Wolves, lambs – and Clarice Starling: the rise of the serial killer in 1990s cinema

From Psycho to Twin Peaks, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Silence of the Lambs, serial killers have risen to primacy in our cinematic imagination. What lies at the heart of our obsession? And what makes Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winner different? We republish Amy Taubin’s May 1991 cover feature to celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary.

Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The serial killer has attained A-list status in several media, and the press, spotting a trend, has geared itself up to dismember him and drink his blood. The noise around both Jonathan Demme’s film The Silence of the Lambs and Bret Easton Ellis’s yuppie-splatter novel American Psycho began to build last autumn [1990] in New York. At around the same time Martin Scorsese announced himself as executive producer of the next film by John McNaughton, director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and Twin Peaks came back on the TV with a second two-hour feature directed by David Lynch.

This feature was originally published as Killing Men in the May 1991 issue of Sight & Sound

Ellis’s book, an upmarket Texas Chain Saw Massacre intended perhaps as escapist reading for recently unemployed business executives, was bound for the lit-crit hatchets from the moment its galleys were leaked. Demme’s film, on the other hand, looked like the kind of artistic achievement that might seem too restrained to a mass audience accustomed to the high bodycount of cybergore and police action pictures. Yet The Silence of the Lambs broke through the $100 million mark, having raked in $71 million, and held first place on the charts for the first five weeks of its run.

Equally unexpectedly, the chill blue, cobra-hooded eyes of one of the film’s serial killers, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), dominated the newsstands, peering insolently from the covers of Newsweek, the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times and countless lesser journals – momentarily replacing both Arnold-the-Terminator and his stand-in, Stormin’ Norman, as reigning ubermensch.

Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs

In the less respectable playgrounds of cyberpunk and splatterpunk, the serial killer is also the top dog. Fanzines publish profiles and memorabilia. Galleries such as AMOK in Los Angeles show jailhouse paintings by Charles Manson (the first serial killer to become a household name) and John Gacy, the married Chicago businessman who was arrested for the murder of 33 boys and young men, some of whom he buried beneath his suburban home. In a Vanity Fair interview last year, John Waters explained that what he has in common with (Edward Scissorhands) Johnny Depp is they both own paintings by Gacy. (For the curious: he’s not an interesting painter.)

According to unofficial justice department estimates as many as 100 serial killers may be on the loose in the US. Prior to 1950 new serial killers surfaced perhaps once a decade; today it’s more like once a month. With just five per cent of the world’s population, the US is believed to have about 75 per cent of the world’s serial killers.

Disturbing as these figures are, the fact is that the number of people who will die at the hands of serial killers doesn’t even bear comparison with, for example, the number of women who will die because they don’t have access to breast screening, or even know it exists. But institutionalised violence – the destruction of millions of lives through poverty and neglect, the abuse practised against women and children, the slaughter of 100,000 Iraqis – has no easy representation. The image of the serial killer acts as a substitute and a shield for a situation so incomprehensible and threatening it must be disavowed.

Unlike urban action pictures, which imply, with rare exceptions, that the threat to America is ghettoised, that it can be policed and locked away (as long as the invading third world hordes are kept at bay), serial killer films are set in white neighbourhoods – suburbia, the farm belt, the back woods. The serial killer is a marauder: he might turn up anywhere. And in fact, almost all serial killers are white males who kill within their own racial group. Bred in the heartlands, he’s the deformed version of the American dream of the individual. In The Silence of the Lambs, the second serial killer (Hannibal Lecter’s low-life counterpart) is named ‘Buffalo Bill’.

Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs is not the first art/entertainment crossover to take on the subject of the serial killer. Classic examples include Fritz Lang’s M (1931), Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and more peripherally, G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1928). They depict, respectively, three pathological archetypes: the child murderer; the Bluebeard figure whose victims are wives (ie good girls); and Jack the Ripper who specialises in killing prostitutes (ie bad girls). But it was, of course, Hitchcock who, by crossing the psychological thriller with the horror movie, established conventions that have governed the genre for the past 30 years.

Psycho was adapted from Robert Bloch’s 1950s bestseller of the same name, based on the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction case of Ed Gein, a small-town Wisconsin handyman. His necrophiliac compulsions escalated from digging up corpses (most of them buried in the immediate vicinity of his late mother) to murdering as many as ten women. He kept various trophies from his victims – their heads and pieces of their skin. In addition to Psycho, Gein partly inspired such disparate films as Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre, James Benning’s avant-garde Landscape Suicide and The Silence of the Lambs.

According to Stephen Rebello’s excellent study Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Hitchcock was anxious to make a picture that would not only prove more shocking than Henri Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955), but would be perceived as the first 60s movie. While Psycho’s image of the knife-wielding maniac drove most of the slasher movies of the 60s and the teenie-kills of the 70s, the later films lacked the psychological dimension that distinguished Norman Bates (the pathological connections of sex and violence, voyeurism and sadism, castration fear and misogyny, and the deep confusion about gender that is played out in his transvestite splitting).

Psycho (1960)

Minimally drawn, the psychos of the slasher and teenie-kill films lack behavioural characteristics and developmental histories. The Freddys, the Michaels (Halloween) and the Jasons (Friday the 13th) correspond to the real thing only in that they find pleasure (ecstasy) in killing rather than in sex. The interesting exception is the original Friday the 13th, which intentionally reverses the Psycho syndrome by malcing the killer a woman – Jason’s mother.

In such films serial killing is a function not of character, but of the internal narrative structure and motifs (the piling up of bodies one after another). Even more importantly, it is a function of the relationship of each film both to its sequels and to all the other serials in the genre.

It is the killer’s ability to rise from the dead in film after film – rather than his appearance, his physical strength or even the extreme sadism of his actions – that demonises him. Thirty years of these films have primed audiences to bind the words ‘serial’ and ‘killer’ into the image of a superhuman monster. “He’s back!” “Coming again this summer!” But in fact, the serial killer is as mortal as his victims and his motives and feelings, while pathological, are not difficult to comprehend. It is the institutions and ideology which produce him that live on from generation to generation.

Just as the psychos of the teenie-kill films haunted the safe havens of middle-class suburbia, serial killers have now invaded prime-time. Programmes like America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries present mini-case histories (including teenie-kill style reenactments of the crime) and invite viewers to assist in apprehending the criminal. John List (dubbed ‘Murder Dad’ by the Daily News) was found because of a tip from a viewer who recognised him from a photo on America’s Most Wanted. List was the model for the serial killer in The Stepfather, a sardonically witty attack on the patriarchal nuclear family directed by Joseph Ruben with a script by Donald Westlake. The stepfather marries into existing families (widows with children and well-kept suburban homes). When they fail to live up to his sitcom expectations, he slaughters them all and moves on. Dripping with references to TV Dads from Mr Ed to Robert Young, The Stepfather, a failure in its cinema release, happily found a second life in the home-video market.

Ray Wise as Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks (1990-91)

The most notorious of the TV serial killers is, of course, Leland Palmer, father, murderer and rapist of Laura Palmer, the much fetishised ‘dead girl’ upon whose corpse the narrative of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks is hung. Of course, it should have been obvious from the start that the killer had to be a Dad. Lynch’s Dads are always murderous. In Blue Velvet, it’s not just Frank who is the threat. Take a good look at Laura Dern’s police-chief father, who never takes off his gun, not even in his own home. It’s the Dads who pass on the lessons of misogyny and homophobia that they learned from their own fathers. So it makes perfect sense that Bob is Leland’s Mrs Bates, the projection of his own shattered psyche in the form of the person who had abused him when he was a child.

TV violence is almost always quick, disembodied and impersonal (during the Iraq war, the networks completely caved in to US censorship rules forbidding them to show “pictures of soldiers with disfiguring or agonising wounds”). Twin Peaks is the first primetime series to show bodies that bleed. Too bad that nearly all of them are female. Still, the scene in which Leland kills Maddie gives one a visceral sense of male sexual violence: what it’s like when a middle-aged man beats a teenaged girl to death. All the more’s the pity that they threw it away totally in the next episode. Here, Agent Cooper muses whether it’s easier to believe that a man would rape and kill his own daughter than that he was taken over by an alien (Bob) who could walk through walls.

The legacy of male violence is what binds TV’s Twin Peaks to the cinema’s latest incarnations of the serial killer – The Silence of the Lambs and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, completed four years ago but only recently finding an audience on the art-film and midnight circuits. What cuts off Henry from Twin Peaks, and even more from The Silence, is its point of view. The central character of Henry is a psychopathic ex-con who drifts through a killing spree that began when, at age 14, he murdered his mother. “She was a prostitute. I don’t hold that against her… but she made me watch her doing it… that wasn’t right… sometimes she’d dress me up in girl’s clothes to watch.”

Michael Rooker as the titular protagonist of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

In the first ten minutes, McNaughton evokes an atmosphere of extreme disassociation which both suggests the pathological subjectivity of the killer and at the same time functions to put some distance between the viewer and the action. ‘Distanciation’, which in most current film theory is considered a positive condition, is creepily revealed as the emotional framework of murder.

Dazzlingly simple, McNaughton’s method in these early scenes is basically to separate the sound from the picture and to elide completely the visual image of the murderous moment. Four times in a row we see a woman’s mutilated corpse, but it’s not until the camera has retreated from the image that the sound begins: a woman screaming. The voice, crudely processed with echo effect, continues over a shot of the anonymous-looking killer walking across a street. Each time Henry describes how he killed his mother, the weapon changes.

Henry moves in with his prison buddy Otis and Otis’s sister Luanne. She has run away from the violently abusive husband she married to get away from her sexually abusive father. Luanne is attracted to Henry, who talks soft and wears clean tank tops that show off his arms. Luanne thinks Henry is shy, but she’s wrong. Henry is impotent; when he needs to prove he’s a man he picks up a knife or an ice-pick or whatever’s handy.

Then Henry decides to teach Otis about hunting humans. When the two of them start to work as a team, the sound and the picture in the film also get together. The kills, shown from beginning to end, follow one after another, and Henry, for all its dreamy camera moves and sly-eyed close-ups, begins to seem like just a regular exploitation flic, albeit an extremely sadistic one.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

In the film’s most ingenious sequence, Henry and Otis massacre a nice middle-class suburban family. The event is shot in real time, without cuts, from the point of view of a home-video camera. The premise is that Henry and Otis, having stolen the camera, take it with them on their adventure. They plug it into the family’s living-room TV so they can watch themselves in live action.

Less imaginative about technology than the serial killer in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom – another abused child – who turns his 16mm camera literally into a deadly weapon, Henry and Otis are at least up-to-date in their choice of equipment. In Henry, it is the home-video apparatus that is implicated in the repetition-compulsion of the serial killer and that demonstrates the connection between sadism and voyeurism.

Our view of the massacre is confined to the TV (it fills the frame). On it we see and hear the following: Otis drags a screaming, struggling woman into the room and starts tearing off her clothes. The camera (presumably handheld by Henry) pans down to the husband tied up on the floor, also struggling. A kid walks into the room unaware of what’s happening. The image flops 45 degrees sideways (Henry has dropped the camera as he goes to grab the kid) and remains in this position for the rest of the scene. Henry throws the kid on the floor and breaks his neck. The wife is still struggling and screaming. Otis is laughing and groping under her panty hose when suddenly he snaps her neck. Henry finishes off the husband and, noticing that Otis has started to get very familiar with the woman’s corpse, says, with puritanical disgust, “Otis don’t do that”. Cut to Otis and Henry sitting side by side on the couch, relaxed and bonded like two regular guys watching football. “I want to see it again,” whines the infantile Otis, hitting the slo-mo button on the remote.

The camera zooms languorously past their attentive faces towards the TV screen. There is no doubt about whose eyes we’re looking through, and as the scratchy theme music swells above the woman’s screams, no doubt, either, about where the director’s sympathies lie. A film that started off being about psychopathology and its relationship to misogyny has turned blatantly misogynist.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

In his Vanity Fair review of American Psycho, Norman Mailer comes to the conclusion that the novel fails as a work of art because the central character, the killer Patrick Bateman, lacks an “inner life”, a subjectivity. The problem in Henry is that Henry is the only character who is allowed to be a subject. His victims certainly are not.

For a while, McNaughton seems to toy with making Luanne into a second subject. Unfortunately, he cops out. When Henry kills Luanne, it happens off screen. McNaughton doesn’t seem to consider that Luanne’s reaction to Henry’s attack might be worthy of attention. Nor does he show her corpse. Had he displayed the dead Luanne in the same way as he did the anonymous mutilated bodies in the opening sequences, it would have been horrifying enough to transform retroactively the meaning of all the kill scenes in the film. But instead, McNaughton opts for a ghoulish joke – cutting from Henry and Luanne in a motel room, to Henry driving off alone, to Henry lifting an oozing suitcase from the trunk of the car and dropping it at the side of the highway.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

What marks out The Silence of the Lambs is that it is a profoundly feminist movie. For women I know, most of whom have seen it more than once, the film is as exhilarating as it is harrowing. The Silence of the Lambs is to the psychological thriller-horror combo what the stories in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber are to gothic fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard. It takes a familiar narrative and shakes up the gender and sexuality stuff. It’s a slasher film in which the woman is hero rather than victim, the pursuer rather than the pursued.

Fledgling FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) has been chosen by her boss Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), head of Behavioral Science – the FBI unit that investigates serial killers – for a special task. A serial killer nicknamed ‘Buffalo Bill’ is murdering women and doing something terrible with their skin. Tacked up on Crawford’s wall is a tabloid clipping with the headline “Bill skins Fifth”, and below it, polaroids of flayed female corpses. Clarice stares intently but she keeps her distance – as does Demme’s camera. “Do you spook easily Starling?”, Crawford enquires.

Crawford believes that the brilliant psychiatrist and psychopath Hannibal Lecter, whose ferocious oral impulses find their release in language and, less acceptably, in human flesh, may know the killer’s identity. Since Crawford has helped to confine Lecter for life in a hospital for the criminally insane, he doubts that the doctor will have much interest in helping him. He decides to use Clarice as a lure, sending her off to Lecter armed with a fake survey questionnaire. If Lecter is intrigued by Clarice, he won’t be able to resist playing the omniscient analyst – leaking clues. And if Clarice is really lucky, Lecter might even tell her what to do. (The film, like the novel, is nothing if not deeply ambivalent about psychoanalysis.)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

“Whatever you do Clarice, don’t tell him anything about yourself,” Crawford warns. It’s a bit of paternalistic advice that demands to be ignored, especially by this hero, intent on finding her own way. Besides, time is running out. “Anytime now, our Billy Boy is going to start looking for that next special lady,” Lecter taunts.

Faithful to the plot and incident of Thomas Harris’s bestseller, Demme shifts its tone and meaning. The film makes Clarice even more central (and more isolated) than she was in the novel – a narrative fact that the mainstream media, infatuated with Hannibal the Cannibal, is doing its best to ignore.

Harris’s Clarice, for all her courage and desire for independence, was still the good daughter who needed to be valued by the men in her life. She was emotionally tied not only to her real father – the policeman who left her an orphan at age 11 – but to the substitute fathers: Lecter (the bad) and Crawford (the good). Harris’s Clarice became romantically involved with Crawford, an unconsummated, guilty, Oedipal attachment since he was married and his wife was dying.

Demme’s and Foster’s Clarice is remote in a way that signals something more complex than a novice’s attempt at a professional attitude. Demme shoots the scenes between Lecter and Clarice in extreme close-up, shot-countershot, with the actors looking almost directly into the camera. You can see the tension in Clarice’s face, her concentrated struggle not only to get the information she needs from Lecter, but also not to be overwhelmed by him – to maintain her separation from him.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

And to get it right. And to do it all herself. When Lecter points out her limitations and her failures, there’s no doubt she feels ashamed and angry. But it’s because she hasn’t lived up to her own expectations, not because he thinks less of her. Crawford gets in her way too and his paternalism annoys her. He never gets it more wrong than when he congratulates Clarice by saying, “Your father would have been proud of you”. She doesn’t care about that.

In terms of the frightening fairy-tale world that Demme’s Grimm gothic imagery suggests and Lecter’s locutions zing home, Clarice’s mission is not to marry the prince but to rescue the maiden (actually the Senator’s daughter who has become Buffalo Bill’s “next special lady”). On that reversal her identity rests. It’s also what fascinates Lecter and what wins him to her cause: unlike most heroes of either sex, she’s more moved by vulnerability than she is attracted to power.

In its aching romanticism, Howard Shore’s score is reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s for Psycho. In the opening scene, where Clarice, alone in the woods, is running an FBI school obstacle course, it is tied to her yearning and terror and sense of loss. Demme punctuates it with sound effects that have enormous threatening presence. There are the piercing bird calls of the opening and the clanging gates as Clarice descends into the dungeons where Lecter is locked away. And there are the whirring deathhead moths that Buffalo Bill breeds in his oozing basement, the way the US, as Lecter puts it, breeds serial killers. (“Our Bill wasn’t born like this. He was made to be this way through years of systematic abuse.”)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Amazingly fluid, The Silence of the Lambs shifts back and forth from gothic fantasy to police procedural drama. Demme knows how to map psyche and history on to landscape and objects. The film is packed with 300 years of relics – of white America. Every time Lecter sends Clarice on a treasure hunt – to a storage warehouse, for example – she finds a flag or two tucked away with the rusty rifles, dressmakers’ dummies and the odd severed head preserved in a jar. The flags look as if they’ve seen better days.

Detective stories and psychoanalysis both investigate traumas of the past. Here the two (Clarice’s search for Buffalo Bill and Lecter’s unorthodox analysis of Clarice) are mixed against a background of government buildings, chicken farms and lonely airports where everyone is walking around looking bewildered – as if they’d just noticed that they’d lost everything.

Near the end of the film, in the aftermath of Clarice’s battle with Buffalo Bill, the camera lingers for a moment in a corner of the killer’s lair, now lit with a shaft of light from a window broken in the struggle. First, there’s a medium shot of a child’s-size American flag leaning against a dusty army helmet and then a close-up of a sea-blue paper mobile with a butterfly design – a bit of Chinatown interior decoration or a trophy from Vietnam, Bill’s inheritance and his legacy.

Which is why the final image of Lecter after his murderous escape, sauntering down a crowded main street in Haiti resplendent in his creamy tourist suit, is more disturbing than anything that has come before. The serial killer, an American gift to the third world, a fragmentation bomb, ready to explode.