Oscars Double Feature: Get Out & The Silence of the Lambs
The earliest months of the year are always full of some rough movie releases. In the torrent of awards contender rereleases, studios tend to get rid of stuff they hope will fly under the radar, the projects in which they have no faith. Hence, February became a dumping ground for a lot of horror movies that studios had laying around, and we developed the tradition of horror coinciding with Valentine’s Day.
On Valentine’s Day in 1991, Orion Pictures was doing just that. For the 1991 Oscars, they pushed the release of Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves to give it a better chance at the Oscars, rather than putting out their other, more frustrating project. Their sidelined film had been in development since 1987, based on a mystery novel. Thanks to the challenging nature of the novel’s content and the box office failure of Michael Mann’s Manhunter, the film had gone through multiple potential directors and stars in its early production days. Finally, Orion gave The Silence of the Lambs to a director who, at this point, was best-known for his work on romantic comedies and experimental documentaries: Jonathan Demme.
When it premiered, the film’s success was overwhelming. The Silence of the Lambs created many of horror’s most iconic lines and characters, as well as a remarkable moment in Oscar history when, over a year after its release, it swept all of the major categories at the 1992 Oscars, including Best Lead Actor, Lead Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Director, and, of course, Best Picture. In so, so many ways, it was the horror film that changed the game forever and gave the genre award potential.
This year, we had a similar anomaly in the form of Get Out. When the trailer first dropped, toting the slogan “from the mind of Jordan Peele”, the general response was excited, but nervous. The switch from sketch comedy to something that looked very intense and scary was as unexpected as Demme’s departure from films like Something Wild and Married to the Mob. Now, here we are again, with a socially themed horror movie with a huge release disadvantage in Oscar contention. Get Out has received four nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Original Screenplay. It’s a brilliant satire that takes aim at one of our society’s greatest monsters.
And that’s something else these films have in common. Beyond their release dates and box office performances, they have a lot of social themes that have a huge impact. Get Out is more forthcoming about this intention as its entire story revolves around the perspective of being black in predominantly white spaces. He endures a range of prejudices at the Armitage’s home, starting with the awkward moments when he first enters their home. Things start to come to a head at the family’s party as he endures a series of micro-aggressions that vary from invasive questions to blatant sexual harassment. By the film’s end, Chris is experiencing full-out violence, based simply on his race. During it all, elements like costuming, staging, lighting, and cinematography are well designed by Peele and his crew to accent just how much Chris sticks out like a sore thumb in Rose’s home and what it feels like to always be the center of attention just for being different.
We experience otherness in The Silence of the Lambs as well, although it may not be the film’s main focus. Where Chris is a black man surrounded by white people, Clarice Starling is a young woman trying desperately to succeed in a man’s world. From the opening scenes, men ogle Clarice and tower over her at every turn in the FBI headquarters. Tak Fujimoto’s brilliant camera is planted right between Clarice and the men she encounters, forcing the audience to sit under their condemning stares. Her boss lies to her and manipulates her in their very first encounter into going to the asylum where her experience spirals even lower into complete depravity. Compared to this, the FBI is a cakewalk. The practically-fedora-wearing Dr. Chilton hassles and harasses Clarice constantly as he walks her to Hannibal Lecter’s cell. After nearly having to push Chilton away, Clarice is demeaned psychologically by Lecter’s brutal psychoanalysis and physically debased by his neighboring lunatic. For the most part, she, like Chris, is able to let the smaller hostilities roll off, but the heavier moments leave lasting damage behind.
Meanwhile, while Chris can let those smaller things go, his struggle quickly turns into one of survival. After going through some tough psychoanalysis of his own under Missy Armitage, Chris is held captive in the Armitage’s basement and discovers the true source of the menace in this white community in a climactic reveal that has a hell of a lot to say about the commodification of black culture and, even more so, bodies. After all, this is a tale of white people taking the lives of black men and women for reasons as simple as wanting their eyes, their sex appeal, or the color of their skin. His escape represents something much bigger in this narrative, something hopeful for the future.
Clarice faces a similar foe in the form of Buffalo Bill, a serial killer of women. The film is quick to establish that Bill is not the transgender person he may appear to be at first glance. Bill is a man with ruined self-esteem and self-image who believes that, somehow, his life would be better if he could inhabit a woman’s skin. Literally. He’s stealing the lives and skins of women and claiming their style, their confidence, and their sexiness as his own. Bill is the manifestation of the men’s world in which Clarice lives, a world that wants to take advantage of women at every turn. Clarice, too, has to descend into a horrifying basement to defeat this force of evil, rescue a captive woman, and turn the tide back against monsters like Bill and Lecter.
So, it’s obvious that their stories echo one another, but the personalities of Clarice and Chris are also just as comparable. They both try so hard to be optimistic about the horrifying people they encounter. They even both share the same symbolic soft spot for animals in distress. As Clarice tells her tale of saving a screaming lamb with every iota of its agony on her face, so we see Chris confronting a dying deer Rose hits and reflecting its pain in his own expression. They are these damaged animals, antagonized by worlds where they are hunted like prey. While these films both have their share of big, over-the-top horror chills and thrills, their true strength lies in capturing one of the scariest elements of everyday life: being a minority in majority spaces.