DVDs have only been around a few years and already we've had three separate editions of Jonathan Demme's 1991 detective thriller, "The Silence of the Lambs," from three different studios. The first was from Image Entertainment, the second from Criterion, and now a new Special Edition from MGM. I'd say its appearance from a variety of sources is a tribute to its popularity. What's more, each time it shows up, the bonus items get better and better, even if MGM's new, remastered picture and sound look only slightly improved over previous transfers.
Regardless of the label, though, "The Silence of the Lambs" remains a first-rate suspense chiller, and for folks who don't already own it, and maybe even for folks who do, this new version makes a worthy addition to one's home video library.
By now I'm sure everyone knows the story line. The FBI is on the trail of a serial killer known only as "Buffalo Bill" because of his tendency to skin his victims alive. Assigned to the case, among others, is young rookie agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who, under the close supervision of her boss (Scott Glenn), enlists the aid of another serial killer, the demented Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), to help her track down her quarry. Starling is an FBI agent in training, and she has only a limited time to save the life of a U.S. Senator's daughter whom the murderer is slowly starving to death.
Although the mystery side of the story is intense and Lecter's grisly escape is fascinating, it's really the scenes between Starling and Lecter in the mental hospital's "dungeon" and later in the "cage" that carry the picture. Lecter is willing to provide Starling clues to finding the murderer but only in return for personal information about Starling herself, about her past, about her own inner demons. "Quid pro quo," says Lecter. "What is your worst memory of childhood?" In effect, she makes a pact with the devil in order to solve the case, a pact she never regrets but never fully recovers from, either.
Foster puts in a sensitive performance as the plucky, troubled, vulnerable heroine, and Hopkins is alternately creepy, scary, and amusing as the cultured cannibal. "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti," he tells Clarice about one of his prey. And, of course, there's his wonderfully droll closing line, "I do wish we could chat longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner."
Jonathan Demme directed the film from a screenplay by Ted Tally, in turn based on the novel by Thomas Harris. This would be the second screen appearance of the cannibal Lector, his first occurring in Michael Mann's excellent 1986 crime flick, "Manhunter" (Lecter played by Brian Cox), and the third in Ridley Scott's more-recent "Hannibal" (with Hopkins). For my money, "The Silence of the Lambs" is every bit as good as "Hannibal" is ordinary. Where "Lambs" generates genuine tension and suspense, "Hannibal" is content to provide gross shocks. Where "Lambs" establishes a compelling yet tenuous relationship between Starling and Lecter, "Hannibal" teases us with vague innuendoes. Where "Lambs" uses its dark, sinister tone to create horror and alarm, "Hannibal" utilizes its shadowy atmosphere more sporadically between scenes of crude violence.
Besides, "Hannibal" doesn't employ legendary horror-film producer and director Roger Corman in a cameo appearance.
MGM's picture is advertised as being remastered, "a new high-definition 16x9 anamorphic transfer." The previous two releases, from Image and Criterion, don't mention the words "anamorphic" or "enhanced." While I didn't have the Criterion to compare, I did have the Image version and found small improvements with this new remastering. The 1.74:1 ratio image remains on the soft side, but colors are marginally deeper, definition is a little sharper, and line jitters are slightly reduced. There continue to be signs of grain, however, and some few rough edges.
While the Dolby Digital 5.1 remixed sound is largely unchanged from its original 4.0 rendering, it does a good job in adding a touch of realism to the surround mode and in enhancing what a previous but unnamed DVDTown reviewer called "the haunting musical score."
As far as bonus items go, most of them are different from the ones Criterion provided on their own special-edition disc. Probably the one thing I missed that you will have to go to Criterion for is the commentary by Jonathan Demme, Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, screenwriter Ted Tally, and FBI agent John Douglas. Otherwise, MGM's roundup of goodies is quite fine. The main item is a brand new, hour-and-forty-minute documentary titled "Inside the Labyrinth, The Making of The Silence of the Lambs." It takes us behind the scenes of the film's acting, directing, locations, music, special effects, and public reaction, featuring interviews with almost all of the cast and crew except Jodie Foster. It's informative, enlightening, and entertaining. Did you know, for instance, that Gene Hackman was originally slated to direct and maybe star, but after he saw the violence of the screenplay he declined. Or that Robert Duvall was considered for the part of Dr. Lecter and Michelle Pfeiffer for the part of Clarice, but the filmmakers decided they were just not right for the roles. Did you ever think the FBI would not only approve of the picture but use it as a recruitment film for female agents? You'll also be happy to learn that according to Ted Levine, the actor who played Jame Gumb, there were "no moths harmed in the filming of ‘Silence of the Lambs.'" But both Levine and Demme were highly criticized when the movie opened for what some members of the public considered an unfair portrayal of gays in the film, which may or may not have lead to Demme's next project, "Philadelphia."
Another bonus item is an original, eight-minute, 1991 "Making Of" featurette that plays mainly as an extended trailer and which I found of little interest after the foregoing documentary. Next, there are twenty-two brief deleted scenes, maybe a record number for a DVD, running to some twenty-one minutes of fairly good material that comprises a kind of mini movie in itself. An all-too-brief reel of never-before-seen outtakes is fun, but it lasts under two minutes. Anthony Hopkins' phone message is also amusing. Then there's an extensive photo gallery, an eight-page informational booklet insert, twenty-eight scene selections, theatrical trailers for "Lambs" and "Hannibal," and eight TV spots. English, French, and Spanish are provided both for spoken languages and subtitles.
"The Silence of the Lambs" explores America's fascination--nay, obsession--with serial killers, and the closest comparison I can think of in terms of the quality of the movie's dark mood, riveting suspense, and gripping action is "Se7en." There, director David Fincher achieved a similar blend of detective fiction, psychological thrills, and dramatic horror.
In "Silence of the Lambs," Demme has given us a film that's hard to forget and one that well deserved its Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Demme), Best Actor (Hopkins), Best Actress (Foster), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Tally). Be forewarned, however, that the movie is rated R for the intensity of its violence.