A Brief History Of Horror - The Silence Of The Lambs And The 1990s
Mainstream horror entered something of a grey zone during the 1990s as even fans of the tentpole slasher franchises got bored with sequels and rehashes.
Mainstream horror entered something of a grey zone during the 1990s as even fans of the tentpole slasher franchises got bored with sequels and rehashes. When people recall the films from the 90s that actually scared or disturbed them, theres a good chance those movies werent horror films per se. Horror continued to crossbreed with other genres, and a number of films emerged where investigations led to the uncovering of horror in the real world. The serial killer movie in particular took on a new lease of life after the unprecedented success at the box office and Oscars of Jonathan Demmes The Silence of the Lambs, based on Thomas Harriss novel. Silence is the third film Ive mentioned in this series to take inspiration from the real-life killer Ed Gein; the other two are Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Three very different movies, all involving killers on the margins of society indulging their violent and sexual quirks. All live in homes which give them the isolation and privacy to keep their transgressive activities to themselves. But unlike Norman Bates and Leatherfaces family, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) doesnt actually kill anyone on screen. Thats simply not necessary for the movie to work; in fact, itd be detrimental. Buffalo Bill is sinister because we have to make the connection from this messed-up, drawling dressmaker to the overweight dead girls ourselves. Paradoxically, thats one of the reasons the audience prefers Hannibal Lecter. Lecter, as played by Anthony Hopkins, is simply the great monster of 90s horror cinema, as sure as Frankensteins monster was in the 30s or Jaws was in the 70s. His lair is a cell underneath a gothic asylum with dank bricks and a Plexiglas window. He is the monster that is used by Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), student at the FBI academy, to catch the other monster. Unlike Buffalo Bill, he is refined, charming and incredibly intelligent; he was a psychiatrist. He was also a cannibal, but even when he ate, say, a census taker, hed be sure to pick out the right wine to go with him. As an inmate he is not remotely realistic but thats exactly the point. Silence was the second of Harriss books to be adapted, after Michael Manns excellent Manhunter. That one featured Brian Cox as Lecter (renamed Lecktor) in a performance that is subtler and more believable; the whole movie aspires far more towards realism than this one. Its a slick, muscular crime thriller. This is a police procedural with what is really a fairly similar plot and yet it couldnt be more different, because stylistically it evokes expressionistic horror cinema. Lecter himself is in the tradition of Bela Lugosis Dracula; he might kill you, but he would never be rude to you. Buffalo Bill is more of a grotesque: physically stronger but mentally weaker. The only violence we actually see performed in the movie is Lecters, while Bachs Goldberg Variations is heard from his cassette player. The audience is oddly complicit; we dont mind the deaths because its simply in Hannibals nature, and because his victims were being rude anyway. The guard that covers his mouth as he is wheeled on his upright gurney provides as iconic a horror image as any the decade threw up. Silence is a dark and moody film in part thanks to Tak Fujimotos photography and Howard Shores excellent score. Theres a ghastliness to the film, its images including a grisly post-mortem and a head in a jar (complete with make-up). It is held together not by Hopkins but by the excellent performance of Jodie Foster, who finds the perfect note for an eager, determined but frightened young woman struggling in an environment dominated by men. Her past is marked by tragedy; so many horror and ghost stories involve uncovering back stories. The present cannot escape the nightmares of the past. If you go looking for horror, you will find it. Se7en, directed by David Fincher, similarly follows a police investigation into a string of murders and, like Silence, is effectively a crime/horror movie infusion. Like Lecter, its killer is cold and intelligent, only allowing himself to be caught when he wants to be. It projects its bleak story onto its location; a wet, unwelcoming and unnamed city. It suggests that if Purgatory exists, we may already be there. Again it isnt really a horror movie but it genuinely scared people, partly because of its macabre murders (all offscreen, and all the more disturbing for it) and partly because this serial killer seems like just another guy. He is only known as John Doe. A precedent for this might be George Sluizers brilliant The Vanishing (1988), in which the killer is an apparently warm family man with his own unshakeable philosophy. Lecter, John Doe and Raymond in The Vanishing all seem like theyd at least provide good conversation, preferably with a Plexiglas divider. If these can be considered investigative horror movies, the same designation could apply to a psychological horror like Adrian Lynes excellent Jacobs Ladder (1990), in which a Vietnam veteran is haunted by memories of the war and his last wife. He seems to be surrounded by haunting, threatening people closing in on him. Military experiments are mentioned. Like Alan Parker's Angel Heart, made three years before it, there are ominous biblical allusions. Lyne took an overtly theological script by Bruce Joel Robinson and made it into a more subtle, paranoid and personal work. Its influence can be felt on paranoia thrillers like Pi (1998), while its shaky head technique (achieved by filming someone shaking their head at a few frames a second and play it back at normal speed) has popped up in countless lesser horror flicks. Like other such psychological horrors, its an incredibly subjective film; we cant be sure whats just in Jacobs head, and it finds threat in the everyday. What could be scarier, for instance, than representing Hell as a hospital? Over the past two decades mainstream horrors have suffered a decline (in quality, not abundance), and few would describe the 90s as a golden age for horror. Increasingly, horror fans looked abroad for their fix, though some American examples stand out. Although he also doesnt exactly make all-out horror movies, the influence of David Lynch on the genre is a strong one, and his seriously underrated Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) is, like Jacobs Ladder and Se7en, a great descent-into-hell movie. Douglas Buck made a very Lynchian short called Cutting Moments (1997) which often features on lists of Most disturbing movies and which I recommend to people with very strong stomachs; its about as close as Ive come to fainting during a film. Wes Craven, who had revived the flagging slasher genre with A Nightmare on Elm Street the previous decade, came to its rescue once against with Scream (1998), a witty slasher-comedy that appreciated the fact that the audience for such movies was generally ahead of the filmmakers. And M. Night Shyamalan made The Sixth Sense (1999), an excellent ghost story; his early work has a ring of early Spielberg in its elegance, before things went downhill post-Signs (2002). A group of young filmmakers made a camcorder movie with a few thousand dollars called The Blair Witch Project (1999), inspired by 80s nasty Cannibal Holocaust, and turned over the biggest profit margin in movie history. In Australia, horror-comedy was well represented with Peter Jacksons hysterical Braindead (AKA Dead Alive, 1992). In Mexico, Guillermo Del Toro emerged with Cronos (1993), a completely different take on vampirism. And, more and more, hardcore fans of the genre looked to Asia for movies that actually scared them. Hideo Nakatas Ring movies (1998/99) in particular scared many people silly; clearly there was a thirst for something more than what was being provided by the tired Hollywood horrors. Just as good as Ring is Takashi Miikes Audition (1999), featuring one of the most memorable climaxes of the decade. These Japanese movies used violence and horror with surgical precision, returning to the notion that an audience needs to be drawn in, enveloped and gently manipulated before it can be really scared. Previously: Evil Dead II and the 1980sThe Exorcist and the 1970sPsycho and the 1960sInvasion Of The Body Snatchers and the 1950sCat People and the 1940sFrankenstein and the 1930sNosferatu and the 1920sThe Cabinet Of Dr Caligari and the 1910s