Silence of the Lambs is one of those films I knew all about before I first saw it given how it penetrated the cultural landscape. I mean I think even Tiny Toons referenced it constantly. So when I first saw the whole film, there were no surprises. I mean it was so impactful it means we associate a whole bug with it (The Death’s Head Moth). Even with knowing it all ahead of time, I still enjoyed it fully on my first watch, still do on this recent rewatch as well.
Silence has a horror trope I like and think is underused. A genre fusion with a clear drop of one into the other like baking soda and vinegar. The film is largely borrowing from another genre (detective story/police procedural) before descending it’s characters into the midst of a horror film already in progress. Cops arriving to a horror story is normal, usually as a body count increase in the middle or serving in the last few minutes as putting the story into a safe enough place that we can finally look away (Get Out wonderfully subverting it in most recent memory).
It’s like finding Detective Noir’s nastiest neighbor. Instead using horror to interrupt a cop story gives it’s protagonists this nice fish out of water quality. Yes, of course, police encounter serial killers as horrific as Buffalo Bill in real life and their fictions all the time, but it was the way this was presented and told that keeps it firmly within the Horror genre. I would argue that many of todays gore-bore network police procedurals beat this nice dichotomy to death by ripping off Silence‘s use of the victim and killers Horror point of view and shocks mashed-up with the wounded healer nature of the investigator that was taken from Noir, but it still thrills when returning to the source.
I was also reminded this time through just how hard to tell a good story when your best character has the least amount of screen time in the movie (16 minutes at most depending on how much of a stickler you are). For me this will always be the strength of the film. It’s like making a movie with one arm tied behind your back. Foster and Levine are quiet the arms to still have free, but still. Anthony Hopkins manages to play Lecter like the Shark from Jaws, less is more.
I will always love Silence as the cool, upsetting and character driven bit of horror it is. All it’s various pieces click together for a full experience. Given this Friday Fight is in recognizing the loss of Jonathan Demme I can safely say this is my favorite of his films I’ve seen. But I’m about 99% sure the only other films of his I’ve seen are the Manchurian Candidate remake and Rachel Getting Married, so there’s not even a competition.
Yeah, it’s aged a bit, and as such is more transphobic than I’d like, (but grade it on a curve for pre-millennium horror, it’s certainly no Sleepaway Camp, but still transphobia kills so it shouldn’t ever go by unexamined). The one other negative thing I would have said I can’t. Not because I won’t speak ill of the dead, but because it was only theoretical. It’s good thing for Jonathan Demme’s legacy is that Hannibal never made further as they showed up both Manhunter and Red Dragon and were looking to do the same to this beloved film, but got canceled before it could because we live in an unjust and uncaring universe.
Bryan Fuller and Co.’s superior tellings of Thomas Harris’s work has no equal. I’ll say it, Mads Mikkelson’s Hannibal could eat Anthony Hopkins for breakfast. I should point out though that it’s also only safe on for the moment, as recent as last December Fuller was quoted as saying Silence of the Lambs was the perfect film, but he also asserted that Demme left enough pieces of Harris’s story on the table for him to explore in his way if he gets the revival he’s gunning for. He’s being humble, I’ll go ahead and say he means enough material left to make the best Silence of the Lambs in history (If you disagree, you can eat me).
As I was reviewing this film, I was reminded that ultimately our opinions about Silence of the Lambs don’t matter. Love or hate. The one thing I always come back to is what this film means both historically and for the genre. To have, what by any reasonable account is a horror movie, win five academy awards and not just any five, but all of the “top five”, is an unparalleled achievement in the genre. Except for The Exorcist‘s Best Screenplay win and Kathy Bates’s Best Actress in Misery (which is frankly just an absolute truth) and Natalie Portman’s performance in Black Swan (which was art-housey enough to make people forget how terrifying it is), every other horror movie that’s ever been nominated has only ever won for technical achievements: special effects, make-up, costumes, score, sound editing.
Horror only manages to impress polite society with the (absolutely essential, wonderful and important) visuals and atmosphere. Formal cultural organizations are willing to admit horror movies look and sound good, but they are rarely willing to admit they are good. They as a rule avoid recognizing the continually culturally maligned cores of horror films: the story, acting and directing of horror films. So for Silence of the Lambs to sweep Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and BEST FREAKING PICTURE. That’s an untouchable achievement we all have to give the honor it deserves.
LUKE TIPTON: One of the many pleasures of watching Silence of the Lambs is seeing the way it transforms itself from a typical early 90s dark procedural crime thriller into something very strange and haunting. The moment Clarice Starling steps into the dark stone-walled corridors of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, she steps into a different world and into a very different film from the one we thought we were getting into. That moment never fails to be surprising to me, no matter how many times I watch it, no matter how much I anticipate it.
Silence of the Lambs has always reminded me more of the gothic horror of Bride of Frankenstein or The Horror of Dracula than of something like Se7en. Underneath the gruesome serial-killer puzzles, the real horrors of Silence are of the mind; in Clarice’s haunted memory; in the seductive evil of Lecter, and his hypnotic power.
The procedural stuff is good. That night-vision POV camera work is great; the violence is surreally grotesque. Demme’s craft elevates the pulpy material, but the scenes between Clarice and Hannibal are what gives the film its enduring power. Those conversations between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter are the not the stuff of procedural crime thrillers. It’s the stuff of baroque horror. Clarice’s vulnerability, her strength, Lecter’s manipulation, his mind games, the psycho-sexual energy, the menace, and smartest-guy-in-the-room arrogance that permeates Lecter’s every line; there’s a lot going on in these scenes. And Demme knows the real main attraction is the psychological game of chess between them. I love how he puts the plot on hold and lets his two actors sink their teeth into their roles. Hopkins’ performance is the one that gets remembered the most, because it’s over-the-top and a little campy, but Jodi Foster is every bit as great as here Clarice.
Salim Garami once again returns as our guest on Friday Fight. It’s really hard to even call him a guest anymore, so I guess we’ll need to officially welcome him to the family soon.
Salim’s work can be read at Movie Motorbreath.
The Silence of the Lambs is the movie in Jonathan Demme’s versatile career (a career we’d do best to remember) to best showcase how well he can transform any movie into subjective experience for the audience. Which is kind of perfect to do for a genre as hair-raising as horror, make yourself feel like you’re in the lead character’s shoes. Especially when those shoes belong to a woman being manipulated in the middle of a cat-and-mouse-and-dog chase between the FBI, a locked-up killer’s psyche, and a killer at large. I am not saying anything new in bringing up the movie’s masterful usage of direct address – a character’s focus on the camera addressing another character – to give us the same lingering feeling of Clarice Starling having everybody’s eyes on her. And she most certainly does (the famous elevator shot in the very beginning of the movie). Jodie Foster uses frustrations of Clarice’s position and turns it into brittleness, edged franticness, and most importantly a mask of professionalism with a true drive to survive in a heavily masculine movie as each scene demands and it’s miraculously the most feminist performance she’s ever given in a movie that is not necessarily feminist. And then there’s Anthony Hopkins, an actor I’m spotty with at best (and that’s when I’m feeling generous), recognizing the exploitative element of this material and matching Foster’s naturalism with a wide-eyed yet steady camp that gets the help of Demme’s direction to register on the wavelength as Foster (making their one-on-ones the high point of the film) as just an evil predator giving a human performance because it’s polite. And that’s just the performances which you have already heard more than enough praise for.
It’s a movie so good I don’t care that Beauty and the Beast lost Best Picture to it at the Oscars. It’s a fucking cannibal serial killer procedural with a clinical amount of transphobia and violence against women based on a beachy novel (I find it more miraculous that this is a favorite movie of mine given that I DESPISE all of Thomas Harris’ works than I do that it’s problematic) made by a Roger Corman alum. This was a wonderfully unorthodox win to say the least and The Silence of the Lambs is exactly the showcase of craft to earn it (and it’s not even my favorite Jonathan Demme film – Stop Making Sense, baby!). The shocking use of imagery and music together (“Goodbye Horses”), the several different worlds the story inhabits that Kristi Zea designed (the asylums, Buffalo Bill’s dungeon, The FBI training areas, and the domestic homes… my personal favorite touch is the doorbell rig in Buffalo Bill’s house close to the end of the movie. Shot at a canted angle with bombastic sound editing to make it look like a nightmare just from its usage), and the precise and strategic editing all around (not only direct address, but there’s a twist right before the climax of the movie that absolutely nobody acknowledges playing around with our Hitchcockian tension and subjective sense of place). It’s so frustratingly easy to take The Silence of the Lambs’ work for granted as a thriller because it all feels so invisible, but the best art should move us without us realizing it. The great regret is how, with some exceptions like The Silence of the Lambs’s or Philadelphia’s high praise, we didn’t really take the time to recognize and admire Demme’s skill with all types of genres and playing with humanity in film until he sadly left us.
BLAINE MCLAREN: I am not going to completely knock this movie. There are a lot of good aspects to it. The casting is fantastic and everything is shot well, but there are things that have never connected with me. Yeah, I get it that Hannibal Lector is this supervillain cannibal… but who cares. Anthony Hopkins has great lines, but that is just not enough for me to get involved.
My main gripe is that (at the film’s core) Silence Of The Lambs is just a procedural about good guys chasing baddies. When you break it down, you just have a overly long episode of any other CBS police procedural. I guess it would be more like a season finale episode, but you folks get what I am saying.
The best part of this movie is everything with Ted Levine (as Buffalo Bill). He kills it and gives one of the funniest/scariest performances in psychopath history. All of his nuance just blows me away and makes me wish that we were spending more time with him. Instead, we are stuck with a bunch of boring-as-fuck FBI nerds. Like I said before, there is good stuff in this movie but it just doesn’t resonate with me at all. Rest in peace Jonathan Demme and wish that we were talking about Caged Heat. You made one of the best Women In Prison movies of all time.
JUSTIN HARLAN: So, first off… fuck Blaine and his bullshit disdain for this film. Second… well really there is no second. This is a damned great film.
I just wrote a piece on this for Cinapse. You can go read it. I love this film. And, as to the claims of transphobia throughout this post, they aren’t wrong; however, the 80s and 90s were hotbeds for this shit. Does it make it okay? No, but it’s a different era, as others have noted.
And with that I just say… goodbye Mr. Demme, you will be missed but your body of work will live on forever.