Silence of the Lambs, 1991.
Directed by Jonathan Demme.
Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, and Ted Levine.
A serial killer dubbed “Buffalo Bill” is kidnapping and murdering women, with the authorities struggling to apprehend him. To help the hunt for the elusive killer, young FBI recruit Clarice Starling seeks the help of cannibalistic murderer and gifted psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter to help build a psychological profile of “Buffalo Bill” in the hope that it will lead to his capture.
In last year’s edition of October Horrors, I spotlighted Michael Mann’s brilliant, but underrated 1986 horror thriller Manhunter, the first film to feature the character of the cannibalistic serial killer and psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, played in that film by Brian Cox.
I still maintain that Manhunter is the best of all the films to feature Hannibal Lecter and advise everyone to watch it if you haven’t already. However, it’s only the best by the thinnest of margins.
Coming a close second is the subject today’s review, the Oscar-winning classic The Silence of the Lambs, the film which helped turn Hannibal Lecter from a relatively little-known antagonist from a cult book series and flop film into one of the most iconic boogeymen in cinematic history.
I’d also like to dedicate this review to the film’s director, the incredibly talented Jonathan Demme who sadly passed away earlier this year, leaving us with an eclectic career of many great films with this one being one of the best of its kind. Rest in Peace Mr. Demme.
Jodie Foster is incredible as our heroine Clarice Starling, a plucky and intelligent rookie agent who finds herself in over her head when dealing with Lecter. A very different kind of investigator than previous protagonist Will Graham, Starling is much greener and more squeamish in her hunt for Buffalo Bill than the more hardened Graham.
Note her hesitation and uneasiness when examining the body of “Bill’s” latest victim, with her having to take time to compose herself to do her job. However, as the film progresses we see her become tougher and more resilient, in part due to her dealings with Lecter, but also due to her frustrations with the sexism she faces from colleagues, such as her visible annoyance when Crawford asks to speak to a local Sheriff away from her.
However, it’s the scenes she shares Lecter that are easily Foster’s best moments. Whether it be her initial fumbling attempts to gain Lecter’s trust, or telling of the grief over her father’s death and what happened to her afterwards, Foster excels at creating a likeable, resilient and complex heroine, in a performance whose brilliance is, I feel, sometimes overshadowed by her much more iconic co-star.
In my view, one of the creepiest scenes of the film is when Starling tells THAT tale of the screaming lambs. It’s a tale in which Starling reveals one of the darkest and most traumatic episodes from her youth, with Foster’s perfect delivery painting a haunting picture far more chilling than any time spent in Buffalo Bill’s murder well.
The main draw of the Hannibal films is, of course, Hannibal himself and it is in Lambs that we are introduced to the definitive screen version of the charming cannibalistic doctor.
Anthony Hopkins is outstanding in his first (and best) performance as Hannibal Lecter. With his haunting and peculiar accent and way of speaking (supposedly a blend of Katherine Hepburn and HAL 9000) coupled with a piercing hypnotic stare that feels like he’s peering into your very soul, Hopkins digs his way under your skin and doesn’t let up until you spill he drags your darkest secrets out of you.
However, it’s not the monologues about eating livers (or the weird slurping hissing sound) that make the character, and Hopkins performance so creepy and memorable, but it’s the little touches that Hopkins adds to the character. What really scares me about Hopkin’s performance are the little touches that he adds to his portrayal of the character, like little movement he makes with his face or the certain way he says certain words.
Notice that little wink he gives when he says to Starling “You’re not real FBI are you?” or my personal favourite is the truly bone-chilling way he keeps asking to see Starlings credentials. Constantly asking her to step “Clooooooooser”.
Suffice to say, Hopkins more than deserved his Oscar for his chilling performance (and at 15 minutes it’s famously the shortest performance to win Best Actor). This film also, in my view, shows the best way to use the character of Hannibal Lecter – sparingly.
The character works so well in this film because although we only spent short amounts of time with him throughout (Lecter is absent for the almost the entire third act) we feel his presence in every scene, with the viewer both dreading and eagerly awaiting his next appearance.
However, the films that followed Lambs (mainly Red Dragon) attempts to add scenes to give the character more screen-time, leads to him being overused to such an extent that the edge that made him so terrifying is almost entirely lost, with Hopkins performance lapsing into self-parody.
While Hopkins and Foster are great in their iconic Oscar-winning performances, I often feel that more praise should be given to the underrated Ted Levine for his performance as Jame Gumb AKA the murderous Buffalo Bill.
Levine’s performance, like Hopkins, is so effective because the filmmakers sensibly keep his screen-time to a minimum. We only hear about the character through what is said by Starling and others as they investigate his crimes. It’s this minimum screen-time that helps to create an image of the sort of twisted individual that Starling is hunting, making his eventual reveal and every scene following all the more disturbing and creepy.
My personal highlight (if you can call it that) of Levine’s disturbing performance comes in the much-parodied dance scene, in which “Bill” grooves along to the rather spooky Q Lazarus song Goodbye Horses (a song that I personally like) while pondering “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me. I’d fuck me so hard”.
It’s an effective little scene that sells the madness of an individual like Buffalo Bill, especially when you realise that might be not a wig he’s wearing on his head.
With career-best performances from Jodie Foster and Ted Levine, and a truly iconic performance from Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs is easily one of the best horror thrillers of the 1990s and its status as the only horror film to win the Oscar for Best Picture to date, ensures that it will be forever fondly remembered by horror fans and film fans alike.
If you’ve never seen any film featuring the charming Dr. Lecter then I highly recommend that you start with this one. While it’s not my favourite of the series, (that still Manhunter) The Silence of the Lambs is it’s still a bloody excellent film.
Now say it with me “it rubs the lotion on the skin or else it gets the hose again”.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★