The Silence of the Lambs (Special Edition) Review
The serial killer film is a notoriously easy genre to make a bad film in, given the cliched requirements of seemingly every one: the resourceful hero/heroine; the insane, devious yet cunning serial killer, with a sick modus operandi; the bosses who don't quite understand the hero's maverick style, and want to play it by the book. In recent years, we've seen such appalling trash as The Bone Collector and Kiss the Girls made in this style, along with such masterpieces as Se7en and Hannibal (which are, of course, hardly 'serial killer' films, being so much more than that.) The film that started a Hollywood craze was the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs, and it's interesting to see how well it holds up ten years after audiences were first introduced to Hannibal Lecter, mastermind, doctor of philosophy and cannibal.
The film's plot is iconic. Clarice Starling (Foster) is an FBI recruit sent to interview Lecter (Hopkins), in order to ascertain whether he had any information about a notorious serial killer, called Buffalo Bill (Levine). The scene is thus set for some of modern American cinema's finest conflicts, as Lecter delves into Starling's mind and psyche, even as the crisis with Buffalo Bill threatens to claim yet another victim.
As mentioned before, the best parts of the film are the conversations between Lecter and Starling, or in fact any scene with Lecter. Essentially, he is the very definition of evil, yet he seems as sane and rational as anyone else in the film, behaving completely politely and naturally except when he is obliged to murder people, which he accomplishes as methodically and calmly as when he is listening to classical music. Unlike in Hannibal, Lecter is a very frightening figure here; the greater detachment which we have from him makes him far more disturbing than the comparatively avuncular figure of the sequel. Our first sight of him, standing smiling to greet Starling, is one of the greatest entrances in cinema; Hopkins radiates evil, as well as an almost sensual air of seduction. In a sense, Starling and the audience are seduced by this man, as we almost hope that he will triumph over the forces of conformity, and accomplish his wish to return one day to Florence.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film is nowhere near the same standard as it reaches when Lecter is onscreen. That's not to say that this is a bad film; it's far too intelligently scripted, tightly directed and well acted for this to ever be less than gripping mainstream filmmaking of a kind that Hitchcock might have been proud of. However, there's a fundamental lack of imagination in much of the characterisation; Buffalo Bill is a frightening but 2-dimensional villain, with little real insight into why he wishes to behave in the way he does, and he's nothing like as disturbing a representation of evil as Lecter. Jack Crawford (Glenn), Starling's FBI mentor, is a well-written representation of an authority figure, but it's a slightly lean part, with too many scenes requiring Glenn to either look disgusted or purposeful.
The aspect of the film which has dated most is the character of Starling. Strangely enough, despite it being the early 1990s when the film was released, it was considered some sort of great blow for women on screen to have such an active and resourceful heroine as Starling; however, there's a slightly dated quality to Foster's portrayal of a 'strong woman' now that it's almost de rigeur for modern action films to include female characters who are as capable of handling villains and weapons as any of the men. Foster is superb, and fully deserving of her Oscar; however, the frisson of the gender role reversal has definitely faded with age.
The film is certainly a modern classic of some sort, and fully deserving of most of the praise it has received over the years. However, Seven is a far more interesting look at the human condition as expressed by a serial killer, and Hannibal is a superior film about a character such as Lecter. Without wishing to denigrate this fine film in any way, it is undeniably the work of master craftsmen, whereas the other two films (and Manhunter, if you wish to run the film down further) were equally the work of artists. My 9/10 rating is based on the sheer brilliance of the scenes between Lecter and Starling; without them, the film would be a mere 7/10.
The R1 Criterion DVD which was released a couple of years ago was a very strong transfer, but was unfortunately non-anamorphic. Thankfully, we now have the first anamorphic DVD transfer of the film. Unfortunately, it's a bit of a mixed blessing. Colours are strong, detail is high and grain is relatively low. Unfortunately, there is some quite visible print damage throughout the film, and a rather surprising number of scratches, given the film's comparatively recent age. I don't recall the Criterion disc having such noticeable defects on the print, and it's something of a shame that the first anamorphic print isn't quite up to scratch in some respects.
A newly created 5.1 mix is present, which is fine, although nothing exceptional. The Criterion DVD only had a surround option, so 5.1 might seem like an improvement, but the film was originally mixed in surround, so in fact the real differences are negligible. The film's action scenes are comparatively low-key, but some good use is made of surrounds, and the soundtrack does sound slightly fuller than on the Criterion disc; however, a side-by-side comparison doesn't really reveal that much improvement.
Many people will be buying this DVD for three things; the anamorphic print and 5.1 sound, and the new extras. However, I wouldn't suggest that anyone dumps their Criterion version of the film; there is a lot of good stuff here, but it's not entirely definitive. The main extra is an excellent hour-long documentary 'Inside the Labyrinth'. With interviews from most of the major cast and crew, apart from Demme, Foster and Glenn, the documentary goes through just about every aspect of the film in commendable depth. It's not as good as the documentary on the Hannibal DVD, due to the slight overuse of clips from the film, but it's still a recommended watch.
Next up are 21 deleted scenes. 7 of these were on the Criterion DVD previously, including one which isn't here at all, but the remainder are pretty good. Surprisingly, most of them are comparatively short, only lasting a few seconds in some cases, but there is some more footage of Hannibal, which is highly welcome. There are also a few outtakes, including Hopkins' now notorious imitation of Rocky Balboa while coated in blood from Lecter's victims, and the usual round of TV spots, trailers, an amusing telephone message from Hopkins, and some thorough still galleries, which cover most aspects of the production.
However, I'd still highly recommend the Criterion disc. For starters, it has a superb commentary on it, featuring Demme, Hopkins, Foster and Jack Douglas, an FBI man and the model for Scott Glenn's portrayal of Crawford. It's a truly superb track, and up to Criterion's best standards. There are also serial killer's verbatim statements, as well as essays on serial killers and a great deal of interesting background material, which complements the film perfectly. While the extras on this new disc are very nice, with the documentary worth the purchase price alone, they really need to be supplemented with the Criterion's extras for true enjoyment of the film.
The film is a modern classic, albeit one which has been slightly overrated over the years, and looks slightly less impressive when compared to a few other films. The disc is fine, although nothing exceptional, and the extras are a sound batch. However, and it almost pains me to say this, the Criterion disc is superior in many respects, with a slightly better transfer, the 'original' audio track and an equally good array of supplements. I would definitely recommend purchasing this disc if you're a fan of the film; however, stick with the Criterion disc if you own it already.