The Silence of the Lambs

1991 | Dir: Jonathan Demme | 118 m

There's a good reason why The Silence of the Lambs is widely regarded as one of the best horror/thrillers of all time, and that's because it is. It's one of those rare movies that was able to capture that lighting in a bottle, that rare confluence of puzzle pieces that meshed together perfectly to create a singular vision that left an indelible mark on film history. Everything from the writing to the casting to the editing to the set and costume design is so on point it could be used by a vicious serial killer as a murder weapon. The Silence of the Lambs has become one of the most iconic and most-parodied films of all time to the point where even people who have never seen the movie will understand the reference "Hello, Clarice" or instantly recognize Hannibal Lector's famous face restraints. Director Jonathan Demme demonstrates a mastery of the source material that doesn't lean so far into its conceits to be self-indulgent but at the same time doesn't shy away from the more fantastical and macabre elements of the story.

The Silence of the Lambs features career-defining performances from Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lector, Jodie Foster as rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling, and Ted Levine as the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. From the very first shot, the world the audience is sucked into is moody and brooding and doesn't allow viewers to get comfortable for a second. Everything about the film is perfectly designed to make the viewer completely unsettled in the best possible way. The Silence of the Lambs does have its gory moments, to be sure, but the true horror of the film is the kind that lands less like the shock of a flash of lightning and more like the dampness that settles into your bones on a rainy day leaving you with a chill that you can't shake and underwear you can't dry. 

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Red Dragon

2002 | Dir: Brett Ratner | 124 m

If you were to tell me that there was a universe where not only did Brett Ratner and Ridley Scott direct entries in the same film franchise, but that Brett Ratner's film was the better one, I would never have suspected for one minute that the universe you were talking about was the one I was currently living in. There are those who might think I'm being uncharitable to Mr. Ratner, to which I would reply by directing people to the filmographies of both Brett Ratner and Ridley Scott. There's simply no comparison, with the curious exception of their respective entries into The Silence of the Lambs series. Red Dragon was the third entry in the series and the first of two prequels after Hannibal effectively killed off any possibility of moving forward with its characters in any way that made a lick of sense. The cinematic powers that be made the correct choice of going back to a simpler time when Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) was a psychopath locked in a cage who could serve as an asset to help profile and catch other serial killers and Edward Norton could still pull off frosted tips and be taken seriously.

Red Dragon, like all of the Hannibal Lector movies, is based on a novel by Thomas Harris and falls short the high bar set by The Silence of the Lambs. Although not quite as great as The Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon is saved by how closely it hews to the winning formula of its predecessor. Well, I guess technically since the Red Dragon novel was actually published first, it's The Silence of the Lambs that actually maintains that same, comforting formula, even though the movie did it first, and by first I mean later, because the movie came after the novels. Listen, the point is, that all of the elements that make a decent Hannibal Lector flick are there in Red Dragon. The movie, not the book. Well, I guess the book too. Either way, the blueprint for success is there:

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Hannibal Rising

2007 | dir: Peter Webber | 121 m

I don't think I'll ever understand the urge to try and turn horror icons into badass antiheroes, but I believe I've pinpointed the mistake that serves as the catalyst for that sort of storytelling. Hannibal Rising is the second prequel to Jonathan Demme's seminal The Silence of the Lambs and the fourth - and hopefully last - movie in that particular horror franchise. I had only ever seen The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, so I figured that for my annual October horror movie marathon, I'd give the entire series a watch in the chronological order in which the events of the films took place rather than their release dates to watch the Grand Vision unfold. Like all of the movies featuring the iconic serial killer Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lector, Hannibal Rising was based on a book by Thomas Harris, though to what degree this movie - or any of the other Hannibal Lector movies - remained faithful to the books I haven't much of a clue, as I have yet to read any of them. Harris seems to have carved out a financially lucrative literary niche for himself, for which I fault him not one iota. Maybe someday I will delve into the novels, but for now, all I know of the Lector-verse is what I've seen on screen, and well, let's just say that Hannibal Rising was nowhere near the calibre of The Silence of the Lambs and the amazing Hannibal TV show.

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Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

 

2016 | dir: Paul W. S. Anderson | 107 m

I feel a tiny bit betrayed by last instalment of Resident Evil: the series has built itself up as an action series with a hint of being held together by a thin storyline about the evil Umbrella Corporation and Alice’s (Milla Jovovich) quest to dismantle it. I was disappointed that this movie would go ahead and retcon so many things from the previous films but I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised as Paul WS Anderson has prioritized The Action Scene above all other elements of the films, but it still hurts nonetheless. While the story here does feel tightly focused, I found myself a bit confused on the actions of some characters based on the previous films and left wondering where others disappeared. Killing favourite characters off-screen comes across as disrespectful to the viewer at the sixth entry in the series but shouldn’t surprise me at this point either. The series has always been light on story and The Final Chapter is no different, with the main difference being that you know how this movie is going to end.

The action scenes are actually a step down from the previous Retribution, which was probably a height for the series in those terms; The Final Chapter suffers from too many rapid cuts to the point that the action is nearly incomprehensible and I immediately feel bad for the film because of it.

If there was on bright spot here, is the return of Iain Glen as the delightfully evil Dr. Isaacs. Extinction might be my favourite of the series (I’m not making that official yet though) and I loved seeing Isaacs come back – Wesker felt like a square block being smashed into a round hole, while Isaac slipped through the villain role perfectly from the beginning. Of course, with the return of Dr. Isaacs is the return of the killer laser grid, which had me in hysterics: the laser grid WAS in fact one of the most memorable elements of the first film and to see it come back not once, but twice, throughout the series is telling me that either Anderson is giving the fans what they want or lacks the creativity to come up with something original. The real answer is that he is most likely pretty pleased with himself with that death trap and is practicing some form of self-indulgence by continuing to feature it again and again.

While I was feeling bitter at the beginning of the film, I was coming around near the end: you just can’t take these movies seriously. You’ve got Milla, over the top sci-fi, action, a brisk runtime and an excuse to turn off your brain and just when you thought this would be the final chapter, Anderson can’t help himself by leaving the door open a crack for more.

The Old Guard

2020 | dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood | 125 m

The Old Guard is emblematic of all of the worst tendencies of Netflix original content. It's not that it's complete and utter garbage. At least if it were terrible, it would evoke some kind of emotional response. I would rather a movie made me either love it or hate it. But when a movie forces me into the emotional purgatory of apathy, that's something I refuse to forgive. Like the vast majority of Netflix original movies and TV shows I've seen, The Old Guard is neither great nor terrible, but instead aggressively mediocre and eminently forgettable. Sorry, what was I talking about again? 

Netflix's biggest enemy seems to have been its overnight success as the giant of a media streaming industry that they essentially created. At first, their challenge was how to secure all the licencing and rights to hundreds of thousands of movies. To their credit, they never rested entirely on their laurels, and adapted their business model proactively in anticipation of market trends. Knowing that they couldn't keep the entire pie to themselves forever, especially considering how lucrative that pie was, Netflix began the shift from content distributor to content creator. They suspected, quite rightly, that when other studios and companies saw how successful their business model was, that they would, of course, try to carve up that market like a Christmas turkey. (Full disclosure: I'm not sure if this content just lends itself well to food metaphors or if I happen to be working on this article right before supper.) That would, in turn, mean that a whole lot of content that Netflix previously had access to would, by necessity, be diverted to other streaming services, as a huge part of the value proposition for companies in that space is the exclusivity of their content. Especially for those who saw an increasingly overcrowded market and said to themselves "I want in!", there would be no incentive for customers to either leave Netflix or supplement Netflix's service with their own if all of their content was shared.

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Resident Evil: Retribution

 

2012 | dir: Paul W. S. Anderson | 95 m

One thing that the Resident Evil series of films manages to do is end on a cliffhanger, then proceed to just zoom past those events in the next installment, like Paul WS Anderson had an idea of where the Project Alice storyline was going, but ultimately decided to change gears and speed off in another direction. Retribution does pick up where Afterlife left off, with a pretty nice sequence of special effects and action before it decides to do away with story and characters from the previous film, so we have at least a bit more coherence to start out with.

Retribution has Alice (Milla Jovovich) captured and in another underground Umbrella installment where she must battle not only the supercomputer Red Queen, but her old shoot-em-up pal Jill Valentine (clearly not in control and turned evil by the devices from the previous film). The film is bursting with characters from previous films and from the video game (of which I only really recognize Leon Kennedy and Ada Wong); I have to assume their characters are butchered much to the distaste of fans of the games as the ‘named’ characters don’t serve up much purpose other than to fulfill the action requirements of each set piece. We’re a long way off from the survival horror roots here.

While the enjoyable action sequences are the film’s best parts, I can’t fully swallow the complete lack of character development and the dry, basic story. At just ninety-five minutes though, things move along at a nice pace and seeing many returning faces was a pleasant surprise.  

Inception: 10th Anniversary

2010 | dir: Christopher Nolan | 148m

As I slowly approached the theatre, I squinted my eyes to avoid both the relentless brightness of the sun and the light dirt blowing across the parking lot from a harsh midday summer breeze. Looking around me, I saw maybe five, six cars in the vast ocean of pavement and curbs that formed the parking lot for this particular movie house. In front of me, was the vast, inoffensive colour scheme of my local multiplex, adorned by tiny empty poster boards and a sense of doom. I looked about me, expecting a local vagrant to warn me of the dangers within, but while there was nobody to be seen I already knew the dangers that lurked before me. While COVID-19 ravished the entire world, the large multiplex stood as stark monolithic houses of contagion and virulent disaster. You would have to be a fool to sally forth, and while the pandemic was at a lull in my local area, and the virus all but absent, I found myself opening the doors of this familiar-yet-unfamiliar establishment to go see an IMAX screening of Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

As I lathered hand sanitizer between my fingers, I took stock of the entrance of the theatre and questioned my own reality: was this a dream? Choosing Inception as the starting point for a journey back into movie theatres seemed disconcertingly appropriate, but it wasn’t an easy decision to make. I feel fortunate that my city has seen (relatively) very few cases of COVID-19, and have our local health teams and vigilant citizens to thank for that. Quarantining has been easier for me, as I have the benefit of continuing to work from home and enjoy many of my hobbies without interruption – that is, I can continue to watch a lot of movies at home. I haven’t missed the theatre experience, but I suspect that’s because there haven’t been any movies coming out to miss – and the ones that do are released digitally with instant at-home access.

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Resident Evil: Afterlife

 

2010 | dir: Paul W. S. Anderson | 97 m

It seems like the previous entry, Extinction, left the series in a bit of a dubious situation: the planet was a barren wasteland, with Umbrella operating from various underground facilities, and Alice found a trove of her clones with a promise of that sweet revenge. I had some reservations as I couldn’t imagine them being able to maintain the “desert” setting throughout three more films, and the idea of replacing groups of survivors with an armada of Milla Jovovich's was borderline silly. Just as I suspected, they scaled back on the level of planetary destruction but doubled down on the clone army in the opening action sequence, which was amusing and ended with Alice potentially losing her abilities. This plot point felt more important at the time than it played out for the duration of the film, as we’re left wondering if she retains her superhuman status, but the film doesn’t really revisit it here; maybe they plan to in a future instalment.

The remainder of Afterlife follows familiar zombie-film territory, where Alice meets up with a group of survivors in a prison tower within wrecked Los Angeles. Surrounded by a sea of zombies, the group still aspires to reach Arcadia which stands as a promise of infection-free safety and paradise. All the usual zombie tropes are present here, but with the added storyline of Umbrella and Alice’s journey, although those feel more bolted on, acting as action bookends to a well-tread genre film. Those “lore” bits feel less impactful this time around than the previous entries, and I’m reminded of a serialized television show that advances the season-long story arc by inches every episode and distracts us with filler for the rest of the runtime.

That’s not to say the action and set pieces are boring: with Paul WS Anderson back in the director’s chair, we’re treated to a gratuitous amount of slow-motion and it’s evident that the scenes were filmed with 3D in mind. Although Milla and the rest of the cast look like they are having a blast with these action sequences, they are entertaining at the expense of a lackluster story. Afterlife is so far the weakest of the sequels for me.