Friday, April 28, 2017


Before we dive in here, I wanted to acknowledge the passing of director Jonathan Demme this week at the age of 73. He was a very talented director and seemed very smart and compassionate. I'm not terribly well versed on his filmography, but Silence Of The Lambs had a tremendous impact on me. There are scenes etched in my brain from my very first viewing. My heart goes out to his friends and family and the fans he touched with his art. Rest in peace.

"I'd rather confuse the audience for five minutes, than bore them for five seconds." -JD

Thomas Harris' novel Silence Of The Lambs is a chilling and engrossing novel about FBI trainee,
Clarice Starling, who inadvertently becomes embroiled in the Bureau's attempt to capture the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. It starts with a chance to prove herself to Bureau director Jack Crawford by getting incarcerated serial murder and cannibal Hannibal Lecter to participate in a questionnaire. Starling and Lecter soon find themselves engaged in a wild and frightening chess game with a young woman's life hanging in the balance. Lecter offers Starling his aid in capturing Buffalo Bill, but there's nothing altruistic about his help.

Hannibal Lecter was originally introduced in the novel Red Dragon appearing in much the same capacity; incarcerated in the Baltimore State Hospital For The Criminally Insane, being sought for his help in capturing a killer known as The Tooth Fairy. In Red Dragon, though, it's not an inexperienced FBI trainee that dummies into Lecter's help, but a seasoned FBI profiler, what's more, the profiler, Will Graham, has a dark history with Lecter. Graham captured Lecter, but nearly died and subsequently quit the Bureau. Crawford drags Graham out of retirement to capture The Tooth Fairy and Graham reluctantly turns to Lecter-once a brilliant psychiatrist with a taste for human flesh.

Red Dragon is a fantastic novel, dark and chilling, full of characters that we still can't get enough of twenty-six years later. The book was adapted into a great, if a bit reductive, film by Michael Mann in 1986. The title was changed to Manhunter, fearing it would be mistaken for a kung fu flick. Lecter was played by Brian Cox (X-Men 2). The film was met with mixed reviews, but over the years has become a cult favorite. As good as the movie was, it was light years away from the phenomena that the Silence Of The Lambs would become.

Jonathan Demme was the director that ultimately ushered Silence Of The Lambs into cinemas after Gene Hackman backed out due to the overt violence. Demme was an odd choice for such dark material as his previous films had been off-beat comedies, but he got the material and with an already on board Jodie Foster, he was about to capture lightning in a bottle.

Foster campaigned for and won the role of Starling, while Jack Crawford was played by Scott Glen (Netflix's Daredevil) and Ted Levine (Shutter Island) was cast as Buffalo Bill aka Jame Gumb. There was an exhaustive search for who'd play Lecter and Demme found the perfect fit in British actor Anthony Hopkins. The behind the scenes/making of story of Silence Of The Lambs is well documented. In fact, the newest Blu Ray that you can pick up at Target for less than $10 has a handful of excellent featurettes that are worth every second of your time, beyond that there's the film's Wiki and IMDB pages. So let's skip all that and get down to the focus of our latest review series; Hannibal the Cannibal.

The novel Red Dragon gives us far more insight and background for Lecter than Manhunter does, but the character is far more fleshed out in Silence Of The Lambs. I've liked Brian Cox in everything I've seen him in and really liked him as Lecter as well, but I saw Silence first, so Hopkins was imprinted in my brain as Lecter and it took several viewings before I was able to fully appreciate Cox in the role. That said, Hopkins is the stronger Lecter for a number of reasons; the size of the role, the richness of material, the quality of the film, increased fleshed out source material, amount of screen time...Hopkins had no shortage of advantages over Cox, but primarily he was simply the better choice for the character. It's a role Hopkins was born to play and he did so in three films darkly delightful.

It's important to note, and I think it gets forgotten more than two decades later with Hannibal a household name, that Hopkins was not the main star of Silence-that would be Starling and it's Foster's stellar performance that propelled Hopkins' performance to the cultural heights we know today. I hate to imagine anyone else sitting on the other side of that plexiglass from Hopkins, because it is just too good watching them verbally spar. When he starts mocking her southern accent, it's not just the character Starling about to jump out of her skin, but the actress Foster. The two are so deep in their roles and so good at what they do! Which is why it was such a disappointment when she didn't return for Ridley Scott's Hannibal. Her replacement, Julianne Moore, who I normally love, suffered the same fate as Brian Cox for me, having to fill a role I couldn't imagine anyone else playing.  She's an accomplished and talented actress in her own right and doesn't deserve to be held to anyone's standards but her own and she still turns in an excellent portrayal. Also, the movie succeeds on many other levels as well.

Back to Silence Of The Lambs, the film was released in February 1991 and as the year went on and the film built a reputation and gained popularity, it became clear that the hero of the film was being eclipsed by the monster, and not even the main monster. Buffalo Bill is the main antagonist of Silence, while Lecter's story is more of an ongoing sub plot carried over from Red Dragon. Public interest made Hannibal the focus of Harris's next two novels, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising (a prequel/origin story). But why?

We love our monsters. We go don't go see Friday The 13th for the camp councilors or Frankenstein for the good doctor. Our monsters can reflect our real life boogy men-recession, divorce, abuse, war- while their defeat provides a moment of catharsis or their crimes and transgressions can be the catharsis for all of our inner angst that we have to push down and bury in our hearts and psyches. Hannibal is not like Jason. Jason can be our school bully or he can be us. Hannibal can't be imprinted on in the same way. We're not half as smart as Hannibal and our bullies and bosses sure as hell aren't either. Hannibal is this uncanny other. More real than Jason or Frankenstein's monster, because he's not a cultural archetype. His DNA is in real life serial murderers and he's infused with an intellect that's awe-inspiring, but not wholly unbelievable. He's in equal measures alluring and repulsive. As a villain, he has far more in common with Sherlock Holmes' Doctor Moriarty-a superior intellectual superman always one step ahead of the good guys, made all the more real by his flaws and weaknesses. He's egotistical and prideful and for all machinations he still wound up in a cage. Somehow, the way both Harris and Demme portrayed Hannibal in his cell with the whole institute on high alert where he was concerned made him so frightening.

The film spends ten minutes talking about Hannibal before we finally see him. Demme builds suspense and tension for Hannibal's big reveal like Hitchcock on steroids. When we finally see him, he's a friendly looking (at first glance), middle aged man with a warm smile. It's only after we have to spend some time with him that we realize that he's not blinking. That's not a smile, not a human smile, but more like the illusion a cat's smile gives us-there's no joy, that's just the face of an apex predator. In addition to his eloquent speech, he has impeccable manners, but he's always toying with the edges some immoral and perverse word play or riddle. There's a crudity to the man that's like a dirty, moldy wall covered in layer after layer of good paint. He toys with the film's characters like a cat that bats around a mouse for fun. He could snuff them out effortlessly, but he enjoys the game.

Neither the success of the novel or the success of the film can be solely attributed to Hannibal though. As magnetic as the character is, Moriarty needed Holmes and Hannibal has a host of adversaries worthy of him. Graham and Starling, with Jack Crawford, Alan Bloom, (Alana Bloom for TV), and others to a lesser extent either put Hannibal away or kept him running. In Clarice Starling, Harris created a great spoil for Hannibal, Buffalo Bill, and the powers that be in the FBI. Silence Of The Lambs and Hannibal.
Starling could have come across like a Nancy Drew, but Harris crafted a believable and sympathetic heroine. Starling has the smarts, a strong, fierce drive to succeed, and a natural goodness inside her that take her a long way with her Bureau training and then it's her wits, her intuition, and in equal measures her bravery and ability to control her fears that ultimately saves the day. She's no Sherlock Holmes or Jason Bourne, she's someone we can believe in. We can believe in her smarts, her intuition, her endurance, her vulnerability, and her strength. Starling is the heart, the engine of Silence Of The Lambs and Hannibal.

In the next installment we'll look at the book and film Hannibal before backing up to the book and remake of Manhunter, Red Dragon, since that was the order the Anthony Hopkins led films were shot in. Following that, I'll dig into both Hannibal Rising and Manhunter, while Popshifter's Leslie Hatton will join us for a look into Bryan Fuller's excellent TV adaptation, Hannibal.  


Thursday, April 27, 2017


Wanna win a copy of this gorgeous and exhaustive tribute to our favorite monsters on film? All you gotta do is comment below with your favorite monster! Winner will be chosen at random Sunday night!