Silence of the Lambs came on the television again. I was flipping past it, when wife said that she had never seen it. The inference was that she had missed on a classic.
Full Disclaimer: I still think Silence of the Lambs is one of the most overrated films ever.
It’s a good film. I won’t be stubbornly counterculture and insist that Brian Cox’s subdued Hannibal Lector is superior to Anthony Hopkins version, or that it wasn’t great to see character actors and B-movie greats like Ted Levine, Tracy Walter, Roger Corman, Daniel Von Bargen, Cynthia Ettinger, Charles Napier or Scott Glenn. I even liked Jodie Foster.
The idea of a mind game being played by a brilliant psycho in a cell, and a flawed law enforcement officer forced to deal with him is a great one. But Thomas Harris as a writer is kind of over the top (even though he has a history as a reporter working the police beat) and no matter how much the film adaptations of his work tone that down, Silence of the Lambs isn’t particularly scary. Also, Hannibal Lector does not behave like anyone you know. He is an utterly fictional of character, and there is a sort of relief in that.
Obviously Anthony Hopkins has been commended for one of the great performances, and this is commonly listed as one of the great horror films. Whenever I see this film on a great horror film list, I immediately dismiss the person who put it together.
They never saw Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer which came out two years before Silence of the Lambs. They didn’t have the guts. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is probably the scariest movie about a serial killer ever made.
Silence of the Lambs is a movie. Its shot like a movie, it’s performed like a movie. Henry doesn’t give you the luxury of distance. It is very subtly shot like a documentary, which makes you believe what you see more. The actors are often improvising, which gives it a very realistic quality as well, and because you don’t recognize the players, it seems like a real person is getting murdered. And the violence doesn’t require elaborate special makeup effects.
Henry isn’t a moustache-twirling foreign doctor. He is pretty unremarkable. He moves from town to town, murdering only when his loathing for the people around him and frustration at his situation boils over. But Henry is too emotionally stunted to know why he is so murderously angry. Because he has no motive, or consistent method, he will not be caught.
You will not sympathize with Henry. He isn’t an anti-hero. He’s a maniac, a man with something emotionally missing. And the dirtiest trick that Henry Portrait of A Serial Killer does, is to make you sympathize with him, not because you pity him, or understand him. You do it, because Otis shows up, and Otis seems even more awful then Henry does. And when Henry ends up consistently protecting Otis’s niece (mostly from Otis) it humanizes him, even when he’s tormenting a random family (and videotaping it).
Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer is a tough film with one the great bleak endings in film. It is true classic, that should have won Oscars, should have stood the test of time. Instead it content to be genuinely horrifying which is more than I can say for its descendant.