Silence of the Lambs. Every now and again a movie comes along that can redefine a genre. Silence of the Lambs brought horror and reality together in ways that made people uncomfortable, and yet they couldn’t look away. Everyone remembers Hannibal Lechter, of course, and well they should. Anthony Hopkins was ridiculously good in that role. But what of the actual villain of the movie, Ted Levine’s Jame Gumb, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill?
Jame Gumb was based on Ed Gein, a real life psychopath who did far more unspeakable things than Gumb. Gein, arrested in November of 1957 in connection with the disappearance of a hardware store owner, had filled his home with items made from human flesh and bone. He had skull bowls, human leather covered chairs, lips on a window sash cord, a box full of vulvas (and who wouldn’t like that?), and nine masks made from actual flesh, among other things. Gumb’s woman suit had nothing on Gein, who was apparently trying to turn his home into a cathedral of flesh.
Still, Gumb, or Bill if you prefer, was an interesting character in ways the Gein was not. Gein claimed that most of the body parts came from exhumed corpses, and he didn’t keep women in wells to loosen up their skin. He did try to make a woman suit, just like Gumb, and for much the same reasons, but his motives seemed less sexual in nature – he wanted to be a woman, but not because he wanted to have sex with men.
What stands out the most about Jame Gumb is that people seem to forget about him and place a lot of what he did on Lechter. This is mostly due, of course, to the fact that while Levine’s portrayal of Gumb was spot on, Hopkins really stole the whole show. But it’s also telling that people have a harder time remembering two separate but similar villains. The dominant usually wins, and in this case, it was Hannibal.
Moving back to the Gein connection, it’s interesting to note that Jame Gumb was not the first movie villain to be based on Gein, though he was possibly the most true (not counting actual movies based on Gein himself). Gein was the inspiration for Robert Bloch’s Norman Bates and Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He is also somewhat the pattern for Otis from Rob Zombie’s House of a Thousand Corpses.
One of the more unusual things about Buffalo Bill was his use of night vision goggles to hunt his prey. This is obviously a new twist, and a horrifying one at that, especially in the scene where he is standing just behind the completely blind Clarice. The idea that he can see in the dark moves him from simple psycho killer into the realm of the superhuman, even though he achieves this via a technological means. It gives him power over our protagonist at a critical juncture, and it’s only a combination of training, luck and good hearing that saves Clarice from Bill’s bullet.
In fact, throughout the movie, Buffalo Bill is referenced in almost god-like ways. Bill has confounded all attempts to find him, he’s left a calling card at each murder, and he’s able to toy with the most powerful law enforcement agency in the country and get away with it. And yet he is nothing more than a sexually confused man. This simple premise is what makes him scary. He could be your neighbor, your co-worker, the guy who rings up your groceries. Meanwhile behind the mask he wears to make people think he’s sane, he’s this menacing figure with power over his victims and power over the police and FBI agents who want to find him.
That is what Gumb represents, and to a smaller extent, Gein did too. Power. The power to do bad things and get away with it for so long that when it’s finally revealed, people simply can’t believe it. Gumb wanted power over his body, power over his desires, the power to transform himself, to metamorphosize into a new form, an ideal form, a god-form. Was his choice of the Senator’s daughter random? Did he want power over more and more parts of his world? And yet he remained confined within the ramshackle house in rural Ohio. A god in chains.
So we come to the end of our brief look at Jame Gumb, the monster who was real instead of a boogeyman in the closet. And we are reminded that there is evil in this world, evil that festers and blooms in the dark places, evil that makes the likes of Darth Vader or Jason Vorhees look pale by comparison. For in us all lurks the larva of James Gumb, waiting to weave its coccoon and emerge as something dark and fetid in our minds.