The Silence of the Lambs

Hey, I’ve never seen The Silence of the Lambs! I’m not sure what I can say that’s new or interesting about this movie, but I’ll give it a shot. Do people know that the character of Buffalo Bill is partly based on an e.e. Cummings poem? Here’s a link to the poem:

Isn’t that great? I’ve often thought it’s a shame that it’s impossible to make a living writing poetry in this country. Anyway, when I watched the closing credits I learned that Roger Corman and Chris Isaak were in this movie! They thanked John ‘Mindhunter’ Douglas! And there was a Moth Wrangler, and an Assistant Moth Wrangler. Union jobs!

One of my favorite parts of The Silence of the Lambs occurs near the end, when Catherine Martin calls Clarice a bitch because she won’t let her out of the hole. I mean, it’s not a nice thing to say, but you can sort of see her point. The goat-green cam at the very end gave me flashbacks to all the shitty found footage movies I’ve watched.

I was curious, so I looked. Here’s Precious’ filmography:

Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal Lecter, and he looks like he’s having the time of his life. You can almost hear him giggling. I’m not sure I understood the connection between him and Clarice. He calls her a dumb hick and then gets upset when the loony in the cell next to him throws sperm in her face. It’s a weird moment, because Lecter wears a mask (literally and figuratively) throughout most of this movie, and I think this is one of the few moments when he shows genuine emotion, and I’m not sure why. I read the book, years ago. Maybe I’ll take a look.

I thought Dr. Chilton had great taste in ties; even his clothes are loud and pompous. The guy who plays Buffalo Bill sadly isn’t in the movie much, but he’s awesome. He’s got some great lines. PUT THE FUCKING LOTION IN THE BASKET! His housekeeping skills are worse than mine, which is saying something, and when he’s wearing those night vision goggles he sort of looks like a bug. I figure his last words were something like – ah, shit. It’s a shame his performance has been overshadowed by Anthony Hopkins.

Jodie Foster is great as Clarice Starling. She puts up with tons of shit from everybody in this movie. Lots of people underestimate her, including Buffalo Bill, and boy does he pay for it. The only mistake she makes is not shooting him in the parlor, but who can blame her? What if she shoots the wrong guy?

A few touches I liked: when the cop moves Hannibal’s drawings away to clear the table and we see he’s sketched Clarice. I also liked Catherine Martin refusing to let go of Precious, even when the paramedics are leading her out of Buffalo Bill’s house.

I’m not sure if The Silence of the Lambs taught me anything new about serial killers. I mean, this movie is about as realistic as an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, but it works wonderfully as a thriller. By the way, I view this more as a thriller with horror elements than a horror movie with thriller elements.




Red Dragon

Note: I curse in this review!!!

Red Dragon is a brilliant book. It is overshadowed by Thomas Harris’ follow-up novel, The Silence of the Lambs, partly because of the movie and partly because Silence has a happy ending (if you don’t read Hannibal). The other reason Red Dragon doesn’t get the accolades it so richly deserves is that it’s depressing as fuck. I can boil this book’s theme down to two words: People Suck.

Red Dragon’s protagonist, Will Graham, is mentally ill. All that talk about empathy and projection is a bunch of psycho-babble; Dr. Bloom has no idea what he’s talking about. Will Graham has a bunch of problems. One might say that his biggest problem is trusting Jack Crawford.  At one point in Red Dragon, Crawford says “I’m not a total asshole.” Crawford is lying. He is a total asshole.

The agency Crawford heads up doesn’t have a clue how to catch the loony, so they have to turn to the equivalent of a water dowser. Crawford is well aware that Will is damaged goods, mentally, physically, spiritually. He doesn’t care. If Crawford knew how Will does what he does, he’d drop him like a hot potato. But he doesn’t have a clue how Will does it. The funny thing is, Will doesn’t have a clue how Will does it either.

I love the scene where Will gets mad at the cop who doesn’t believe his story about how he captured Hannibal Lecter. I mean, are you kidding me? Arrow wounds? No, what happened is that Will’s subconscious whispered there’s something wrong with this guy into his ear, and Lecter saw it on his face. Are Will and Hannibal the same, like Lecter claims? Not really. Lecter is a lot more put together than Will.

One of Will’s problems is most likely OCD – he exhibits obsessive qualities throughout the book, most notably by repeatedly visiting Dolarhyde’s victims’ homes. But Will’s bigger problem is that he has no boundaries. When Will and Crawford eat breakfast at the diner, Will is disturbed by the couple in the next booth having an argument. Crawford is busy eating his ham and eggs and doesn’t notice. Will notices because his brain is wired that way and he’s incapable of not noticing.

This is not empathy. Will can’t control it. His ‘gift’ is like a mean Doberman Pinscher straining at the leash; very often that dog will turn around and savage the person holding the lead. That’s why Will is not a nice person. People who struggle with these issues aren’t easy, on others or on themselves. Another thing that struck me about Red Dragon is that Molly is a saint, because Will says some hurtful shit to his wife (Will on the phone, saying you can catch a baseball game after Molly’s first husband – a baseball player – died of cancer).

Which leads me to Will’s biggest problem: he thinks he deserves to be in the GUTTER, which is where he ends up. Crawford merely enables him. Do you think it’s a coincidence that both he and Francis Dolarhyde are disfigured at the book’s end? Will’s epiphany – that the universe doesn’t give a flying fuck about Will – comes thirty something years later than Dolarhyde’s selfsame epiphany, but it’s worth watching, in the same way car crashes are worth watching.

The other thing I want to mention about Red Dragon is the character of Niles Jacobi, the prodigal son. Niles is the son of Ed Jacobi, the patriarch of the first family killed by Dolarhyde. I was struck by the scene where Will and Niles talk because on the surface there’s no reason for it. The reader already knows that Niles didn’t kill anyone. This scene gives us a good character moment for Will – we learn that he’s vindictive, which pays off in spades when Will sets up Freddy Lounds. You mean to tell me Will spends most of the book telling people how Dolarhyde will react and he doesn’t know that he might go for Freddy? It’s no coincidence that Will’s downward slide really commences with Lounds’ death.

That’s not the reason for the Niles/Will scene, though. Niles Jacobi is a double for Francis Dolarhyde. When I read about Niles using the family portrait as a drink holder I didn’t much like him. Then I used EMPATHY and PROJECTION and looked at it from Niles’ point-of-view. Nile’s father abandons him when he’s a kid. Since its stated that Nile’s mother is disturbed, maybe he could’ve gotten custody. Maybe not. I don’t know. What I do know is that Nile’s father cuts ties, starts a new life and then reappears years later after the damage to his son has been done and it’s too late. He comes back hiding his guilt with his work hard/live clean horseshit, and Niles is like sure, whatever. But honestly, Niles doesn’t give a fuck about his old man. Would you, if you were him? It all ties into Red Dragon’s theme (if you forgot, see the first paragraph)!

Anyway: Red Dragon is a great book, but boy oh boy is it a bummer. I first read this book back in 1993. After finishing I was depressed as fuck. At the time I didn’t know why, but now I do!


The Sculptor

The Sculptor reminded me of the work of James Patterson, one of the most successful authors of the past twenty years. I’ve enjoyed reading a few of the authors Mr. Patterson has worked with. For instance, Michael Koryta’s The Ridge is a great, spooky read. If you like James Patterson, give The Sculptor a try. It’s a fast-paced mystery/thriller with plenty of action and romance.

Spoilers ahead.




Okay, here’s my unvarnished opinion. I did not like The Sculptor, but I see that the author is a contemporary, as it were. Robert Bloch has passed away. Stephen Dobyns is off teaching and Bret Easton Ellis is off being Bret Easton Ellis. A bad review doesn’t mean anything to them. In addition, there are many people who enjoy books like The Sculptor, which are often quite successful. I myself used to read forty to fifty mysteries per year. My tastes changed, as you will see by reading this review.

The Sculptor reminded me of a movie called Blood and Black Lace, a famous giallo by Italian filmmaker Mario Bava. I did not appreciate Blood and Black Lace on my first watch because all the characters were incredibly shallow and the movie’s look and music reminded me of an episode of Charlie’s Angels. Later, I realized how influential Mr. Bava must have been to have so many directors imitate him (this movie came out in 1964). I also realized that the characters were incredibly shallow on purpose; indeed, they worked in an amoral field that almost required it.

The Sculptor has no such excuse. Saddled with unrealistic characters, multiple inconsistencies and a cliched plot, this book reminded me of a bad TV movie. It wouldn’t be a Lifetime movie, because Lifetime movies can often be quite gritty. Maybe a movie of the week?

The Sculptor’s problems can be narrowed down to three issues, believability, predictability and agency. This book has multiple believability issues – how did the Sculptor get in and out of prison to cut off and make a sculpture of Stanky’s penis? Did Stanky wear a full-body hazmat suit when having sex with the Aussie woman? Why did the college’s housing department make Jesse and Mara roommates? A serial killer is preying upon exchange students, but apparently that’s not a big deal because it’s business as usual. The grad students like to drink and carouse – wait, that part’s realistic. College students love to party.

The characters are – look, real cops don’t act like Enzo. Good-looking guys like Jesse aren’t secretly vulnerable. ‘Secretly vulnerable’ is a bad pick-up line, replacing ‘I used to work for the CIA.’ The only character I liked was Stanky, mostly because of his magnificent nickname. He also does a great job of cock-blocking Jesse. When your readers start pulling for the villain, your book has problems.

Second, predictability. There isn’t any suspense. I knew Mara wouldn’t be in any real danger until the book was almost over because the author isn’t going to maybe kill off her heroine until the final act. I knew Mara and Jesse’s relationship would have its share of bumps, because that’s what the plot requires. These plot requirements aren’t bad things, mind you, but it’s the author’s job to make the reader lose herself in the book and not think about such things.

My biggest problem with The Sculptor is agency. Mara has no agency; the killer does. To put it another way: it is the killer, and not Mara, who drives the plot. Many movies and books are structured like this, but at this point in my life I don’t read those books or watch those movies anymore.


The Church of Dead Girls

I read The Church of Dead Girls for the first time over twenty years ago. The gold paperback cover attracted me and Stephen King blurbed the book, which at the time wasn’t unusual. At one point it seemed like Mr. King was on a mission to blurb every book on earth.

The Church of Dead Girls isn’t a horror novel. It’s a mystery novel written by a poet with literary sensibilities. The first time I read it I figured out whodunnit. I am not bragging. Back then I read forty to fifty mystery novels a year, and the author plays fair – which means it’s possible to figure out who the killer is.  The dead girls are covered with symbols, a topic the talkative killer can’t seem to shut up about.

So what did I think about The Church of Dead Girls on my second read-through? I have a lot to say about this book. The first thing that struck me is that the opening scene makes it obvious that the author writes poetry. People who haven’t read many poems might think poetry is all about the rhymes, but to me contemporary poetry is all about vivid, offbeat imagery.

James Dickey, former poet laureate of the U.S.A., wrote Deliverance, which has an awesome scene of canoeing past a chicken factory. Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s husband, was the poet laureate of England, and he wrote some of the most violent, fucked up poetry I’ve ever read. Read a copy of Crow, if you can get your hands on it. He’s most known for writing the children’s book The Iron Giant, which was made into an animated movie. I took a few poetry classes in college and one of the things that struck me about contemporary poetry is how many contemporary poets end up killing themselves. And how dark and violent their work is.

The Church of Dead Girls certainly qualifies as dark and violent. I suppose people will compare this book to The Crucible, but I think Our Town is a better example. This book is heavy on exposition and is told from the point of view of a townsperson who is essentially omniscient. However, there’s a difference. Unlike Our Town, everyone in the town of Aurelius is either involved in a weird incestuous relationship, sexually insatiable, harboring a horrible secret, a psychopath, or a blithering idiot. The town of Aurelius is the worst place on earth to live, and the fact that the narrator seems unaware of this is one of the ways that he reveals himself to be unreliable; the other way is that he conceals the identity of the killer from us.

A digression: years ago I saw a production of Our Town in New York City with my father. Paul Newman starred! I recall the play being full of pithy small-town wisdom, and my father – no doubt overcome by the pithiness – fell asleep. During a particularly pithy pause in the dialogue, he let out a great snore. I am not exaggerating when I say this was the single greatest moment of father-son bonding in recorded history.

Oh, yeah: the book. The Church of Dead Girls has two protagonists, Aaron McNeal and Ryan Tavich. Aaron returns to town to find the killer of his mother Janice, whose murder is the book’s inciting incident. The narrator tells us that Aaron blames the town for his mother’s death; I’m not sure I believe that, but I do think he figured that nobody there was capable of finding her killer, and he was right. Ryan Tavich, the other protagonist, is a cop who had a brief fling with Janice. He wants to find her killer, also.

If you combined Aaron and Ryan you’d have a kick-ass protagonist. Aaron is whip-smart, but you can make a good case he’s a psychopath himself. To be fair, that’s not totally true. Aaron has his moments of humanity. The narrator thinks he pays attention to Sadie to use her as bait to catch the killer, but they have something much more basic in common: they both lost their mothers. Ryan is a nice guy, but he’s not too smart. That’s not fair, either: he’s a small town cop, and not equipped to deal with the ensuing shitstorm.

The plot concerns three young girls who go missing. The authorities fixate on the Marxist reading group at the local college – no, I’m not kidding – because they are low-hanging fruit. In the authorities’ defense, in 99% of the cases obvious wins the day. Unfortunately, this is the other 1%. The author’s use of imagery, exemplified by the opening and the ear scene –  Aaron doesn’t just bite Hark’s ear off, he chews on it and then spits it out – is weird and unsettling. However, in some cases, it goes too far.

The thing that struck me most on my second read of The Church of Dead Girls is that this book’s treatment of women and gay people is just awful. Janice liked men and she liked sex, which is fine, but some of the descriptions of her sexuality read like something you’d find in Playboy Magazine. The murder of Jaime is off-the-charts violent and lurid. The narrator’s deep dark secret is a homophobic fairy tale that has been debunked for decades. I understand that this was the late 80’s/early 90’s, but in some cases the author goes way overboard and really rubs the reader’s face in it, as exemplified by the scene depicting the abuse of Barry in the graveyard. It is these passages stop me from recommending The Church of Dead Girls.