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THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: SPECIAL EDITION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine
Director: Jonathan Demme
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: MGM
Features: See Review
Length: 118 Minutes
Release Date: August 21, 2001

"Is it true what they’re saying? He’s some kind of vampire?"
"They don’t have a name for what he is."

Film ****

Silence of the Lambs is a film I’ve journeyed into time and time again over the last ten years. I use the word "journeyed", because that’s exactly what this masterful psychological thriller from director Jonathan Demme feels like. It doesn’t just show madness on the screen for you to observe. It brings you deep inside, and keeps you there far beyond the level of comfort.

Take the introduction to one of filmdom’s most famous villains, Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (Hopkins). Long before we ever see him, we are being fed information about him. The bold, blossoming young FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Foster) is being given an assignment to interview him in prison. To get to Lecter, she descends, descends, descends, until we wonder if her destination is no less than Hell. The hallways grow darker. The walls are coarser. Keep away from him, she is warned. A photo is shown to her of a nurse who didn’t heed that advice. We don’t see the picture; we see Starling’s reaction, as the doctor offers exposition about being able to save her jaw and one of her eyes ("His pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue…").

This is the fundamental premise of true psychological horror that so many movies fail to grasp. It’s not what we see that scares us the most deeply; it’s our own imagination. I can still remember when this picture first came out, and thinking that Anthony Hopkins was far too nice a guy to ever play such a disturbing character. But the film gives him a proper introduction, and by the time we first see Lecter standing in the middle of his cell, waiting for Starling (waiting for us?), our minds have been prepped. We can’t look away from this man.

Jonathan Demme has always been an experimenter with "confrontational cinema", and it’s never been used more effectively than in Silence. Instinctively, audiences crave the security of the so-called "fourth wall" that separates us from the events on a stage or screen. By constantly filming his characters staring into the camera, and therefore at us, that security is stripped away. We know that Lecter and Starling are talking to one another, but we’re no longer merely observing. We’re involved. As Demme’s camera gets closer and closer to Lecter’s leering eyes, there’s no place for us to retreat to.

The style perfectly enhances the subject matter, which is the story of a young female trainee trying to coax information out of one serial killer in order to trap another. Clarice endures Lecter’s prying eyes, but in reality, she endures them from everyone. She is a woman in a "man’s world"…in situation after situation, she is forced to assert herself when in reality she must feel like the unwanted stepchild. Perhaps it’s no wonder that she becomes the perfect person to interview Lecter; perhaps also, it’s no wonder that Lecter is fascinated by her, and shows some willingness to help.

There is very little violence shown on screen…most of what we recoil from, we do because of the mere suggestion of violence. By the time we do see horrible events unfolding, we’re ripe for them, and they have much more potency than they would had they just been installed into some by-the-numbers slasher film.

Silence of the Lambs is character driven. It works because of our affinity for the two leading roles. Starling is a complex mix of strength and vulnerability, of emotion and reason. She stands firm for Lecter’s psychological assault in one scene, yet in another, we see her break down in tears. She is in a constant state of having to prove herself…both as a trainee and as a woman. She has to prove herself to her boss, to Lecter, but mostly, to herself.

And as far as Lecter himself goes, Anthony Hopkins created one of the most memorable and popular screen villains of all time. He horrifies us with his psychosis, yet he attracts us with his charm. His intelligence is fascinating and frightening. In many ways, he comes across as the perfect dinner companion…provided you don’t end up the dinner.

Starling’s quest is a dark journey…there’s no way to ease herself into this kind of world. If she ever seems lost for confidence, though, it is only briefly. She reminds us time and time again that she has the resilience for this work, as well as the instinct and intellect for it. She constantly walks a high tight rope above an abyss of madness, but she always makes us believe her footing is sure.

Character, atmosphere and story all come together to culminate in one of the greatest climaxes ever filmed for a thriller. There are surprises in store, and long moments of almost unbearable suspense. This sequence comes like a fanciful dessert after an unbelievably satisfying meal. You know consuming it is going to hurt, but you can’t pass it up.

Silence of the Lambs became only the third film in Academy Award history to sweep the top five Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and a Screenplay award), and it did so with many odds against it. In most years, the film with the most nominees takes home the top award, but JFK failed to pull off the feat, and almost never does a film released in February stay with the voters until award time, but these just serve to validate what an amazing movie this really is.

Creepy and satisfying, brilliantly acted and directed, and boasting an impeccable screenplay from a top selling novel, Silence of the Lambs is a thriller that works on all levels. It helped re-establish psychology as a driving force in horror, and by giving emphasis to character over action, earned a spot as one of the best films of its decade.

Video ****

Wow, wow, WOW. I had high hopes for the MGM release of Silence, knowing it would be the first DVD version to be anamorphically enhanced, but I didn’t expect it to be this good. I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, and this DVD was like seeing it brand new. No longer will there be a debate about whether the out of print Image or Criterion versions was the better visual offering; this is the one. Colors are brighter and more vivid than I ever realized in this film, with remarkable amounts of detail down to the smallest images. Gone are the softness and graininess that have plagued ALL former video releases of this movie. Even dark scenes render with remarkable clarity, smoothness, and detail…viewers will really appreciate the difference during the film’s climax. This transfer is absolutely exemplary.

Audio ****

There’s nothing silent about Silence! The new 5.1 mix is bold, absorbing, and contributes as much to making a new experience out of viewing this movie as the visual transfer. Almost immediately, I was aware that the audio was wide open, with lots of subtle, ambient sounds emanating from all channels…again, having watched this movie repeatedly, I was really struck by the difference. Dynamic range is stronger than ever, with plenty of discreet channel usage in key scenes. Dialogue is cleanly rendered, and more full sounding than ever before. Make no mistake, this new offering of Silence is a complete treat for all the senses.

Features ***1/2

The MGM disc lacks the excellent commentary track of the Criterion offering, but for all intents and purposes, that’s the only real strike against it. Included instead is a brand new lengthy and well made documentary reflecting back on the film, featuring interviews with key cast and crew members including Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, screenwriter Ted Tally and more (though the box says Jodie Foster is included, she actually only appears in some segments taped in 1991). The Criterion version offered seven deleted scenes; here there are 22 in all. In addition, there is an original 1991 short featurette, a trailer and 8 TV spots, a photo gallery, Anthony Hopkins’ answering machine message (real?). and a short but HYSTERICAL outtake reel…you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Mr. Hopkins doing Sylvester Stallone. I will say no more.

Summary:

The bottom line question for DVD fans is going to be: is the MGM disc worth getting even if you already own the Criterion version? The answer is a completely unqualified YES. If you loved this movie, you’re going to be captivated by the incredible video and audio quality of this anamorphic 5.1 offering, and even though the Criterion features are very cool, so are the ones on this disc…overall, maybe even more so. Wholeheartedly recommended.