1991’s The Silence of the Lambs is an undisputed classic of the serial killer genre, with Jonathan Demme’s movie providing a masterclass in psychological terror alongside a few gruesome set pieces. With sequel series Clarice due to launch this week, the original picture and its legacy are receiving some renewed interest, though Quentin Tarantino has a somewhat unusual take on the scariness of Lambs, claiming that one of his own films outdoes it, at least in terms of terror.
More specifically, Tarantino has referred to the Spahn Ranch scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as topping the climax of The Silence of the Lambs. Speaking on the Empire Film Podcast, he had this to say about the two movies:
“When you watch the movie with an audience the first time… it achieves something I think is difficult to achieve in a movie. It achieves terror. The audience is terrified for Cliff and the air in the theater changes. They are genuinely afraid. That sequence [the ending of Silence of the Lambs] is magnificent. I would push back on one aspect of it though. I’ve seen some movies before. I did not think Jodie Foster was going to die. At that point in the movie, I would have been surprised if it ended with Buffalo Bill killing Jodie Foster. No, I’ve seen too many movies to think that was actually going to happen… One of the reasons that that [Spahn Ranch] works so effectively is because Cliff could die.”
In terms of the two scenes, Tarantino likely means everything from when Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling descends into Buffalo Bill’s basement and has to navigate in the dark after the killer cuts off the power. During this sequence, Bill stalks her while wearing night vision goggles, setting up a moment where Clarice appears to have little hope of escaping him. As Tarantino points out, though, even with the odds stacked against her, it was unlikely that the film would just kill off Foster’s character.
By contrast, Once Upon a Time sees Brad Pitt’s Cliff get drawn out to the Spahn Ranch, not realizing its home to the Manson Family, and his life is in danger. As Cliff explores the ranch and its inhabitants, Tarantino’s claim that he could actually die makes sense. After all, the director has a history of killing off characters at unexpected points or within different parts of a story, including in Pulp Fiction. Furthermore, most audiences went into the picture with at least some idea of the historical context of the Manson Family, something that Tarantino also plays around with in the story.
The director’s comments are a pretty good example, then, of the difference between suspense and terror, and how they can cause subtle but important changes in what viewers experience. Of course, it’s worth pointing out that QT was just citing a few scenes here. We’re also still yet to see Quentin Tarantino make a straight up horror movie, though given his knowledge of the genre, it would certainly be an intriguing prospect.