'Silence of the Lambs': 25 Years of Sheer Terror

Can a 25-year-old movie still shock? When it's as innovative, clever and altogether terrific as Jonathan Demme's adaptation of 'The Silence of the Lambs' you bet it can.
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Silence of the Lambs Photo

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector and Jodie Foster as Agent Starling in 'Silence of the Lambs.' (Photo: Photofest)

The movie that introduced the wider world to Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector and remains one of only three films to sweep the Academy Awards (joining 1935's It Happened One Night and 1975's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) is as juicy, engaging and grotesque as ever. Try this experiment at home: re-watch this 1991 flick, then check out the sequel, Hannibal, from 2001. It's a strange thing, but it's the newer movie that feels dated. Apart from some hairstyles, the lack of cell phones and maybe some of the instrumental music at the beginning, The Silence of the Lambs is timeless. And if you do decide to give it another spin, here are a few things to look out for.

* It's (Sort've) A Sequel!

Here's the first shock – it's a follow-up! Most people by now know that the Hannibal Lector character from Thomas Harris' books extends far beyond this classic from 1991. Three films followed and there's a well-regarded television series. But in 1986 director Michael Mann returned to cinema with Manhunter, an adaptation of Harris' novel Red Dragon, in which a police detective consults with an imprisoned Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (note the spelling) to help him catch the “Tooth Fairy Killer.”

Manhunter was a critical success but didn't quite connect with audiences on a mass scale. (It was very influential, however, as it predated a lot of the CSI detail that's now so common in police stories today.) Mann's cool style and Brian Cox's performance are nothing to sneeze at, but it's really just an appetizer for what was just around the corner.

* Stop Looking At Me!

Another shocker in The Silence of the Lambs? Everyone's glance is piercing the lens! This is the first thing they teach you not to do in film school. But Jonathan Demme, a populist filmmaker with one foot in the avant garde, is letting you know from the very first scenes that you aren't getting off the hook out there in the audience. Scott Glenn's giving a warning to Jodie Foster, but he's also giving it to us. She's putting on a brave face, and so are we, wondering just how scary can this villain be? I mean, his name rhymes with his method of killing? That's more goofy than evil, right? Right?

* Welcome To Hell

Agent Starling's first visit to Dr. Lector down in the bowels of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane is a typical dungeon, until you get to Lector's cell. There stands Anthony Hopkins, proud, bold, in perfect view behind plexiglass. Of course, getting to him one needs to pass the others, including the revolting Miggs who, when Starling enters, spews vile words at her and, when she leaves, hurls something far worse. (This is a family website; I won't get into the specifics here.) No matter how many times you see the movie, this scene will make you puke. And what's amazing is how Dr. Lector one-ups him.

* A Cerebral Villain

After Miggs' uncouth action he ends up dead. How? From biting off and choking on his own tongue, after Dr. Lector “whispered” to him. That's how powerful a force Lector is – just by TALKING to him and letting him into your head, there's a decent chance you'll never survive.

Later in the film, when Dr. Lector and Agent Starling engage in their “quid pro quo,” in which she supplies him with biographical data in exchange for his insight into catching the kidnapper/killer Buffalo Bill, he barks out one of the most terrifying lines in the movie: “tell me about it and don't lie – I'll know.”

My God, he WILL know, won't he?

* Gross!

Okay, so we've got a genius killer who seems all refined, but when the movie gets cooking it is positively disguising. A cadaver examination (in which all dab some ammonia grease on their upper lip to block the smell) is just a gruesome warm-up to what goes down in the famous courthouse scene. Armed with only a pen and the chompers in his head, Dr. Lector confines one of his captors and bites into the face of another. After a very clever switcheroo involving elevator fakeouts, we discover one of the guards flayed, disemboweled and perched alongside some patriotic bunting. With Howard Shore's music and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto's lighting, it's one of the most nightmarish reveals in the history of cinema.

And this is before we realize Lector's using the outer layer of someone else's face as a bloody mask.

Ew. This movie was popular and won awards? What's wrong with everybody?

* He Became She

The Silence of the Lambs is such a rich movie that it gets two bad guys. (Yes, I'm considering Dr. Lector a bad guy, I don't care how charismatic he is.) The FBI is on the prowl of the killer known as Buffalo Bill, a psychopath capturing overweight girls and using their skin to “make a dress” or something. (It's a little vague, to be frank.) Every scene with him is eerie, but for 1991 it was positively unheard of to go to a movie theater and see a transgendered person dance nude in front of a mirror and tuck their genitals between their legs.

Demme made sure to make Buffalo Bill's lair unlike one we had seen before. It is loaded with symbolic, rare pupating beetles and the stereo plays catchy tunes by underground artists like Q Lazzarus. (Lazzarus's voice notably quite androgynous). Some still argue if The Silence of the Lambs was a, shall we say, not very progressive representation of transsexuals, but the film does make it clear that Buffalo Bill's behavior is an aberration in any community.

* Who's That Knocking At My Door?

The greatest shock in the film, though, comes from good, old-fashioned visual storytelling. You think Agent Starling is just following-up on a lead to collect some more data and the rest of the team (armed to the teeth) is about to raid Buffalo Bill. But they've got their signals crossed, and thanks to the miracle of sneaky editing we don't realize our hero is in harm's way until it's too late. All the gore and all those great quotes are nothing compared to the horror we feel in the audience when we realize we've stepped into a trap once we had our guard down.

It's a formula like this that elevates The Silence of the Lambs from a typical horror picture into something we'll be talking about for the next 25 years.