Published on July 7th, 2020 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
Because You’ve Seen Silence Of The Lambs So Many Times
Kim takes us on a trip down memory lane to a time when the world’s biggest problem was just a few measly serial killers.
It’s been a long time since I was frightened by the thought of a serial killer being loose on a murder spree. Certainly not since Trump, North Korea, global warming, the war on racism, pandemic and murder hornets. But there was a time in American history when serial killers seemed abundant and were lauded by the media. They were given catchy nicknames in the papers, and had tv movies made about them. For a while, especially in the 70s and 80s, it was almost insinuated by the news that being a serial killer victim was as common as a shoe sale. The sensationalism and rag-tag magazine sales spun wild, often glib and inaccurate tales of monsters lurking in every shadow. Glamorous, charming monsters. Or, as Morrissey put it, the last of the famous international playboys.
Silence of the Lambs (1991) is just seven months from its 30th birthday, so despite seeing it a few dozen times over the years, I re-watched it over the weekend. It holds up extremely well. The realism of the FBI was due to full cooperation from the agency, who wanted filmmakers to portray the organization in a realistic and positive manner. Those opening scenes of Clarice at the training academy were actually filmed at Quantico, Virginia. Clearly, this movie and Jody Foster’s performance were a key influence on The X-Files (1993) and the character of Doctor Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). In fact, other than that example, I’m not sure how close to the mark I could get suggesting a movie in this genre with a great part for the female lead. Point being, if you love Silence of the Lambs strictly because of Jody Foster, it’s off to The X-Files for you. I happen to love it for many reasons but, because I’ve seen it so many times, it’s time to consider another great movie of the genre that doesn’t get the credit it deserves: Zodiac (2007).
1991 was a year that saw the movie business put a lot of emphasis on killing, crime and justice. This is the year that saw JFK, Cape Fear, Boyz in the Hood, New Jack City and Regarding Henry. Even Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is about crime and justice, but nobody hit the justice nail on the head in 1991 like Steven Segal in Out for Justice. It’s a movie about…you know what? Screw it. It’s all there in the title.
By the time Zodiac came out, the movie landscape had changed dramatically and there wasn’t much room for historical police procedurals. Even with a heavyweight cast that includes Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, Anthony Edwards, Mark Ruffalo, Brian Cox and Chloë Sevigny, I can see how Zodiac slipped through the cracks created in 2007 by the franchise movies, quirky comedies, and ambitious competition from films such as There Will Be Blood, Gone Baby Gone and No Country For Old Men. But Zodiac has, aside from a formidable cast and incredible true story, an enormous advantage in its construction and delivery – director David Fincher. When The Social Network (2010) came out, The Feedback Society’s Craig Silliphant told me that he loved Fincher because “he can make a room full of geeks typing on computers feel like you’re watching a bank robbery”. Zodiac is no exception to Fincher’s methods of using tension to keep the audience on edge, even when it seems like not much is happening.
The differences between Silence of the Lambs and Zodiac have much to do with the evolution of filmmaking and storytelling, but they also align in many ways. These characters, these serial killers, are less like humans and more like animals or computers. They follow their instincts, act according to their nature, perhaps rationalizing and calculating their decisions, but maybe just obeying their programming. It frightens the viewers blood cold to know that such people exist out there, walking beside us in a parking lot or supermarket, and just as deadly as an unseen serpent in the jungle. The enjoyment of these movies is all about the creep factor, the chills. It’s like a visit to the zoo where our fascination with dangerous animals is protected and we are allowed a voyeuristic view of a world we are not welcome in. Neither movie is anything short of a feeling. We tend to come out of movies with opinions of how much we liked or hated it, we were bored or thought it was corny, but rarely do movies punch hard enough to leave you feeling exhausted and ineloquent regarding your unease, your unsettled emotions. Silence of the Lambs and Zodiac are both so good, the creepy crawly feeling on your skin has to get scrubbed out in the shower.
The score for both films feature huge aesthetics of atmosphere, and each has at least one stand-out song used. When Buffalo Bill does the penis-tuck scene, “Goodbye Horses” (Q Lazzarus) plays in the background, a suitably eerie track. When Zodiac uses Hurdy Gurdy Man (Donovan), it’s like that song finally found a perfect home. It’s always been a bad acid trip of a tune, but now that it’s matched to images, just thinking about it makes me taste copper in my mouth. The gore in Silence of the Lambs doesn’t exist in Zodiac, but don’t think for a second that it isn’t upsetting. Fincher’s meticulous recreations of the murder scenes (right down to every stitch of the victim’s clothing) are horrifying. The Lake Berryessa murders were particularly brutal, and the scene is every bit as chilling as Lector’s escape from his prison cell.
We all know how good Silence of the Lambs is. Five Oscars good, including best picture, director, screenplay and most important, best actor in a leading role for both Anthony Hopkins and Jody Foster. At the time, nobody would shut up about Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector, perhaps the greatest performance since Brando. He won the Academy Award with just 16 minutes of screen time (similar to the amount you get of the Zodiac/Arthur Leigh Allen). But looking back on it now, it was Jody Foster that was the glue holding SOTL together. Replace her with any man, and the movie does a nosedive.
Zodiac did alright at the box office, bringing back about 130% of its budget. But Silence of the Lambs made nearly 1,500% of budget. That should tell you everything you need to know about how each movie was received by audiences, but comparing the numbers from 1991 with those of 2007 isn’t a good metric for the quality of content. I think it’s strange that people were so enthralled with the behavioural details of the fictional Hannibal Lecter (oh no! He escaped! He’s out there somewhere!) but were less impressed by an actual, real life serial killer, who was never arrested or identified, despite the fact that he sent taunting letters to the police and press as cyphered clues. You can’t make this stuff up.
If you’ve seen Silence of the Lambs so many times that you’re searching for something different to give you the same satisfaction, look no further than Netflix or Amazon Prime, both of which are streaming Zodiac. Either way, you’re going to end up in a damp, creepy, poorly lit basement before the end of the movie. Jesus, people, not the basement! Nothing good ever happens in the basement. You’ll see what I mean.