If you’re old enough to have gone to video stores, you’ve likely seen the VHS cassette of Ezio Greggio’s THE SILENCE OF THE HAMS. And you didn’t rent it. I am here to tell you what you missed. Allow me to set the scene:
In the wake of SCARY MOVIE — Keenan Ivory Wayans’ 2000 slapstick spoof of late 1990s horror flicks — the world experienced a hideous, plague-like blight, the likes of which we are still recovering from. When asked about the hideous deluge of mid-2000s spoof movies, those unlucky souls that were there –- down in the trenches –- can only react with a sad shudder and emotional shutdown. Some of us are still in therapy. Spoof movies were essentially torn down to the ground, and the very mention of the genre elicits incredulous and enraged hate-laughter from onlookers. Spoof movies were murdered violently before our very eyes. Let’s hope Phil Lord and Christopher Miller can rear a new child to take the place of that corpse.
SCARY MOVIE was such an unexpected hit, that other filmmakers — in particular Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer — began to bank on the now-familiar formula: Look at any super-popular films to have been released in the last two or three years, repeat certain scenes with crotch kicks added, ensure that there’s no rhyme or wit involved in your references, and produce the film as cheaply as possible. That is what we call box office gold. As such, we were treated to DATE MOVIE, SUPERHERO MOVIE, EPIC MOVIE, DISASTER MOVIE, VAMPIRES SUCK, MEET THE SPARTANS, and THE STARVING GAMES.
After that lineup from Hell, it’s easy for the average young person to assume that spoof movies were never good. But, young parson, I assure you, there was a time when spoof movies were fun, well-written, witty, and provided the world with some of the best comedy of all time. BLAZING SADDLES, AIRPLANE!, TOP SECRET!, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, UHF, THE NAKED GUN, MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL and many others managed to ensure the health of the genre.
At the tail end of the golden age of spoofery, in 1994, an Italian director named Ezio Greggio was hand-selected by comedy legend Mel Brooks to be his active protégé. Greggio, who had previously written only Italian comedy films and who had made a few notable Italian TV appearances, was not known in the U.S., but was beloved by Brooks who wanted to usher Greggio into America. Brooks, it should be worth remembering, was known for helping upcoming filmmakers get their work seen: He executive produced David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN, and Richard Benjamin’s MY FAVORITE YEAR.
Greggio’s debut as a director, and his clarion call in the States, was a little-appreciated spoof film called THE SILENCE OF THE HAMS (a.k.a. IL SILENZO DEL PROSCIUTTI), a slapstick farce of the highest order. The dumb title, bad timing (spoofs weren’t selling well in 1994), low budget, and total oddball nature of the film kept people away in droves, and to this day, HAMS has not been issued on DVD, nor has it found much in the way of a cult audience. It’s easy to see why. It looks very, very dumb. A spoof of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS starring Dom DeLuise in the Hannibal Lecter role? Sign me up for anything else, please. More people saw middling farces like WRONGFULLY ACCUSED or DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT.
THE SILENCE OF THE HAMS is, I posit, one of the funnier films of the 1990s, and perhaps one of the best of all horror spoofs. It’s time it was seen, and that we started talking about it more.
THE SILENCE OF THE HAMS sounds awful on paper. Billy Zane plays a character named Joe Dee Fostar, a rookie Fed assigned by his bosses (Larry Storch and Stuart Pankin as Inspector Putrid) to track down a serial killer (Greggio). Joe must enlist the help of the imprisoned Dr. Animal Pizza (DeLuise) who speaks in riddles, and who farts a lot. Eventually the killer is traced to the out-of-the way Cemetery Motel, where he dresses like his mother and murders Joe’s girlfriend (Charlene Tilton from DALLAS) in the shower. Yes, the film quickly skews from a spoof of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS into a spoof of PSYCHO, complete with Martin Balsam reprising his role from the 1960 classic. Only his character’s name is changed to Martin Balsam.
And, oh the cameos: John Astin, Shelley Winters, Phyllis Diller, Bubba Smith, and even Brooks himself all have small roles. There is a scene early on where John Carpenter is seen interrogating a dying Joe Dante. John Landis shows up in one scene. Eddie Deezen also appears. No film cannot be improved with the inclusion of Eddie Deezen.
Do all the jokes land? Of course not. No film has a 100% track record. There are strained attempts at political humor (Hillary Clinton is arrested… in 1994), and a few references that make no sense whatsoever (why is there a reference to BASIC INSTINCT right at that moment?). Indeed, some of the gags are so lame, you can’t be sure if they are earnest-but-failed attempts at comedy, or forthrightly offensive groaners. But the jokes come so fast and furiously, that some are bound to stick. Greggio, taking a page from the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker playlist, cracked the whip on gags, ensuring that one would be lobbed overhand at the audience every other second. The frenzied comic energy is evident in every scene. Who cares if it’s just a flaming toilet?
Also, the performances are pretty brilliant. Zane is not sleepwalking through this film, mugging when he needs to, playing deadpan when he needs to, and generally understanding that this is a totally surreal world. When he produces a waffle as an FBI badge, or cocks a banana and holsters it, he does so with the utmost sincerity. Zane’s comic prowess is a large reason why this flick produces as many laughs as it does.
What’s more, THE SILENCE OF THE HAMS strikes the right tone. Greggio has obviously seen PSYCHO many times, and he knows how that film functions, and how to twist it into something downright surreal. He knows his horror cinema, he knows how films try to manipulate us into fear, and he thumbs his nose at it. He takes the well-worn horror musical cues, and spins them. This, like the best comic spoofs, is a world without rules. Not only is Greggio playing without a net, but he’s burned the court down.
THE SILENCE OF THE HAMS was panned upon its release, and failed miserably. It was not a hit in Italy or in America. It is one of the few films to enjoy the venerable honor of a 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I have been unable to track down its American earnings, but it made a mere £10,000 in England in 1996, about $16,000 in 1996 American dollars. On its second weekend, it made £164. 20 years later, it seems, the film hasn’t yet broken even.
The end of THE SILENCE OF THE HAMS was ambitious, and promised a follow-up from Greggio called JURASSIC PORK. This film never saw the light of day.
Greggio would go on to appear in DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT before moving back to Italy and forging a career as a prolific TV actor. He also appeared in the little-seen spoof movie 2001: A SPACE TRAVESTY. I have not seen that one, and neither have you. Brooks would eventually find a new career in adapting his old films to stage, and the world would forget all about THE SILENCE OF THE HAMS.
But for a few select weirdos and adventurous fans of slapstick, it remains alive. THE SILENCE OF THE HAMS is giant, campy, silly, dumb, weird, and wonderful. If you can find it (there are used VHS tapes of it available on Amazon), please watch it. It just may give you the yuks your black little heart requires.