Oh, The Silence of the Lambs, I have such mixed feelings about you.
On the one hand, I’m a horror fan and Silence of the Lambs is a very important film in the history of horror. Back in 1992, it was the first horror film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture! It even made history by winning all of the big “five” awards — Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay! It was the first film since One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and It Happened One Night to pull that off!
Beyond that, it’s one of the most influential films ever made. Every erudite serial killer owes a debt to Anthony Hopkins’s performance as Hannibal Lecter. Every competent but untested and unappreciated female FBI agent owes a debt to Jodie Foster’s performance as Clarice Starling. Even though the whole criminal profiler craze probably owes more to Manhunter (a film to which Silence of the Lambs is a sequel, though that often seems to go unacknowledged) than to anything else, this Oscar winner still definitely played a part. I mean, how many people watched Manhunter for the first time, specifically because Lecter mentioned the events in that earlier film in Silence of the Lambs?
Plus, this won an Oscar for Jonathan Demme, one of my favorite directors! And while I’m sure Jodie Foster would have gone on to have a strong career regardless of whether she had played Clarice Starling or not, it’s generally acknowledged that Silence of the Lambs revitalized the career of Anthony Hopkins. So for that, we should all be thankful.
And yet, it can be strange to watch Silence of the Lambs today. All of the imitations (not to mention some ill-thought sequels and prequels) have lessened its bite. I can only imagine how it must have freaked out audiences when it was first released but I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed the first time that I watched the film. Looking back, I can see that disappointment was due to having been told that it were one of the scariest movies of all time but, because, I had seen a countless number of imitations, parodies, and homages, I felt as if I had already watched the film. So, I wasn’t shocked when Lecter turned out to be ruthlessly manipulative and dangerously charismatic. Nor was I shocked when he managed to escape and poor Charles Napier ended up strung up in that cage. I’m sure that audiences in 1991 were freaked out, though.
Actually, as good as Foster and Hopkins and Scott Glenn are, I think the best performance in the film comes from Ted Levine, playing Buffalo Bill. Seriously, Levine’s performance still freaks me out. It’s the voice and the way he says, “Precious.” Levine’s performance, I found to be a hundred times more frightening than Anthony Hopkins’s and I think it’s due to the fact that Hannibal Lecter was clearly an author’s invention while Levin’s Buffalo Bill came across like he might very will be hiding in an alley somewhere, waiting for one of your friends to walk by. (Interestingly enough, I had the same reaction when I first saw Manhunter. Brian Cox did a good job as Lecter but he still came across as a bit cartoonish. Meanwhile, Tom Noonan was absolutely terrifying.) Levine has subsequently gone on to play a lot of nice guy roles. He was a detective on Monk, for instance. Good for him. I’m glad to see he was able to escape being typecast. Admittedly, I do kinda wonder how many serial killer roles he had to turn down immediately after the release of The Silence Of The Lambs.
Still, it’s a good film. Time may have lessened it’s power but The Silence of the Lambs is still an effective and well-directed thriller. It’s impossible not to cheer for Clarice. It’s impossible not to smile at the fun that Anthony Hopkins seems to be having in the role of Lecter. Jonathan Demme creates a world of shadows and darkness and still adds enough little quirks to keep things interesting. (I especially liked Lecter watching a stand-up special in his cell.) It’s the little details that makes the world of The Silence of the Lambs feel lived in, like Clarice’s nervous laugh as she gives a civilian instructions on what to do in case she accidentally gets trapped in a storage locker. Even the film’s final one liner will make you smile, even though it’s the type of thing that every film seemed to feel the need to do nowadays. It’s still a good movie, even if it no longer feels as fresh as it once may have.