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Thursday, February 14, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Lambs' To The Slaughter -- Director Jonathan Demme Gives The Term `Horror Movie' A New Dimension With His Hypnotic Thriller

XXX 1/2 ``The Silence of the Lambs,'' with Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Scott Glenn, Diane Baker, Anthony Heald. Directed by Jonathan Demme, from a script by Ted Tally. Crossroads, Factoria, Gateway, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Kent, Metro, Southcenter, United Artists Cinema 150. ``R'' - Restricted, due to language, extreme violence.

Deliberately opening ``The Silence of the Lambs'' on Valentine's Day must be some studio executive's idea of a sick joke. Yet this serial-killer thriller is anything but.

Jonathan Demme's hypnotic adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel has a seriousness and intensity that's been entirely lacking in horror movies lately. Coming after a run of generic, high-concept, no-brain thrillers (``Pacific Heights,'' ``Run,'' ``Sleeping With the Enemy''), it's especially welcome.

Demme's film is frightening on both visceral and intellectual levels, inviting favorable comparison with such unnerving classics of the genre as Hitchcock's ``Psycho'' and John McNaughton's ``Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,'' as well as such literary forerunners as Dostoyevksy's ``Crime and Punishment.''

Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins are first rate as, respectively, a smart young FBI trainee and the imprisoned serial killer who ingeniously manipulates her. Scott Glenn plays her new boss, who tells her to interview Hopkins, find out how he thinks, but ``never forget what he is.''

With the best of intentions (she wants Hopkins to help her understand and track down another killer), she does forget, playing into his hands by giving him personal details that he uses to play on her fears. His mental abilities verge on the telepathic, but he has nothing but contempt for humanity. He remains an unrepentant killer, almost as dangerous in his cell as he is on the loose.

He's physically as difficult to defeat as the monster in any traditional horror film, and he has a brain that makes him seem more than human. He mocks conventional morality and finds ultimate satisfaction in violence, much like the heart-of-darkness militarist Marlon Brando played in ``Apocalypse Now.'' He's the monster as genius, and Hopkins plays him with disturbing authority.

By comparison, the killer Foster and Glenn are trailing is an amateur. He has his weaknesses and he can be caught, although ``The Silence of the Lambs'' suggests that only someone who has begun to think like him can defeat him. The mood of the film becomes increasingly black and desperate as Foster finds herself being dragged down to this level.

The open-ended finale, which invites us to applaud the demise of the movie's most loathsome non-killer, is especially insidious. As with Hitchcock at his most troubling, Demme implicates the audience, dragging us into a vicarious conspiracy with a murderer.

On a technical level, ``The Silence of the Lambs'' is as fine as anything Demme has done. Howard Shore's mood-darkening score is invaluable. Tak Fujimoto's crisp cinematography always intensifies the subjective feeling of the piece. The sharpness of Craig McKay's editing is especially noticeable during a tricky, tour-de-force episode in which Glenn and his men surround their quarry's home.

Although Demme is most strongly identified with Americana (``Melvin and Howard'') and zany farce (``Married to the Mob''), this is not his first attempt to deal with material of this weight. He was surprisingly successful with the 1986 ``Something Wild,'' which started out as a screwball comedy and gradually, deftly darkened into a gripping story of homicidal jealousy.

Working from a tight script by Ted Tally (``White Palace''), Demme doesn't mix his moods this time, although there are several character-defining touches of humor. Foster is first seen jogging and working out on a trail that carries the legend, ``Hurt, agony, pain: love it.''

She's dwarfed by the male FBI agents, she seems vulnerable, yet she's slyly, amusingly abrupt when it comes to intercepting passes, most of which come from the men she works with. She may be scared, she may feel out of her element, but Foster demonstrates that she's supremely self-possessed.

The intimidating intellect of the Hopkins character is also reflected in his abundant wit, which he uses to provoke and torment his jailers. A prize-winning psychiatrist who became a killer and cannibal, he cold-bloodedly assesses the murder of a former patient: ``It was the best thing for him; his therapy was going nowhere.''

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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