One of the reasons I like watching movies with Matthew at home is that he’s one of the few people I know who reacts viscerally to what he watches.  Case-in-point:  at certain moments during The Silence of the Lambs, Matthew spoke directly to the screen.  “Don’t go in there!  Look behind you!”  At other times, he turned to me with a murderous look in his eyes:  I can’t believe you’re making me watch this.

But this is also the guy who talks back to voice mails, so I’m not sure what to make of that.

The person who first alerted me to Silence of the Lambs was my sister, who saw it on the big screen when it came out.  “How was it?” I asked.

“Great!” she said.  “The best part is where she’s stumbling around in the dark while the killer watches her through night vision goggles.  You can see her gun shaking and everything!”

My sister has never held back the ending of a movie just in case I wanted to see it myself.

After Silence of the Lambs won the Academy Award for Best Picture, that meant it was perfectly acceptable for me to watch it.  For goodness’ sake, my parents made me sit through Gandhi and Out of Africa, so Silence of the Lambs was, in a sense, a reward.  And even though I knew that scene was coming, and even though I had steeled myself for it, I remember still freaking out uncontrollably.  Only silently, to myself.

The reason the scene is so effective, I think, is because of how it plays on horror movie tropes.  Everyone’s familiar with the “killer cam” — scenes filmed from the killer’s point of view, ogling nubile teens from the bushes or peering into dusty windows.  (Carol Clover points out how those shots are the moments when the audience identifies with the male tormentor.)  It’s become such a cliché that you have to wonder if it’s even effective as a technique anymore.  It’s dramatic irony on the cheap.

But in Jonathan Demme’s hands, an overused movie trope becomes potent once again.  When Buffalo Bill turns on his green seeing-eye glasses, and the audience sees Clarice Starling stumbling in the dark (yes, her gun shakes), Demme taps into the deep well of feeling the audience has built up for Starling, the soundtrack silent except for her panicked breaths.  Everyone, I imagine, has had a moment when they’ve been disoriented by darkness — crawling, perhaps, on their hands and knees, discovering solid walls where before there had been none, knocking their shins on sharp corners.  In that scenes, our own memories of getting lost in the pitch black fire the synapses, and we’re all tense, straining for a stray sound, a whisper of light, and we’re all a girl with a gun, trembling in the dark.  Matthew’s the only one with the sense to yell out, “Shoot your gun!  Shoot him!”

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