Classifying films according to genre was one of the earliest methods of organising the production and marketing of films by Hollywood. It allows for standardisation and product differentiation in a market flooded by competitors. However genre is more than an industry device. It is a fluid and changing state of film conventions. It is virtually impossible to find a film that belongs to a single genre as most incorporate many different styles.
‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991), for example, may appear to be the classic example of a horror movie yet it includes the sub genres of psychological drama, crime and thriller. In this way it is seen to be ‘generically instable’ or forming a ‘generic constellation’. Genres, although possessing distinctive patterns can alter depending on their use and relationship to other genres (Corrigan and white, 2004, 290). ‘Silence of the Lambs’, produced by Jonathan Demme, demonstrates how filmmakers can use generic constellations and instability to distance a credible film from the seemingly un-credible genre of horror.
The use of genres in films, like stars, emerged from the Hollywood studio need to identify audience anticipations and vice versa (Cook, 2003, 290). Genres have a recognisable repertoire of conventions such as plot, characters, setting and narrative development: “[Genre is] a category or classification of a group of movie’s in which the individual films share similar subject matter and similar ways of organising the subject through narrative and stylistic patterns” (Cook, 2003, 290).
This does not mean that Hollywood can produce hundreds of films with the same plot, in spite of popular belief that genres “are all the same…the emphasis on sameness, repetition or standardisation does not limit the audiences enjoyment” (Branston and Stafford, 2003,112). Audiences are not a coherent body with a consistent set of expectations and although they may be aware of the generic conventions of a horror or romance film it must work creatively and individually within the genre to be a success (Gelder, 2001,152). Genre mixing or ‘hybrid films’ were introduced by Hollywood to satisfy a number of different audiences and have led to generic constellations and instability.
Generic constellations suggest that genres with distinctive patterns and conventions can overlap and transfigure according to their relationship with other genres. For example, viewers of a film described as a romantic comedy will have a totally different set of expectations to a film described as a romantic thriller despite belonging to the same core genre. The genre system still functions to distinguish film types but acknowledges that is it a system flawed by blurred boundaries and contested categories. Generic instability is based on a similar hypothesis but recognizes that some genres do not mix easily and movies often go through various stages of generic classification before reaching a stable generic identity (Altman, 2002, 140). The generic definition of a film can change according to the classifier – the studio, contemporary critics, the audience and the censors may have highly different interpretations of the film. This is particularly relevant when considering “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991).
Jonathan Demme’s film ‘Silence of the Lambs’ was a major commercial and critical success worldwide. It was a five-time Academy-Award winner including best picture. Demme’s Best Director Oscar made him the first (and only) filmmaker to win for a thriller. The movie was based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Harris thus a generic identity existed long before the film was released. Yet distributors and critics sought to distance the movie from the supposedly low calibre title of horror in favour of psychological thriller. Critics also emphasised the important contribution the film made to the feminist movement by casting a woman in a dominant, lead role. Jodie Foster’s star offered some security from the less prestigious genres of horror and action:
“I feel like there has never been a female hero who uses femininity as a warrior thing, and not like Rambo – rambette in underwear. This is not the some male version of a female hero” Jodie Foster (Gelder, 2001, 158). This statement, along with other similar sound bytes, acknowledges the filmmaker/ cast’s desire to distinguish the film from recent action films such as “Alien” and the female lead of Ripley. The generic instability surrounding the movie was thus created to attract a range of audiences not usually associated with horror.
As a generic convention horror films aim to frighten and panic thereby invoke our hidden fears. These deep emotions excite an audience and keep us on the ‘edge of our seat’. The excitement often peaks in a shocking finale that terrifies and captivates us at the same time. Horror films effectively centre on the dark and forbidden, through strange and alarming events. The genre explores our primal nature and its fears: nightmares, vulnerability, terror of the unknown and fear of sexuality.
Whatever dark, primitive, and revolting traits simultaneously attract and repel us are featured in this genre (www.filmsite.org). Many of these factors are present in the Silence of the Lambs. Buffalo Bill’s sexual deviance, Lector’s cannibalism and the gruesome images of skinned corpses are key examples. As a rule horror does not constellate with other genres easily yet the generic constellation of horror and psychological thriller was extremely successful for Silence of the Lambs.
Throughout the film there is a contested balance between horror and psychological thriller. The generic instability is created by the battle between the opposing sets of conventions contributed by the genres. This is particularly apparent in the penultimate scene of the movie where unwitting hero Clarice Starling stumbles into the layer of Buffalo Bill. As an audience our emotions swing from unbearable suspense to overwhelming terror as we wonder where the psychotic killer will emerge from and fear for the safety of the female protagonist.
It has all the pleasures of a horror film yet its’ generic constellation provides security to the viewer who wishes to distance himself from the low calibre horror fan. The promotion and mise en scene pre release sought to provoke an association with gothic, a more sophisticated sibling to the horror genre: ” Some critics have seen it as a horror film, others studiously avoided an association with the genre, or sought to distinguish it from certain perceptions of the genre” (Horror: the film reader, p. 136)
However hard the filmmakers tried to distance the film from the horror genre it is clear that it does possess many of the generic conventions. The main character is a single, white female preyed upon by a white, serial killing male. There have been frequent comparisons drawn to the slasher film one in particular was by theorist Carol Clover. She believes the movie has an eerie relationship to the slasher sub genre through the Oedipal story (Staiger, 2002, 161).
She argues that in this genre psychopathic serial killers stereotypically victimize women because the woman hero is a safe substitute for a male with the repressed plot about male-to-male relations. The woman therefore acts as a homoerotic stand in. This has roots in Silence of the Lambs as Clarice finds opposing father figures in the character of Lector and Jack Crawford. There is a strange unspoken sexual tension present in her scenes with both men and Foster’s masculine appearance in the movie has been widely commented upon.
However, the generic stability of viewing the film as horror is offset by the fact that it seeks to detach the stereotypes of voyeurism, misogyny, and formulaic simplicity of the genre (Horror: the film reader, 159). This is achieved through scenes where the strong, female lead of Foster exerts real physical strength on the FBI training course, highlighted by the signs “Hurt, agony, pain…love it”. Also in opposion to Carol Clover’s argument Starling does not have a romantic attachment in the film and that is rare in Hollywood and reinforces her position as a powerful woman.
We are encouraged by the mise en scene to think of the film as gothic horror in the same vain as ‘Dracula’. When Hannibal murders two prison guards in order to escape from his make shift cell he takes great pleasure in biting the face of one of the victims leaving blood smeared across his mouth. This disturbing scene has an added dimension of horror by the presence of classical music, traditionally a sign of the educated within society. Traditionally gothic horror has centred on monsters from the educated and upper class world, for example, ‘Dracula’, ‘Dr Jekyll and Hyde’ and ‘Frankenstein’.
There is a need to make a spectacle in this genre and this is achieved through Lector’s disturbed artwork. Initially his images of Clarice holding a lamb and later his victim draped in an American flag and hung like an angel. Gothic horror is also apparent in many of the settings particularly the prison where we first meet Hannibal. This evokes images of Victorian asylums with bare brick walls, iron bars and hysterical in mates.
This is in stark contrast with the realist horror created by Hannibal himself. Doctor Chilton claims in the movie “he’s a monster, a pure psychopath” yet Lector and Bill are “possible realistic monsters (Freeland, 1995, 130). Indeed the character of Buffalo Bill was created through case studies of previous serial killers Ed Gein, Ted Bundy and Gary Michael Heidnik. These monsters are true to life and this causes instability between the standard genre of horror that we believe to be fictitious and the sub genre of realist horror. The film intentionally plays upon confusions between representations of fiction and reality.
By the nature of generic constellations films will often go through a series of generic instabilities in context with new audiences and social beliefs. ‘Silence of the Lambs’ was initially classified as a thriller, crime and psychological movie but as time has progressed it has gradually reduced to psychological horror. The process of generic instability is typically forgotten, hence our belief that classic Hollywood operated via pure genre films (Altman, 2001, 140).
It seems generic instability and generic constellation relate to the idea that genres are fluid, ever changing states of cinematic convention. In order for films to be creative and original genres need to constellate and/ or become instable. Although audiences view a film with a set of generic expectations they want the film to work autonomously within it’s selection of genres. There is no such thing as a pure genre film or ‘X factor’ that optimises what creates a horror, romance or western genre.
This is evident in Silence of the Lambs. The movie works superbly as a horror and a psychological thriller. It is hard to distinguish where one genre ends and anther begins and surely this is a sign of a successful generic constellation? Although critics and filmmakers avoided the classification of horror it has illustrated that the genre can be as legitimate and respected as any other. It also important to remember that although genre has important economic and cinematic influences it cannot be accorded sole determination over the end product.