31 Days to Scare ~ The Silence of the Lambs

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young F.B.I. cadet must receive the help of an incarcerated and manipulative cannibal killer to help catch another serial killer, a madman who skins his victims.

Stars: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, Brooke Smith, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Lawrence A. Bonney, Kasi Lemmons, Lawrence T. Wrentz

Director: Jonathan Demme

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: As we began to near the end of 31 Days to Scare 2017 I started thinking about what could be the grand finale selection. So many films from the golden age of Hollywood or the new wave of auteur filmmakers could have taken the final spot and there are certainly classics and classics in the making I’ve neglected to feature this year…but at the end of the day it call comes down to this: The Silence of the Lambs.

Though many would classify this as more suspense thriller than outright horror, I’d argue it’s a hybrid of numerous genres. Encapsulating everything from the cold sweat of a Western face-off to the investigative moxie of a political conspiracy flick, The Silence of the Lambs isn’t just one thing at any one time. That’s why it’s an enduring classic, a movie that swept the Academy Awards though the Academy had long had a clear aversion to rewarding any kind of horror effort. Director Jonathan Demme (Ricki and the Flash) brought his assured A-game to the screen and working with Ted Tally’s brilliant adaptation of Thomas Harris’s chilling novel they created something mighty special…and very very VERY scary.

Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, Carnage) is plucked from a morning run on the orders of her superior Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn, The Bourne Legacy). He wants her to take a swipe at interviewing the notorious serial killer Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, Noah)and see if he’ll open up to her. She sees it as a chance to impress her boss, Crawford hopies it’s something more than that. Knowingly sending her into the hungry lions den as bait, he hopes to entice the brilliant madman into helping with the investigation into an active killer (Ted Levine) that has been abducting, shooting, and skinning his victims.

The initial meeting between Starling and Lecter is the stuff of movie clip show heaven. A master class of restrained acting from both actors (who would win Oscars for their work), these scenes are so intricately designed because often the two aren’t even in the same shot as the other…yet it’s directed in a way that you feel they are. It’s a thrilling and dangerous relationship and though there are other supporting characters in the movie (Kasi Lemmons, Candyman, as Clarice’s academy friend and Brooke Smith, Interstellar, as a new target for the murderer) the movie is at its absolute best when Foster and Hopkins are quid pro quo-ing.

The clues that Lecter gives Starling sends the young trainee on her own hunt to find the madman while working through painful memories of her past. Lector preys on her vulnerability that’s hidden far beneath her steely exterior. He knows she has a lot to prove and manipulates every situation to make her demonstrate her worth…down to catching a killer almost entirely on her own. Whether she’s crawling into an abandoned storage unit (creepy!) or being pursued in an underground labyrinth (seriously…creepy!) Foster plays Clarice as intelligent but not a soothsayer in knowing the best way around each situation. With limited screen time, Hopkins is really a supporting player but his impact is so great and his presence so missed when he’s not around he easily nabbed his Best Actor statue away from other nominees.

The late Demme’s personal preference for having actors speak directly into the camera makes the movie feel very intimate, secretive, real…he does this in most every one of his films but never to the success rate he achieves here. It’s a movie that works every time in every single way. There’s no fat anywhere to be found, it’s 118 minutes of perfectly constructed shots and revealing dialogue. Winning Oscars not only for its lead actors but for Demme, Tally, and Best Picture, The Silence of the Lambs is tough viewing and not for the squeamish but to see it is to appreciate the stylish storytelling on display. Perfect.

31 Days to Scare ~ Castle Rock (Teaser)

Synopsis: Based on the stories of Stephen King, the series will intertwine characters and themes from the fictional town of Castle Rock.

Release Date: TBA 2018

Thoughts: Ever since the first announcement for Castle Rock was released in February 2017 the entire production has been shrouded in mystery.  From J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens and known to be a producer with a Midas touch) and author Stephen King (Gerald’s Game), this Hulu series teased intertwining tales that took characters/events/ideas from King’s canon and gave them new life as residents of Castle Rock, Maine.  Any King fan will tell you the fictional town plays a part in nearly every one of his novels and I’m downright fascinated to see what they’ve come up with.  Boasting solid stars like Sissy Spacek (Carrie), Terry O’Quinn (The Stepfather), Scott Glenn (The Bourne Legacy) along with rising names like Jane Levy (Don’t Breathe), André Holland (Selma), and Bill Skarsgård (IT), this feels like it’s either going to be right on the money or all smoke and no fire.  After this first full trailer, I smell payola for all involved.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Backdraft

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two Chicago firefighter brothers who don’t get along have to work together while a dangerous arsonist is on the loose.

Stars: Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Scott Glenn, Rebecca De Mornay, Donald Sutherland

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: R

Running Length: 137 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

ReviewBackdraft was one of those films that I responded to fairly well when I first saw it at a second-run theater in the summer of 1991.  Already familiar with the work of director Ron Howard (Parenthood) and as the proud grandson of a firefighter, I remember liking the drama created between two firefighting brothers and enjoying a secondary storyline involving an arsonist that seems to know a thing or two about setting buildings ablaze. 

Viewed nearly 22 years later (!),this film which once seemed epic to me now feels a little too soap opera-y, a feeling aided by the fact that it’s filled with some off-the-mark performances.  Don’t get me wrong, Howard stages some still impressive eye-popping sequences involving fire up close and personal but seen now there’s a curious lack of restraint that made the movie feel longer than it was.

Russell and Baldwin aren’t totally believable as brothers but they find some cohesion in their macho roughness that helps color the film  We’re told that Baldwin has flitted around a lot, much to the disapproval of his older brother who has followed their father’s career path and has become a respected fireman.  When the younger brother gets into the family business and is assigned to the same station as his elder sibling there’s some old wounds that re-open…especially when deadly fires start being set that Russell’s character may be involved with.

This being a Ron Howard movie, there’s a lot going on at all times and the large supporting cast of familiar character actors pop up here and there and are generally put to good use.  Sutherland (Ordinary People) has two short scenes as a jailed arsonist but makes the most of his onscreen time.  De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) and De Mornay (Mother’s Day) make the most impressive impact in their roles…the most fleshed out in Gregory Widen’s slight script.  While I appreciate Leigh for some of her more out of the box performances her work here is embarrassingly poor…

If the film has lost some heat over the last two decades, it’s only the fault of some changes in taste.  There was a time when these type of emotion-driven, large-scale films played quite well and there’s still value to be found in the film thanks to some strong performances (I forgot to mention that Russell is particularly good here) and Howard’s trademark immersive production design.  If the script could have been elevated a bit and some recasting done we may have had a film that weathered the furnace of time.