Critics around the country have been falling all over themselves praising director Jonathan Demme for not making "The Silence of the Lambs" any more gory than he did.
"Restraint" is the word most often used to describe Demme's work in the box-office hit adapted from Thomas Harris' best-selling novel about an imprisoned cannibal serial killer who also just happens to be a brilliant psychiatrist and how he helps a young, naive female FBI trainee track down another serial killer.But whether or not the film seems restrained probably depends on whether your movie appetite leans more toward "Total Recall" or "Driving Miss Daisy."
Those who take in a regular diet of gory horror and/or action films, from the "Friday the 13th" movies to Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Commando," probably did feel Demme pulled back some.
But those who do not regularly attend such movies no doubt felt assaulted by "The Silence of the Lambs."
"Lambs" is really little more than a gussied-up horror movie with an A-cast, a big budget and a first-class director. But it is a horror movie nonetheless. In fact, much of its plotting and structure is right out of dozens of lower-budget horror yarns that never broke out of the genre into mainstream film success.
Is it any better than those B-movies?
In terms of how well made it is, no question.
"Lambs" has a strong narrative drive and at least two intelligent characters portrayed with some depth - incarcerated killer Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, played brilliantly by Anthony Hopkins, and FBI rookie Clarice Starling, also very well played by Jodie Foster.
The distinction is an important one because most of the lower-budget horror movies that "Lambs" resembles suffer from technical inadequacies, stupid characters who do stupid things and uneven or awful acting. Not to mention stories that depend largely on shocking the audience with blood 'n' guts.
"Lambs," on the other hand, boasts very slick treatment, making the movie not only acceptable to audiences who would never dream of going to a "Friday the 13th" movie - but downright appealing. So much so that the film is approaching the $100 million mark, in terms of box-office earnings. That only happens when at least some of the audience goes to a movie more than once.
What is it that has audiences flocking to "Lambs"?
One could speculate that it has something to do with the strong character of Clarice, a rare instance in movies of a female hero in a major motion picture who is not a victim - at least physically. She is, however, psychologically manipulated by Lecter - and there are several other female victims in the film as well.
More likely, the film is simply chilling enough that audiences are willing to overlook the kinds of repulsive story elements that keep them away from other horror movies.
But the question remains, does Demme show restraint in directing "The Silence of the Lambs"?
In comparison to "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and its many sequels or "Total Recall" or any number of other so-called "horror" or "action" thrillers, yes.
But, with its depictions of cannibalism, bloody killings, human skins sewn together and graphically displayed dead bodies, Demme has certainly opened the door for mainstream movies to be more gory than they have ever been before.
One has to wonder where this will lead in the years to come. Especially in the work of filmmakers who are not as skilled as Demme.
- QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Dick Van Dyke, about playing a crooked district attorney to Al Pacino's mob boss in "Dick Tracy":
"I said, `How are you, Mr. Pacino?' Nothing. He wouldn't talk to me. He'd just sit in the corner and wouldn't talk to anybody. We did our two little scenes together and the minute they wrapped the second scene he said, `So, how ya been? What's goin' on with you?' He's a method actor. I was his enemy and he has to carry that off-stage as well as on. And I've never worked with anybody like that before. It would've ruined his concentration if he'd talked to me in a friendly way. I really admire that. I don't understand it, but I admire it."