Sadly I was laid up with the evil winter lurgy at Ross's until two days ago, and so haven't had a chance to binge on too much cinematic goodwill. It was a surprisingly easy decicion to make- I discounted subtitled films on account of being barely able to see, then TV boxsets for only having watched them recently. Same with Batman. Which left me with something comfortable, familiar but not so recent so as to have gotten sick of it... everyone's favourite cannibal, Hannibal Lecter.
Shamefully I only saw Silence of The Lambs for the first time a few years ago- and only because I wanted to be 'in on the joke' about a friend whose party trick was an impression of Buffalo Bill. I caught it late at night by chance, and sat goggle-eyed from start to finish. The story- for other unenlighteneds like 21-year-old me- is based on the novel of the same name. Star FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is given the chance to work on the case of gender-bending serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), but in order to do so she needs the help of notorious killer- and brilliant psychiatrist- Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins on tangibly frightening form). Lecter is a well-educated man with a thirst for knowledge and fine wine, and a taste for people. Namely his victims. He will only help Starling as long as he can interrogate her on her troubled childhood and recall painful memories that have made her into what she is.
It's no exagerration to say that Silence of The Lambs is without a doubt one of the best- and classiest- horror films of the 1990s- and with the likes of Seven, Interview With The Vampire, even From Dusk Til Dawn, the decade was almost seeing some kind of new wave of well-produced, smart scary films from relative newcomers and established directors alike- Jonathan Demme had graduated from TV to make Silence of The Lambs two years before Philadelphia, and Robert Rodriguez was very much of the '90s new-wave', while legendary director Wes Craven got in on the resurgence of the genre that made his name with a potentially risky- but in fact, quite brilliant- parody. Which in itself spawned a sub-genre of its own in 'slasher movies'. If we put Leprechaun aside, the fact that Silence of The Lambs is so well renowned almost 10 years later is something of an achievement, to say the least.
The source material hasn't lent itself to sequels well (Hannibal- why, Gary Oldman? What went wrong?? Red Dragon- ach, it's nae bad. Hannibal Rising- get out of my sight). Similarly, writer Ted Tally's other works haven't made so much of a splash; he was even drafted in to write Red Dragon. Here though, something works and it works...soooo....well. Perhaps credit is largely due to the actors bringing it to life- Jodie Foster cemented her transition from child star to proper 'actress' with an Oscar for her portrayal of haunted but determined Clarice. Her scenes with Anthony Hopkins incredibly tense, helped by the half-lit jail cell. The whole film is beautifully under-lit, which works especially well in the scenes in Buffalo Bill's house- the final showdown in particular is terrifying in that we can't see anything, and don't know where anything is coming from.
That's what makes it such a shame that the sequels are so sub-par. With Hannibal, Lecter is made out to be some kind of comedy-uncle-cannibal type, with turds like "I'm giving very serious thought... to eating your wife". Whereas in Silence of The Lambs, Lecter's disturbingly creepy and intrusive tones get right under your skin and you can feel Clarice's discomfort at having to negotiate and open up to him. He is genuinely menacing, and the uncomfortably long close-ups between them really make you feel like you're up close and personal in the dingy hospital too.
Buffalo Bill is also an ingenious creation, giving a darkly sinister flamboyance that is fitting of the tone of the film. In any other script he would seem outrageous, but here it's frightening because it's so unpredictable. We only find out about him through infuriatingly cryptic and infrequent clues from Lecter. From parodies such as Jay and Silent Bob's homage in Clerks 2, to the voice of Chris Griffin in Family Guy being based on Seth Green doing "a bad impression of Buffalo Bill"- it has inspired alot of recent big hitters in popular culture for being absurd, but in its original context still works as a genuinely deranged and believeable serial killer.
The film is also littered with great shots edited together to make you believe things are going to turn out a certain way- I won't go into details but if you've seen it, it's the one which results in Clarice ringing a doorbell. It's beautifully staged and elaborately set up to deliver one of the most tense and tightly-wound surprises I've seen. Every scene is deliberate, considered and takes its time... and it's all the more reward when we do eventually feel like we're getting somewhere. In ten years after its release, all we were given was a sub-par sequel that managed to simulataneously vomit all over the legacy of the original AND make it look even more superior by comparison. Quite a feat indeed. In terms of its class, style, direction, cast and the roster of awards it received in return, I still don't reckon you will find a better example of 1990s horror- or indeed, of the last 30-or-so years. A pretty big claim, yes... but then again Hannibal Lecter himself was never one to do anything by half.