector’s questioning and an awkward handshake only hinting at the possibility of more than a professional interest.”
We also saw death and gore, but not in a lurid and blood splatted way, with fake blood pouring out of the recently slain. We saw corpses on mortuary slabs, their bodies bloated from being submerged in dirty rivers, their skin cut from them in strips. It was equally mundane and shocking, and hard to countenance just how shocking this was in 1991 when it is standard fare for the most average television Police Procedural these days.
In Clarice Starling, we got a new kind of heroine. She wasn’t endowed with any kind of investigative superpower. She didn’t use her sexuality or physical assets to solve the case or get on in the world. She was just damn good at her job. She worked hard and studied hard. Yes, she had to deal with both the glass ceiling and the male gaze (multiple times in the film she is surrounded by groups of men, who dwarf her in both numbers and size), but she was also in a world that was changing. We encounter many women (not just her best friend Ardelia) at the FBI that appear equally capable, there’s a Female Senator, and the living victim, Caroline, is strong and resourceful despite her captivity. Is it a feminist screed, or a female empowerment manifesto? No. But it shows a world that is moving in the right direction. Jodie Foster‘s performance is incredible and layered. Not only by the use of Starling’s West Virginian accent, not only by the physicality the role demanded but by the way she manages to channel both fear and rage into her performance. She has four scenes with Anthony Hopkins‘ Lector, and at no point is she anything but his absolute equal. It’s hard to believe she wasn’t even in the running for the role initially. Would it have worked too well with Michelle Pfeiffer in place, as originally intended?
Of course, then we have Hannibal Lector, a character so iconic, that he transcends the movie. The visuals of his face mask, ‘fava beans and a nice Chianti’ (a line so bloody clever, I have to link you to this), even his name – you can find them echoed, parodied, and quoted time and again. His genius is not in the vileness and taboo nature of his murderous and cannibalistic acts (they were taken from real-life monsters) but in the absolute dichotomy of his personality. He is charming and witty and eloquent and yet in the same sentence he is vile and caustic and the very epitome of male toxicity. He is the anti-hero of anti-heroes.
“In Clarice Starling, we got a new kind of heroine. She wasn’t endowed with any kind of investigative superpower. She didn’t use her sexuality or physical assets to solve the case or get on in the world. She was just damn good at her job. She worked hard and studied hard.“
Finally, we have to look at Jonothan Demme‘s direction. Up until this point in his career, I would have said he was a good director, but not a great one. The highlight for me is probably “Stop Making Sense,” the Talking Heads Concert film that is still probably one of the best of that genre. He also directed “Murder Under Glass,” one of my favorite “Columbo” episodes, but on the whole, he had a collection of solid, perfectly good films. Whether it be his early Roger Corman “Women in Prison” exploitation fare, or “Married to the Mob,” I don’t think anyone would have expected him to create a film such as this.
Yes, the movie is elevated by the performances of the cast, and the quality of the Thomas Harris source novel, but to discount the value of Demme’s work here would be to ignore the genius of the piece. This is a world of mundanity and normalcy, where grey buildings and Ford Pinto’s hide a world of depravity. Nothing is sexed-up, nothing is overly voyeuristic. It’s straightforward and matter of fact. But it is also one peppered with visual flair and dripping with depth. Whether it’s the Night Vision goggle-wearing finale, the tension-filled escape of Lector, or simply allowing Foster and Hopkins to just act? This film is full of moments of utter quality. Watch how often characters talking to Starling look right at the camera, their faces filling the screen, but notice how we never really see the same for Foster. This is to make sure it is her perspective on the world we always take. Note also the framing, in so many shots, it’s not just Lector who is in a cage.. time and again many characters are trapped within a celluloid frame. Then there are the small moments, some preserved from the novel, others unique to this vision. My favourite is the picture that Lector has drawn in his cell is “the Duomo, seen from the Belvedere” (in the Italian city of Florence), Italy. We later find Buffalo Bill living in Belvedere, Ohio. This is a foreshadowing of the highest quality. And the Francis Bacon inspired visuals of Lieutenant Boyle’s disemboweled corpse on display is an image of vile beauty I have remembered for three decades.
Is it a perfect film? No, not quite. It struggles with making plain the relationship between Starling and her mentor Jack Crawford, with Lector’s questioning and an awkward handshake only hinting at the possibility of more than a professional interest. (Although, Starling is not without a parade of leering men accompanying here throughout the two-hour runtime, it’s a credit to the film-makers that they didn’t insert some horrible romantic subplot). I’m also not entirely sure about how the FBI got the location of Bill quite so wrong in the finale. Anthony Heald’s Dr. Chiltern also teeters on the edge of pantomime.
And then there is the issue of Buffalo Bill/Jaime Gumb’s motivation and sexual/gender identity. This was a well-publicised criticism of the film at the time, with the LGBT community feeling the characterisation of a transexual man as a serial killer was not a helpful representation. Watching it again, it’s clear the film fumbles this a bit. Yes, Startling says that Bill doesn’t sound like a transexual, and Lector outright says he isn’t, and there are other clues that this is just the latest of many attempts to find some way to fit into society (for example, there are server swastika’s in his residence, suggesting a previous flirtation with White Supremacy), but it all feels a bit clumsy. We also have to view this whole controversy through a three-decade-year-old lens – not only were Trans and Gay rights far less well understood outside of their communities then, but much of the anger was actually directed at a pre-2013 Jodie Foster (who was the target of groups such as OUTRAGE! who would publically vilify her for not coming out as gay) for appearing in a film like this. The world really was a very different place.
Despite these important to note fumbles, it is remarkable just how well the film stands up today. But more importantly? It’s remarkable how much it changed Popular Culture. Like I said. Not bad for a horror movie released in February.