Well, Clarice…have the lambs stopped screaming?
What The Silence of the Lambs Means to Us
I was 15 when The Silence of the Lambs came out. At that time, my understanding of the horror genre was relegated to monsters and the supernatural – stuff that was scary, but that I knew couldn’t actually get me at night in my sleep. As a teen living in a rural area, my world was relatively small and self-contained. Protected. The only rumor of violence I can recall hearing as a kid was of the domestic variety or involved drunk shit kickers at late night country dances. Fortunately for me, horror – true horror – still belonged strictly to the world of imagination.
Of course, I knew serial killers existed. And I knew really bad things happened in the wider world. I can still remember the profound effect the murder of Adam Walsh had on my mom and the ripple effects it had on my small world. But I didn’t pay much attention to the news as a kid, and the truly bad things that happened in the world could be compartmentalized as the sort of things that took place in other, more exotic locales. Certainly not in Nowhere, Texas.
The Silence of the Lambs changed all of that for me.
Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter may have been men, but they were also monsters. Living, breathing monsters. They had been conjured up from the imagination of a writer, sure, but, unlike Michael, Jason, or Freddy, Hannibal and Bill felt real. Bill might be your parents’ mechanic or the guy that sprays water on the produce at the local grocery store. Lecter could be that fancy, college-educated uncle that drives down from the city to visit once every couple of years at Christmas. These characters, the environments they inhabited, and the people they walked among, had a texture of familiarity to them.
The Silence of the Lambs taught me that monsters are real, that they work ordinary jobs, drive ordinary vehicles, and live in ordinary places. And as a teen living in an ordinary place surrounded by ordinary people, it made me wonder what monsters might be hiding in plain sight. Still does.
There are not many films that are considered perfect across the board and this one unquestionably qualifies. Having two of the absolute greatest performances in cinema history from Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster respectively (not to mention Ted Levine who’s always sadly overlooked), this film not only creates iconic characters but more importantly, knows how to properly use them. There are no superfluous characters and no wasted moments. It’s one of the tightest thrillers not made by Hitchcock and actually kinda feels like the film he always wanted to make. But top-notch performances and Hitchcock level of tension didn’t mean anything to me when I was a young buck.
I was one of those weird kids that wanted to see it because it mixed my favorite serial killer with my favorite serial killer story. I was (and still am) fascinated by serial killers (I actually had those trading cards you see in Addams Family Values), so a movie loosely inspired by Ed Gein and the true story of Ted Bundy helping catch the Green River Killer was like catnip to me when I was like twelve. And that’s a true testament to its quality that the thing that got me excited to see it immediately faded from my mind once I started watching it. I didn’t think of Gein or Bundy or any of the other true crime stories it was pulling from, I was focused on Hannibal and Clarice and Buffalo Bill. This was one of the turning points in my life where everything outside of the frame was less important than what was on screen. The movie and others like it became my new obsession and I eventually traded those serial killer trading cards for Silence of the Lambs ones and I don’t regret it.
I will just come out and say it … when I first saw this movie I thought it was just ok. Yeah, just ok. I know what a dummy, right? Well, multiple watches after I realized how damn wrong I was. This movie is a god damn masterpiece. Everything about it is executed to perfection. It’s one of those films that will truly stand the test of time. It’s actually one of the only Criterion DVDs I kept from back in the day just because of the extras. Every single time it is on my wife and I watch it. Randomly I drop the line, “Oh wait… was she a great big fat person?” just for shits and giggles and she does a spot on Jodi Foster impersonation with the follow-up. I think I’ll keep her around.
– K. Alvarez
Jonathan Demme’s Masterpiece
Jonathan Demme went from starting out directing exploration films like Caged Heat to one of the best concert movies in Stop Making Sense before giving us arguably one of the greatest movies of all-time. A psychological horror movie at that. Also, a psychological horror movie that won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Why is that important? For one, horror is often overlooked during award season because the genre is usually dismissed by critics and the pretentious old farts of the Academy. However, this seemed like a breakthrough because not since 1978’s The Deer Hunter had a movie with this much viciousness and horror elements been able to bring home not only the Best Picture award but The Silence of the Lambs also won in the top five categories. (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay)
Demme was able to weave a level of tension through the film that tests Clarice Starling and the audience alike. So many tense moments are built in a passive way only to have a jump scare serve as an exclamation point. Demme had the best of both worlds here as he would show gore and corpses in an almost poetic way, but also leave just enough of the carnage to the imagination to really hammer home the psychological aspect. The quote below about Lecter attacking is said while Starling is watching the video of the incident but it is never shown to the audience. True horror. Demme’s control of everything that happens in front of the camera from the technical aspects with camera zooms and pans create a crime thriller of either a chaotic nature or a position of power.
The Silence of the Lambs has stood the test of time while Demme helped create not one, not two but three all-time characters in one film with Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Clarice Starling, and Buffalo Bill. Every now and then, a movie comes along that changes the game. It is engulfing and mesmerizing in every way and has been the measuring stick for psychological horror ever since.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter
I am going to show you why we insist on such precautions. On the evening of July 8th, 1981, he complained of chest pains and was taken to the dispensary. His mouthpiece and restraints were removed for an EKG. When the nurse leaned over him, he did this to her…The doctors managed to reset her jaw more or less. Saved one of her eyes. His pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue
10 percent. The Silence of the Lambs has a run time of 158 minutes and Lecter is only on screen for 16 minutes of that run time. That’s only 10 percent of the movie that Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Demme needed to create one of the most iconic characters in movie history. He is easily recognizable and one of the most quotable characters even of people that have never seen the movie. Demme did his part by creating an aura and an almost myth-like being before we ever even meet Lecter. From the moment that he is mentioned by Jack Crawford to the incredible introduction by Dr. Chilton to Clarice as he prepares her to meet his most prize inmate, a mental projection has already been created by the viewer before we ever even see this monster. And then Anthony Hopkins does the rest.
From his chilling gaze to calculated words, Hopkins embodies one of the most disturbing characters ever imagined on screen that has been an inspiration for many movie villains for the past thirty years. What’s scary about Lecter is that he feels like one of the most real monsters in any horror movie but also manages to have a snake-like charm that is ultimately extremely chilling. Most of this is done through just words and exposition. When we finally see him in action as he attacks two armed officers, we are staggered at the fact that he isn’t just all talk. Hopkins won Best Actor at the Oscars for his tremendous performance and left a legacy that has been difficult to match from most actor’s since.
It was… screaming. Some kind of screaming, like a child’s voice.
To help make this movie work, you needed a strong actor that could go toe to toe with Anthony Hopkins or we might not have looked at this masterpiece with as much reverence that we do now. With a weaker actor or one not up for the task, Hopkins’ Lecter would have devoured them and would have caused the movie to feel off-kilter. Thankfully Jodie Foster was not only up for the task but also helped leave her own mark by creating one of the strongest characters in movie history.
Clarice Starling is a small fish in a big pond trying her best to gain respect in the male-dominated field of the FBI. She is either looked at with lust or disgust because of her gender and her age. We meet this tough as nails trainee putting in the work, ready for her opportunity. When she gets it, that determination is met with what every strong character, male or female, must have. Vulnerability. We see the layers of her self-assurance peeled back during her meeting with Lecter and as she sees how low the depths of humanity can truly go. Jodie Foster would be recognized for her amazing performance by winning the Best Actress Award and for creating a character that would stand the test of time just like her counterpart.
You don’t know what pain is!
One of the most horrific aspects of this film is just how overlooked Ted Levine’s performance as Jame Gumb is. If being known as Buffalo Bill because he skins his victims isn’t terrifying enough, Levine’s voice and unhinged performance would help make it a lock for being one of the most sickening characters in film history.
He would kidnap women, hold them in a well, and forced them to rub lotion on their skin before he would kill and skin them. “It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.” This quote is every bit as iconic and said by as many people as anything Lecter utters but Levine isn’t given the same credit for creating a character just as fascinating and memorable. He has a voice the is instantly recognizable and the moment you hear in any other movie or tv show, you see Buffalo Bill. Also, you know you have all done the Buffalo Bill dance to “Goodbye Horses”…no? Just me then…
What are your feelings about The Silence of the Lambs?