31 Days of Halloween #31 – Silence of the Lambs Mega-Analysis
So now it’s time for my overly wordy analysis of the 31st movie on this year’s marathon list, The Silence of the Lambs. To say this psychological horror movie is a classic is an understatement, because it won best director, best actor and actress, and best picture for a reason. It’s a clinical study in building tension and framing drama correctly. Every moment is used effectively.
In the beginning, we meet our lead character, Clarice Starling. She’s new to the FBI academy, which helps connect her to the audience. As she waits for her boss, she looks at some crime photos on his office wall depicting all the gruesome killings by Buffalo Bill, and she looks like she has a lot of questions, again like the audience. Who did the killings? How did the girls die? As the camera pans down, we see a great big newspaper clipping read, “Bill Slays Fifth,” which tells us that it’s a serial killer at work. So with that couple of minutes, we’ve established the serious nature of the work Clarice’s boss is involved in.
As the scene continues, we see our first contrasting juxtaposition of story elements within the movie. This happens several more times throughout the narrative. Clarice’s boss doesn’t want to talk to her about Buffalo Bill, instead sending her on a “little errand” to interview Hannibal Lector, which we learn later is basically the same thing, but her boss disguises the connection on purpose. Over his left shoulder, you can see the newspaper clipping of Buffalo Bill to keep it in mind as Clarice asks if Lector is connected in some way to Bill’s killings. He isn’t, the guy lies.
We shift to Dr. Chilton’s office next, where we can see that he is a tacky oaf and an idiot, dressed up as an intellectual and a professional. Again, the movie is disguising things. Chilton is also one of the most obvious overcompensating idiots in history, with his expensive art and neat desk and nice suit. He seems to want Clarise to adhere to his rules, but we learn later that even he can’t follow them. He’s more of an idiot than in this introduction, as he loses his pen and allows Lector’s escape.
The build to the meeting with Lector is done very slowly. It begins way back in Chilton’s office and continues through endless rambling dialogue from Chilton as they walk, until they arrive in the basement, where he shows Clarise a picture of one of Lector’s victims. The picture is never shown on-screen, and is only described by Chilton as horrific and terrible. It works. As they walk through the basement holding area, they are bathed in a red light, which seems the most obvious representation of the descent into Hell if I’ve seen one. Clarise becomes nervous, the music swells, and we finally meet Lector, who himself is an example of a disguised double meaning, a serial killer disguised as a learned and knowledgeable individual. We can see that he’s vicious and evil, but also smart and well-spoken, the perfect contrast.
More disguises can be unraveled through the analysis of art and dialogue. Lector is drawing the Duomo Scene from the Belvedere, because Lector knows Buffalo Bill is his former patient and lives near Belvedere, Ohio, so he taunts the police with that little fact. As Lector speaks, he reveals another disguised meaning, which is Clarise herself, what Lector calls poor white trash disguised as an FBI agent trainee. This is obviously meant to insult and shock more than reveal truth, a monologue that doesn’t inspire Clarise to give a courageous retort until later.
It’s at this moment, we get two things for the development of Clarise’s character. She cries, and we learn about her father, then we see her shooting a gun and training at the FBI again. It’s the movie comparing and contrasting ideas once again, and if you’re not seeing a pattern by now, I’m not sure what movie you’re watching.
As we get further into the movie, we can see that some of the images and symbols represent transformation, not just contrasting images or figures. Jame Gumb’s transformation into a transexual serial killer is one, and Clarise’s transformation into an FBI agent is another. She also transformed from a scared young girl into a capable woman. Transformation seems to be one of the biggest themes in the movie. Jame Gumb seems to want to transform into something else and Catherine Martin is his next victim.
The middle part of the movie is again building more character motivations, hidden just underneath the surface. The best scene is in the funeral home, as Clarice and her boss arrive to investigate the next murder. After she hears some familiar funeral music, we get a flashback to her father’s death, and see the precarious situation she’s in with her career in the Boy’s Club aka the FBI. This is why the script allows her to lead the examination of the body, to see her expertise and her reaction.
In the scene where Clarise gives Lector the Senator’s offer in order to get his help to find her daughter, the movie plays with the word turns. It’s an example of playing with double meanings and switching things around.
The offer Clarise presents is a transfer for Lector to a VA hospital in Oneida Park, New York, which has a beach and some terns nests. Lector himself seems to want to continue his dialogue with Clarise, for some reason. Quid Pro Quo becomes the norm and this propels the back-and-forth dialogue between Clarise and Lector, as they take turns speaking to each other about meaningful things in the case. Lector reveals the key theme to the movie, the change from one form to another, the transformation or turn into something else, which is what Jame Gumb is attempting. As she explains a traumatic event in her life, she explains a transformation in her life too. Her later dialogue also gives away the powerful allegory featured in the movie, which is on the poster and in the artwork.
Lambs represent a lot of different things in literature, most commonly innocence or peace. One of the Clarise’s most vivid memories is her time on the farm after the death of her father, when the farmer went out to kill the Spring lambs. She heard them screaming and ran away. She has worked all her life to put the horrors of her childhood behind her, to get past the deaths of the innocent lambs and the horrible memory of the death of her father.
Jame Gumb also sheers innocent girls of their skin, as he is making clothes out of their flesh. He seems obsessed with overweight, innocent women. In the Bible, the lambs are us, the people and Jesus is the Shepherd. Clarise wants to prove herself in the Boy’s Club and silence the whispers and constant come-ons. Her lastname “Starling” seems to be an allusion to the words “sterling silver”, which a pure quality metal; innocent, in other words. It also means Clarise could be in danger.
The climax to the film works well because of the character building. Lector informs Clarise how to proceed in the final step in the case, by saying “Read Marcus Aurelius — of each thing, ask: what is it, in and of itself? What is its nature?”. Lector adds that the killer’s nature is that he covets things around him, just like the men around Clarise try to covet her, their eyes wandering over her body like earlier in the movie. This explanation helps her solve the case.
Overall, this movie is amazing. It’s layered so deep I’ve only touched on some of the themes, images, and symbolism. The movie makes Hannibal Lector a deeply powerful character, complete with creepy personality. Clarise is a great character too, and Jodie Foster earned her academy award on this one, not because the role is such a stretch but she shows great range and emotion. The movie itself is a great treat because of the tension and the story, which you can’t say about a lot of movies, much less a horror movie. The perfect fit for Halloween.
31 Days of Halloween 2016
31. Young Frankenstein (1974)
30. Jason X (2001)
29. Cloverfield (2008)
28. The Monster Squad (1987)
27. Bad Moon (1996)
26. The Haunting (1963)
25. Splinter (2008)
24. Frenzy (1972)
23. Aggression Scale (2012)
22. The Exorcist III
21. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1963)
20. Silver Bullet (1985)
19. Joy Ride (2001)
18. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
The Funhouse (1981) by Tobe Hooper Shin Godzilla (2016)
16. Videodrome (1983)
15. Re-Animator (1985)
14. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
13. Cube (1997)
12. Evil Dead
11. Day of the Dead (1985)
Tales of Halloween (2015) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)
9. They Live (1988)
The Innocents (1961) Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966)
7. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
6. Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
5. I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle (1990)
4. Hatchet (2006)
The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
2. Halloween II
1. Silence of the Lambs