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The Lambs Have Not Stopped Screaming: Remembering a Horror Classic

Written by: Jaime Kawamoto, special to CC2K

“Memory is what I have instead of a view”

-Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs)


Image As I watched Silence of the Lambs for the first time in years, I waited for the disgusting scene where Hannibal the Cannibal escapes.  Remember – the part where he bites one guards face, beats the other guard’s head in and takes a scalp, face still attached, to use as a disguise?

I first saw the film fifteen years ago at a slumber party.  Didn’t sleep a wink that night.  Since then, I’ve made it through the film in its entirety once when a professor showed it in class.  I spent a lot of that morning avoiding the screen – 9 am is a little early for bloodshed.  Channel surfing sometimes leads to snippets of the best scenes.  And I’ll watch the last fifteen minutes any day.  The end has one of the best suspense sequences ever put on film.  But I never wanted to relive those gory middle moments.

Turns out I was wrong about the gore.  When Dr. Lecter bites the guard’s face we see his face covered in the other man’s blood.  The billy-clubbing?  Again, we watch as the good doctor methodically and repeatedly wields the club but we never actually see him land a blow.  The scalping that remains so vivid in my mind wasn’t there at all.  I was shocked that this scene, one which had haunted me since my teen years, was Anthony Hopkins’ reactions and nothing more.

Even more shocking was the image of the dead guard gutted and hung like an angel with his own entrails.  The carved up flesh wasn’t what surprised me; what did was the actual grotesque moment in the scene was the one I remembered the least.

Memory is what makes a movie.  When you say “Silence of the Lambs” everyone knows what movie you mean.  A lame Anthony Hopkins impersonation usually follows.  When you say “Cursed” you may have to explain that it’s a werewolf movie with Pacey and Christina Ricci.  I was hard pressed to find anyone who remembered it off the top of their head, despite a grisly scene in which Shannon Elizabeth is torn in half and still moving.  Sure it’s shocking to see what she looks like on the inside.  That shock only engages you momentarily, on a strictly visual level, and then it’s back to wondering why Portia deRossi only has one scene.  But when the violence is imagined you become part of the film.  You invest deeper in its world as you help create it. 

Silence of the Lambs provides ample opportunity to invest.  When Buffalo Bill kidnaps his latest victim, Catherine Martin, he subdues her by knocking her out with his fake cast.  We see him, none of the actual beating.  We only hear that Lecter talked his neighboring inmate Miggs into swallowing his own tongue. 

There is a severed head in a jar, an incomplete human skin suit and victim Frederica Bimmel’s sliced up body.  All of these are disturbing because they show the consequence of the violence not the act itself.

Character also creates good horror.  It’s hard to involve yourself in a film when you’re rooting for the ‘good guys’ to die.  A movie like House of Wax is entertaining but I don’t even remember how Paris Hilton bites the dust.  I do remember thinking Chad Michael Squints-a-lot needs to shave.  There is not a single horrific image that comes to mind.  Nor can I remember the names or relationships of any of the characters although I’m pretty sure the filmmakers used that list at the end of The Breakfast Club in lieu of actual character development. 

Then there’s Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter.  Even after one viewing their names stuck with me because they are unique characters that drive the film forward instead of providing a body count.  Their names have meaning and they are intertwined with the overall story so they unforgettable.  Whether or not you remember the name of the smarmy ‘warden’ (Dr. Chilton), you remember his fate.  “I’m having an old friend for dinner” is a classic line of dialogue.  Catherine Martin, the abductee in Buffalo Bill’s pit, fights to stay alive.  Holding Bill’s dog hostage is an ingenious and pivotal moment in the film.  And there would be no horror in the movie without the terrifyingly psychotic Buffalo Bill.  When he stands in front of his video camera, tucks his penis back and spreads his robe like butterfly wings, all while wearing a human wig still attached to its scalp, he reveals everything about himself.  Putting characters you care about in danger is far more agonizing than slicing up a random wet t-shirt.  Letting us in on Lecter and Bill’s lives makes them far more frightening than a surprise flash of an angry two-headed mutant.

The scariest moments in the film have nothing to do with blood.  Buffalo Bill cuts the dress off an unconscious Catherine Martin and strokes her back.  Lecter dons his famous mask.  Bill watches Clarice in the dark.  He gets so close he almost touches her.  Imagining what Bill will do to Catherine or Clarice and what Lecter did to deserve that mask chill me to the bone. 

No matter how many times I watch Silence of the Lambs I will always go away with the pretty gory little pictures I’ve created.  Fifteen years from now, the name Clarice Starling will roll off my tongue but I’ve already forgotten the name of the Sarah Michelle Gellar screamer I saw yesterday.  Filmmakers take note: turn the volume down on the severed arms and crank the story because I don’t know what the screaming of a lamb sounds like but it terrifies me.