The Rise and Fall of Cinema’s Greatest Monster

by Marv Marsh

'He was a quite feral-looking man with yellow-white hair and red eyes, as if he'd spent his life in battle, battling psychopaths, the very forces of evil.' - "The Psychopath Test", Jon Ronson.

You have to feel sorry for serial killers. Fifteen or twenty years ago they were cock of the walk. You couldn’t go five yards in any direction without bumping into one that had been in the movies, or whose film was in production, or who was on his way to lunch with Scorsese to talk about a project. Every febrile scrawling on their bedroom walls was gazed at lovingly by the camera. If they wandered out to indulge in the brutal and ritualistic murder of a young woman they could be sure a camera would be there too. The late eighties and nineties were when they were in their pomp and they comported themselves like the cinematic gods they were. And now, they are a sideshow: something turned to rarely and reluctantly, like custard creams.

Serial killers have appeared in films for a very long time. Peter Lorre played one in M in 1931, for example, and they have popped up from time to time ever since. But around twenty five years ago the serial killer became the go-to bad guy for thrillers. Suddenly the cinema was teeming with bright young things like the Tooth Fairy and the January Man. Such was their star power that they  were able to pull Al Pacino’s career back from oblivion in Sea of Love.  Then in 1991, a few years into their spell as Hollywood’s favourite baddie, The Silence of the Lambs was released and Hannibal Lecter, king of all the serial killers, made his second appearance in the cinema.

His first, in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), had come right at the beginning of serial killers’ purple patch and his quiet menace, though highly regarded by those who saw it, failed to make the big splash that had been hoped for. So, five years later, determined to not make a mess of his second chance, Hannibal turned himself into a pantomime dame and people paid attention. Sure, he cheapened his art, but Hannibal Lecter took his place at the head of the top table and set the standard for those who followed.

Famously, Hannibal Lecter is barely in The Silence of the Lambs. Sharing the stage and taking the role of Hannibal’s callow apprentice and making the most of the opportunity was sexually confused murderer of the larger lady, Buffalo Bill. It is twenty years since he coined his catchphrase, “It puts the lotion in the basket” and danced along to “Goodbye Horses” with his unwanted penis tucked away between his legs, but I can promise you that even today, if you do the same thing at a party, people recognise the impression. Still, though we salute Bill’s work, the world is Hannibal’s and he merely lives in it.

Woah, I hear you cry. Steady on! What about Norman Bates? Did he kill all those people and keep his mother’s corpse in the house for nothing? This Lecter talk has gone on long enough. Bates is where it’s at.

It is a strong argument. Norman Bates was a fine, fine serial killer. But allow me to ask you something. Do you want to argue with the American Film Institute? They place Hannibal Lecter at number one in the list of all time movie baddies; Bates comes in a creditable second. Though he lost, Bates fans should take solace from this: he beat Darth Vader. He beat a man who blew up a planet.

Anyway, let us try to move past all this bitterness between the Lecterites and the Batesians and unite around the fact that the top two cinematic baddies of all time are serial killers. They didn’t know it then but when Hannibal proudly stepped forward to pick up his award (Vader fuming asthmatically at the Star Wars table, his face a mask) and thank all those without whom he wouldn’t be there, the glory days of the serial killer were already behind them. That was 2003; twelve years after The Silence of the Lambs.

The Silence of the Lambs gave us two serial killer superstars and in so doing shoved to the front of the stage Hollywood’s new favourite bad guy: the caricature serial killer. Hollywood turned psychopathic murderers into mysterious, dark and occasionally glamorous men of purpose; men who refused to be satisfied with a simple string of mundane killings. This breed of super serial killer works harder and offers more. For the caricature serial killer, there has to be a sense of style, or a convoluted methodology involving the phases of the moon, or the writings of an obscure medieval monk, or the seven deadly sins. Buffalo Bill’s keen eye for the dramatic meant that he was never going to quietly murder a few women, make his lady suit and go out in it for something to eat. Goodness no. Why be so banal when there is the opportunity to weave together a narrative of rebirth involving death’s head moths, sitting naked at a sewing machine and keeping his captive at the bottom of a well?

That kind of elaboration is useless without an appreciative audience. There is very little point in popping death’s head moths into the mouths of your victims, or force-feeding an obese man to death to demonstrate the sin of gluttony, if nobody notices. Imagine constructing a macabre scene based around Dante’s “Inferno” and then, as you wait round the corner tittering excitedly, the oafish police tramp all over it and completely miss the reference. Frustrating, eh? The caricature serial killer relies on his audience to get the gist. More specifically, he relies on at least one member to see in his work something that catches the eye, furrows the brow, and sends them off to the local library. That person is his soulmate; the troubled detective or criminal profiler who sees too deeply into the darkness that is man, or has a little too much of the darkness about themselves. Where would Hannibal Lecter be, for example, without Clarice Starling (voted sixth best goodie at the AFIes)? He’d be in a cell, dreaming of a view, with only Dr Chilton and Barney the orderly to care. Incidentally, the next time you watch The Silence of the Lambs look out for Scott Glenn saying Dr Chilnot instead of Chilton. I often wonder if that was deliberate.

The absolute number one rule of a caricature serial killer film is that the whole sordid thing is a game, a battle between the forces of good, as represented by our troubled hero, and evil, as represented by someone who thinks it would be a good idea to kill a few people and keep all their eyes in a jar to watch over them while they sleep. It is played out like a puzzle and the serial killer sets the rules.

The explosion of serial killer films in the late 80s and 90s ties in very neatly with the explosion of interest in the science of criminal profiling, which was beginning to develop at the time. Serial killers seemed unfathomable, beyond human comprehension; the science of criminal profiling pinned them down and explained them, made them prosaic. Hollywood was able to take that relationship and fill it full of nonsense to tremendous effect. Films like Manhunter, The Bone Collector, Jennifer 8, The January Man, Copycat and Kiss the Girls all feature a troubled individual with a little too much insight into the mind of a serial killer for their own comfort. Clarice Starling is plucked from FBI training, where she aims to join the Behavioural Science Unit, and packed off to Lecter. All of them have been selected to face off against their serial killer opponent because they are privileged to understand them.

To be fair to Hollywood, as we must always strive to be, they did not invent the caricature serial killer. They first began popping up like barking mad daisies in the pages of sweaty, intense novels written by thriller writers with an eye for the compelling character. Even Hannibal Lecter’s debut was in the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (the basis for Manhunter), published ten years before he became the Widow Twanky of high security prisons in Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs.

If Hannibal is this world’s biggest star then he is unfortunately also the galumphing buffoon who ruined it. Ten years after dazzling the world with his fava beans and his slicked back hair he was given top billing in vanity project Hannibal. And it was too much. If you find yourself eating Ray Liotta’s brains while involving him in the conversation, then you have allowed fame to go to your head.

Of course, 2001 was notable for something other than Hannibal Lecter overplaying his hand – and here is where I am swept up in a grandiose attack of the Mark Lawsons. If Hannibal’s excess caused people to begin wondering if serial killers might not be a little bit gauche, it was 9/11 that finished them off. Suddenly, grotty men in basements lovingly adding another doll made of human hair to a shrine seemed pathetic and small. The big stage was where it was at; villains threatening not individuals but society itself. The caricature serial killer lacked punch, and as they faded from view, supervillains moved centre stage. Instead of the Tooth Fairy, or The January Man, we now have Magneto or Melty Man or whatever. Melty Man is real. You can look him up. He melts people with the power of his stupid face.

Magneto, heed this warning! Hollywood is, as Randy Newman once advised, going to ride you till it just can’t ride you no more. That is what it did to serial killers and it will do the same to you. Of course, serial killers still pop up occasionally – we have David Fincher to thank for his refusal to give up on them and he is back soon with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, following up his sterling work with Se7en and his film about real life caricature serial killer, Zodiac – and there is always Jigsaw, gamely plugging away through one Saw film after another. But his lineage is slasher films and torture porn and he travels down a different road on his little tricycle of horror. The golden days are long gone. Thankfully, television has never deserted serial killers. That is where you find them now, working on their art, refusing to compromise. Clarice Starling wouldn’t get a look in at the cinema today but her children are all over television, waiting for Hollywood’s call to come and save us again.

6 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Cinema’s Greatest Monster

  1. I actually saw about an hour of The Silence of the Lambs a few weeks ago. It’s amazing how routine and boring the procedural elements now seem. You keep wishing they’d just get on with it, without having to explain how Buffalo Bill depersonalises his victims by calling them ‘it’. Yeah yeah – we get it. We know how serial killers work. Of course, it seemed like rocket science at the time.

  2. Lecter, of course, is a total fraud. He doesn’t have any psychiatrist/fellow-serial-killer insight into Buffalo Bill, he just happened to have met him.

    Marv’s entirely right about the serial killer overload on telly, as well. The other night I was watching CSI:NY, because I’m a moron, and the killer on that (it’s always a killer. Do burglaries not require forensics?) had a perfectly rational reason for wanting to kill these three people. They’d been responsible for his brother’s death, or something. I forget. It was a thing, though, anyway. And instead of just killing them he had to arrange a series of clues involoving T-shirts with codes on them that referenced Greek mythology. Madness. Just run them over with your car.

  3. To be slightly fair to the film Hannibal, the excess actually came from the book. And when I read the book, I thought Harris was deliberatley making a book so crass, no-one would make a film of it – knowing, of course, that they would. Terrible book. And in fact the film was nowhere near as bad.

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