Classic Review: The Silence Of The Lambs

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  The only horror film to win Best Picture, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is terrifying because it’s truthful.

Review:  There’s “theme park” scary movies and then there’s true horror. ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’, the only horror film to ever win Best Picture, defines the latter class. It originates from the same real-life story as Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Instead of establishing distance from the psychopath, however, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ takes us up close and personal with not one, but two dangerous and terrifyingly realistic villains.

The most famous is Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, a brilliant and seductive psychopathic psychologist played by Anthony Hopkins. He’s the most vile and convincing villain I have ever seen on film. FBI Agent Clarice Starling, excellently played by Jodie Foster, has to consult with the incarcerated monster to see if she can discover how to find a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Their interactions are not only the highlight of the movie, but some of the few perfect moments in cinematic history.

This is a brutal experience.  It is a descent into the darkest dungeons in the human spirit, into Tartarus.  It is a challenging picture that requires viewers of strong constitutions.  By not flinching, the filmmakers are putting us in absolute sympathy with Clarice; she’s vulnerable, naïve, and though she has an idea of where her journey will take her, it’s a horrifying ride that leaves her shaken.  Director Jonathan Demme takes the Hitchcockian ideal to its absolute limit, lets us chew through our nails and grind our teeth until the last logical moment, which results in a fantastic catharsis.  This isn’t a film for the faint of heart, and the weight of the thing goes beyond simple thrills.  Psychologically and philosophically, it sticks with you.  Every major religion has a theme of the descent into darkness and pain.  Consider the challenge of Christianity, as made by St. Paul, for believers to “crucify their flesh” — to endure the greatest suffering for the greatest reward.  ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a filmic exploration of that challenge, both as a narrative (Clarice’s pursuit of Buffalo Bill) and as an experience.  Provided that viewers know what they’re after, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a uniquely rewarding film.

The philosophical theme of ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is that yes, indeed, monsters do exist, and to our horror, they’re people like us.  There’s something convenient about supernatural horror that separates the man from the monster, allows us the comfort given a victim, that when all’s said and done, history takes pity on the innocent.  Here, there’s no such comfort.  Instead, Clarice Starling discovers the bitter truth of how similar Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill really are to “normal” people.  Being human is a dangerous idea.  Within each of us, there’s a devilish potential that we only think we’ve successfully sublimated.  Inside our private hells, we keep monsters locked away, but what about the ones that seem so attractive that they can lure us in to their homes for some fava beans and a bottle of nice Chianti?

In an interesting contrast, let’s compare Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ with Jonathan Demme’s ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’.  ‘2001’ is a film about, literally, heaven, space, evolution and the divine potential of humankind.  It’s a hopeful journey through time with a strangely (for Kubrick) optimistic point-of-view.   ‘Silence’, however, is about Earth and things underneath it, like basements and pits and darkened rooms.  It’s about devolution, complex, civilized man’s disintegration into a cannibalistic hunter, the diabolical potential of humankind.  Perhaps this Halloween, for a unique double feature, you ought to watch both.

Know1ng

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  A divisive but effective, philosophical thriller.

Review: So I pretty much geeked out over this movie when I first saw it. I’ve mellowed since then, and gotten control of my mind, so perhaps I can reflect more effectively on the ‘Knowing’ experience.  Director Alex Proyas has constructed a very effective philosophical thriller, but you have to be the kind of person (open to the concept of wonder, which is rare these days) that can take it in.

Like his previous films, Proyas gives ‘Knowing’ a really distinct atmosphere that sticks with you.  The man-on-the-ground perspective gives the intense, apocalyptic imagery a poignancy that big, dumb disaster movies can’t touch.  The disaster sequences are elemental, focusing on fire, dust, darkness and light, respectively.  Since it was shot on digital, it has an eerie, documentary feel.  The story is divisive because it doesn’t try to justify its supernatural elements.  They’re simply present, and confusing, and at once terrifying and comforting.  This is much like real world religions.  Every one of them has fear and love mixed together down to the core, and it indeed takes faith to turn confusion into catharsis.  Due to the rise of scientism, faith is considered childish and unevolved, and its hard to apply it even to fiction.  Its a sad thing, because faith is a crucial component of imagination.

The performances at the heart of the film are very strong.  Nicolas Cage is an underrated, oft-derided actor, and he carries the emotional burden of his character very well.  The supporting cast is good, especially the child actors, whose characters seem to be the only ones at relative ease with the impending doom of the world.

‘Knowing’ is proof that Alex Proyas isn’t out of ideas nor has he lost the ability to realize them.  I look forward to his next dream.

Classic Review: Rear Window

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A completely unusual and charming mystery classic.

This image speaks for itself.  Thats what was so cool about old ad campaigns.

This image speaks for itself. That's what was so cool about old ad campaigns.

Review:  What if your leg was broken, forcing you to be confined to a wheelchair for months with nothing to do but stare at the neighbors?  James Stewart’s character finds out just what it would be like in Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’.  Shot almost entirely in one room, Hitchcock defies the conventions of film for a seemingly pedestrian premise.  The result is dialog-heavy, but not unbearably so, and lacks the benefit of multiple locations to pique audience interest.

Hitchcock proves he doesn’t need them.

The filmmakers built a magnificent set for ‘Rear Window’, which comprises the protagonist’s apartment complex.  Every shot is either of the goings on inside the protagonist’s own apartment or the courtyard outside his rear window, hence the title.

Photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart), still recovering from a broken leg he received by getting too close to danger in his line of work, spends his days watching his neighbors.  He is criticized by both his nurse, Stella, and his socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont for his habits.  Multiple stories are going on around the courtyard.  The denizens of the complex each have their own quirks, and everybody feels real.  This film’s pedestrian look at life in the complex is not dull.  Modern audiences might not appreciate the slow burn of the film, however.

Over a series of days, Jeff witnesses strange behavior by his neighbor, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr).  Jeff suspects him of killing his wife.  He soon wins both Stella and Lisa over to his side of the argument, but Lieutenant Doyle, his friend in the police, is unconvinced.  Evidence continues to mount for both sides.  Is Mr. Thorwald a murderer or isn’t he?

The big issue of the film is voyeurism.  Hitchcock is questioning the nature of film itself through the narrative.  Is it right for us to watch even fictional strangers experience pleasure and pain, for our own satisfaction?  Hitchcock doesn’t provide us with answers, but the film doesn’t feel empty because of this.  The questions are subdued enough not to distract or confront us.  Eventually, Jeff gets too close to danger once again, showing in a humorous way that watching people for a living- or for enjoyment- has its costs.

The musical score for the film is entirely diegetic. That is, every musical cue has a source within the film.  Most of the music is provided by the character of the songwriter who lives in the courtyard.  This serves to enhance the feeling of audience involvement in the story.  We are a lot like Jeff, watching fictional neighbors.  This film couldn’t be described as a purely suspenseful drama.  It is more a benign, intelligent mystery with a romantic undercurrent.  The suspenseful moments near the climax, of course, don’t disappoint.  The best moment is when Thorwald, angry with Jeff for being accused of murder, breaks the ‘fourth wall’ by looking directly at the camera, and thus the audience.  It’s creepy fun.

I like this film less than Hitchcock’s later work, ‘North by Northwest’, which I have also reviewed.  It is less thrilling and fun at face value than that film, but they both are perfect in their own manner.

“See it!  If your nerves can stand it after ‘Psycho’!”

Classic Review: Jaws

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A mesmerizing, thrilling adventure that transcends the trappings of its genre.

I can almost guarantee youve seen this poster before.

I can almost guarantee you've seen this poster before.

Review:  Bah… dum.  Bah…. dum.  Bah-dum.  Bah-dum.  Bah-dum. Bah-DUM!  Almost anyone you ask will identify the theme to this film, a testimony to the brilliance of a young John Williams, in his first of many collaborations with director Steven Spielberg.

This first film was ‘Jaws’.

Based on a popular novel, Spielberg’s clever adaption has earned a reputation entirely detached from its source material.  It’s an amazing testament to the production crew’s resilience that this film was ever finished.  They were beset with numerous problems from the get-go, but as necessity is the mother of invention, they managed to turn these lemons into a pitcher of suspenseful lemonade.  Audiences in 1975 clearly agreed, and the film became the very first bona-fide summer blockbuster.  It is clear that ‘Jaws’, due to its broad appeal and lasting popularity, is more than a horror film; it is a suspense masterpiece on the level of Alfred Hitchcock himself.

The film opens with what is arguably the most horrific moment of its entire narrative.  The death of a young woman, going for a midnight skinny-dip, is the only time I felt truly disturbed.  Granted, it’s bloodless and simply ends with her being pulled underwater, but the sound effects, music, and especially the young actress’ convincing performance makes it unwatchable.  It also proves only an implication is necessary; the minds of the audience members are quite adequate in deducing the lurid details.

After this, it picks up. Amity’s Police Chief, Martin Brody, played by the late Roy Scheider, goes out to investigate the report of a body on the beach.  After discovering the woman’s remains, he immediately concludes that there is a killer shark on the loose, and sets out to close the beaches.  And now we are introduced to our first conflict, presented to Brody by the Mayor.  He warns that the July 4th weekend is coming up, and thus the beaches must stay open, for the sake of the town economy.  Amity’s biggest week can’t be shut down based on one isolated incident.  Brody, still skeptical, continues to lobby for closing the beaches, while the word gets out about the shark attack.

With the stage set, the filmmakers continue to up the threat- or possibly perceived threat- of the shark until it reaches a breaking point for Brody.  His own son is nearly killed by the shark, and he finally enlists the help of the eccentric fisherman Quint (played by Robert Shaw), and Matthew Hooper (Played by Richard Dreyfuss).  The three men get on Quint’s boat, the Orca, and head out into open sea in search of the monster.

To this point in the film, the shark, a Great White, is never fully seen.  One day on the boat, Brody is instructed by Quint to throw out chum (dead fish and the various trappings of dead fish), in order to draw the shark.  It sure does, giving the audience- and Brody- quite a shock.  Brody quickly retreats to the cabin, and famously warns Quint, “You’re going to need a bigger boat”.  The men then spring into action, spotting the shark again and estimating its size to be around 25 feet long.  Brilliantly, in this film it doesn’t really matter that the shark is huge, as intimidating as that is.  Since footage of the shark is sparse, due to issues with the animatronic model they used during filming, the shark is more a presence or character than a monster.  You really believe it is out to get those men on the boat.

There is no disputing the fact that the film is quite terrifying, especially if you don’t know anything about it.  Every frame, once they are on the water, is wrought with underlying tension.  The shark is a constant threat.  Nevertheless, there is something that distinguishes it, for me, from being a horror film.  The tone is much closer to one of Hitchcock’s man-on-the-run adventures, such as ‘North by Northwest’, than that other Hitchcock film, ‘Psycho’.  Some of the shark’s victims do bleed, and some are dismembered, but I never got a sense of violence any more extreme than Spielberg’s later work, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, with one exception, that being the opening scene.

All things considered, ‘Jaws’ is very well crafted.  It has stood the test of time.  It’s a shame that when filmmakers nowadays want to thrill moviegoers with a scary movie, they resort to sadistic, self-parodying schlock films in the vein of ‘Saw’ or ‘Friday the 13th’ as opposed to a genuine adventure like ‘Jaws’.  An adventure, if it is truly an adventure, should be scary.  There’s nothing wrong with having a film that respects human life whilst instilling genuine suspense.  I suppose that’s what truly separates ‘Jaws’ from horror… a filmmaker who knew the audience was there to have fun, not be disgusted.  Sort of like Hitchcock.

Classic Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Stars: **** out of Four

Summary:  Harrison Ford’s definitive action hero role shines in his debut, arguably the best adventure film of all time.

Heck yes.

Heck yes.

Review:  I first saw ‘Raiders’ when I was about 9 or 10, on VHS.  It scared me to death.  The film’s many surprises, and especially its horrific climax, terrified me.

Now, it’s one of my favorite movies.

The first colloboration between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas opened in 1981, shattering box office records set by the creators of the film themselves.  Combining Spielberg’s steller direction, understanding of suspense, and whimsical imagination, with Lucas’ inventive story, delivered a one-two punch that is yet to be equalled.

The film used elements of the action/adventure cliffhanger serials of the 1930s to breath life into the action genre.  Indiana Jones, a graverobbing archaeologist, was the protagonist.  Combining James Bond and Humphrey Bogart, he borrowed elements from the heroes of the serials, including a bullwhip from Zorro and a hat from countless others.  The fedora, Jones’ iconic headgear, went on to become his symbol.  Now the fedora is synomymous with Indiana Jones.

The film’s pacing is superb.  There is never a dull moment.  Spielberg uses techniques derived from Alfred Hitchcock to infuse ‘Raiders’ with constant peril.  The action scenes, where some of the most iconic moments where planned on-set, are often parodied or homaged.  In particular the stunt in which Indy slides under a German truck while it is motion, and then works his way back into the cabin.  By understating the action, and keeping it grounded, what might be pedestrian in another movie comes across as mind-blowing in this one.

I mentioned the horror element.  It’s not that the film is extremely frightening, though it is for some children, but that the film critically uses small amounts of blood, gore, and scares to keep you on edge.  The worst scene is the climax, which depicts a man’s face melting off his bones, among other things.  Though rated PG, if it were released today it would earn a PG-13 rating.  Some minor cuts kept it from an R during its initial release.  This is a fun movie, in the vein of ‘Star Wars’, but is much more mature.  It’s not a kids movie, but don’t feel bad about letting teenagers see it.

The film is followed by three sequels, which I will review in the future.  I like parts of all those movies, but ‘Raiders’ is the one I admire the most.