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In preparation for Halloween this October, over the next four weeks I'm listing my favourite maniacs of the silver screen - the psychos, the killers and the monsters.
Without further ado, let's begin with number one: Jame Gumb...
Buffalo Bill; Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
When people think of The Silence of the Lambs they think of the iconic cannibalistic genius Hannibal Lecter, as portrayed by the amazing Anthony Hopkins. And yes, Mr. Hopkins did a terrific job at making Lecter so devoid of emotion, so far from human and a legitimately terrifying character. But for me, that's the issue - he felt like a character. From his over-the-top monologues with Agent Starling to his near-impossible escape from FBI confinement and the dramatic finale in which Lecter phones Clarice from a tropical island before he follows Chilton through the crowd, presumably to eat his old nemesis alive... it's all great but it's also so unrealistic. Lecter is terrifying but only on the silver screen. He's a character who could never possibly exist in the real world. Sure, Anthony Hopkins gets literally all the best lines in the film despite being on-screen for a total of sixteen minutes (A census taker tried to test me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti). But for me personally, it's the other antagonist of the film who really steals the show.
Jame Gumb, better known by his nickname Buffalo Bill, is the lesser-known main antagonist of The Silence of the Lambs. Most people remember him for his most famous line: "It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again". But Ted Levine deserves a lot more praise for his portrayal of the skin flaying psychopath than he gets.
Gumb gets a dismal amount of time on the screen, only a handful of lines and barely any of his backstory from the novel makes it to the script. Born to an alcoholic prostitute, Gumb was abandoned as an infant and put into foster care. His foster family severely abused him until he was ten years old, at which point Gumb's grandparents adopted him. Big mistake on their part as two years later the child murdered both of them on a whim. He was sent to an asylum for rehabilitation where he learnt how to sew - a talent which he would later use for dark and disturbing purposes. After leaving rehab, Gumb met a man named Benjamin Raspail whom he had a sexual relationship with. But Raspail soon learned what a deranged individual Jame was and left him for another man named Klaus. In anger and jealousy, Jame murdered Klaus and used his skin to make an apron.
Raspail was too terrified of Gumb to say anything to anyone other than his psychiatrist (none other than Doctor Hannibal Lecter, who would later kill and eat poor Benjamin). But the defining moment in Jame Gumb's life was when he witnessed a butterfly break out of its cocoon. He witnessed a change, a transformation - that something so ugly could be reborn as something so beautiful was astonishing. Gumb's years of systematic abuse left him self-loathing and broken, and he had identity issues as a result. He wanted to become someone else; someone completely different. He wanted to become a thing of beauty just like the butterfly, so he decided upon becoming a woman.
Gumb was denied a sex-change operation at all four major clinics in Ohio. So he did what he believed was the next rational step. Putting those sewing skills to good use, Gumb skinned women alive and set to work on his magnum opus - a "woman suit" made of the skin of his victims which when complete he could wear and "become" a woman. But it wasn't that easy. First he needed to pick his targets. Overweight women were just what he wanted (about a size 14, as Gumb puts it) so that he could kidnap them, take them home and put them at the bottom of the dried-out well in his basement. There he would starve them so that their skin became loose, which is also where the lotion comes in handy to keep that precious epidermis moisturised.
Then he killed his victim, usually by hanging but sometimes by shooting them, and cut certain parts off their skin like the pattern of a dress. Once he had the piece of skin he wanted, Jame dumped the body in a river and went on his way. His penchant for skinning earned him the nickname "Buffalo Bill" amongst the police because he skinned his victims just like the famous cowboy Buffalo Bill would skin the humps of the buffalos that he killed. But here's the interesting thing about Buffalo Bill. The victim is purely a means to an end; he doesn't kill them for enjoyment or out of malice. Gumb even refers to his victims as "it" because he doesn't want to admit to himself that he's killing humans. They're merely objects that he requires for his transformation into a woman.
The gender transformation is also an interesting aspect of his character. Buffalo Bill's sexuality is questionable and never really explained in the movie. In terms of his gender, Lecter reasserts that Gumb thinks himself to be a transsexual when in reality he's just deranged. Buffalo Bill doesn't see gender as inherent, he sees it as skin deep. He sees it as something one can change, and intends to change it in order to become what he perceives as a more natural state. A state in which Jame Gumb can finally feel comfortable in.
Although Buffalo Bill gets such little screen time in the film, actor Ted Levine does his best to make the most of it. And director Jonathan Demme really knows how to use the mise en scène to build character. Gumb's basement is truly a terrifying labyrinth, plastered in neo-nazi imagery (there are plenty of swastikas and pro-nazi posters in the basement scenes) and the occasional rotting corpse in a bathtub. The room in which Jame cultivates his moths is bathed in an eerie blue glow while the house itself is a cluttered mess. Buffalo Bill gets very few lines in the film - maybe a dozen short conversations in total, if even that. But it's the scenes where he's not saying anything which are the most chilling. Sitting in his grimy basement sewing away at human skin, oblivious to the screams of his victim down the well in the adjoining room, while creepy songs play in the background. Wearing a human scalp while in full makeup and dancing naked for a camera, talking to a mirror about how he'd "fuck" himself "so hard". Letting a large moth crawl all over his face as he stares off into the distance. Or perhaps the creepiest, when Gumb is stalking Clarice in his pitch-black basement, caressing the air mere inches from her face as he watches her with night vision goggles.
On the topic of night vision goggles, not only are they really creepy when he wears them, but it does raise another point about his character. Jame Gumb can so easily switch between a seemingly average man to a complete psychopath. When he tricks his victim, Catherine Martin, into getting into his van, he acts completely normal. Same as when he talks to Agent Starling on his doorstep. Nothing that would ever make one think that a few minutes ago this guy tucked his penis between his legs and pretended he had a vagina while wearing human skin and then threatening to shoot the girl he was keeping down his well for the past three days. Actually that has nothing to do with night vision goggles, but regardless. And finally there's his little dog Precious. It makes the character so much more human, and so much more creepy, when we see how much affection he has for his little toy poodle. Buffalo Bill baby-talks to Precious while torturing his victims. He threatens to shoot Catherine when she puts Precious in jeopardy. He has so much love for the little animal, but so much inhumane contempt for human beings. It gives a sort of window into a different side of Jame, which only helps to exacerbate how deranged and creepy the man is otherwise.
Overall, the thing that sets Buffalo Bill leaps and bounds ahead of Hannibal is that this guy doesn't feel like a character. Ted Levine doesn't play him as a character. It all feels so real. There aren't any dramatic villain speeches or amazing stunts. He doesn't sit in a large steel cage like Hannibal does. There is no sense of grandeur or impossibility. Buffalo Bill seems real, could be real, and that's what's terrifying about him. He's a maniac who exists in a movie but could just as easily exist in reality. Don't get me wrong, I think Hannibal Lecter is an amazing character too, but there's something about Jame Gumb which really terrifies and intrigues me. And that's why he's number one on the movie maniac month.
Stay tuned for next week where I'll showcase the next mad scientist, murderer or maniac. Who will it be? Here's a hint: a boy's best friend is his mother...