Paul Tanter takes a deep dive into what makes The Silence of The Lambs so compelling after thirty years.
Whether it’s considered psychological horror, a suspense thriller, a crime procedural, or a mix-and-match combination of these genres, it’s undeniable that 1991’s The Silence of The Lambs has established itself as a modern classic, rooted firmly in our cultural psyche. Often imitated, occasionally spoofed, and spawning countless quotes and references, few films make such an enduring impact and dwell in audiences’ thoughts like Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning masterpiece. Now three decades after the release that saw it sweep the Academy Awards’ hallowed “Big Five” categories and breathed new life into Anthony Hopkins career, catapulting him to the upper echelons of Hollywood stardom, the film stands as a masterclass in skilful direction, tension-building, and how to get under the skin of an audience.
Despite having its feet firmly in the horror camp, The Silence of the Lambs is set entirely in the real world with no supernatural elements. Author Thomas Harris did meticulous research, even attending FBI classes at Quantico, and based the story on amalgams of real serial killers, cherry picking particularly gruesome cases. Gary M. Heidnick kept women alive in a pit for his own amusement, for example, just as Ed Gein actually made his own female skin suit from corpses he exhumed from graveyards at night. Ted Bundy feigned injuries to put victims at ease and get them into his vehicle, playing on their instinctual sympathies – who doesn’t want to help someone struggling when they seem so pathetic? The audience’s basic human primal fears are exposed; being captured, mutilated, and eaten alive. These are the most unspeakable, forbidden taboos that seem so unnatural to a sane, empathetic person that they deeply horrify. The viewer watches Catherine Martin climb into Buffalo Bill’s truck subconsciously thinking, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Nothing is more terrifying than the depths of depravity of the imaginative human mind.
It’s a grim world of muted tones, saturated colours and no glimpse of sunlight. Even the exterior day scenes are blanketed in grey gloom that subtly indicates this is a world of decay, where organic beauty doesn’t bloom; it is eviscerated and consumed. The brightest colour featured in the picture is inevitably the vibrant warm crimson of gushing arterial blood. Lecter resides in a bedlam-style brick and iron dungeon, deep in the bowels of a facility for the criminally insane. To reach him, Clarice must descend stone spiral stairs as though plunging willingly into the depths of hell. His prison is specifically designed to highlight him as the most dangerous creature trapped there. Having been primed as to his sadistic potential through hearing about his past cannibalistic endeavours when he ate a nurse’s tongue while his pulse never went above 85, Dr Frederick Chilton tells her:
“Oh, he’s a monster. Pure psychopath. So rare to capture one alive.”
Agent Starling shuffles nervously down the fetid hallway, past the worst inmates the facility has to offer, all kept at bay by rusting iron bars. Here Demme places the audience into Clarice’s shoes as we occupy her POV to slowly edge towards Hannibal the Cannibal’s cell, a different design from the others; stark, brightly lit, sterile. Starling brings him into view with one of cinema’s most iconic entrances and one where the camera does all the work.
We first see the static, ghost-white figure of Dr Hannibal Lecter, a monster as iconic as anything supernatural. “Like a tarantula,” observed Hopkins when discussing the role. Demme and production designer Kristi Zea, who created the infamous plexiglass cell, compared Lector to a shark in a cage. Hopkins loved his cell’s transparent wall: “It’s more scary because there’s nothing visually between Lecter and Clarice”.
Demme wanted the character of Hannibal to be emotionless like HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Anthony Hopkins plays him as robotic, counter to expectations based on what is known of his violent history. “The audience does the work for you,” said Hopkins. “They’ve got the information from Chiltern. So you play the opposite.”
Much of Lecter’s unsettling nature comes from his ability to creep under the skin of those he meets. He’s a man able to whisper someone into swallowing their own tongue and who can deduce your personality based on your appearance and scent. As The Silence of the Lambs screenwriter Ted Tally observes:
“He’s the Sherlock Holmes of Evil. He’s a thinking machine… He is incredibly sensitive to people’s weaknesses, vulnerabilities. He has extraordinary senses of touch, taste, hearing and smell. He’s like a mind reader.”
A central theme of The Silence of The Lambs is the male gaze upon women, and the potential if said gazer has no conscience. As a “woman in a man’s world”, Clarice is used to constant micro-aggressions and patronising attitudes. She feels the leering glances and unsubtle glares of her male FBI colleagues – men she is supposed to trust with her life – as they tower over her by a foot in an elevator, all sporting identical blood-red sweaters in extreme contrast to Starling’s corpse-like grey. Even amongst allies she stands out as potential prey for predators. It’s a constant motif, topped later as a gaggle of uniformed small town sheriffs blankly consider her at a funeral home with grim expressions and probing eyes, as though she were no different to the female victim on the mortuary slab nearby. Her instruction for them all to leave is met grudgingly with disbelief.
Clarice Starling is a woman facing the patriarchy, trying to save another woman. Whether smiling politely at the lecherous prison warden Dr. Chiltern as he sleazily hints at “fun” to be had in town, flirting for information with bug expert geeks or enduring lingering glances from her boss Jack Crawford, Starling is constantly seen as a prize by men. This comes to a head when she finally meets Jame Gumb, the notorious Buffalo Bill. A serial killer who calls his victims “it” to keep them framed as objects in his mind. A man who is literally using them as raw materials to make skin suit; consuming them to become them. Clarice is the exact same demographic that Bill targets and the ultimate reverse payoff the film threatens is that she may end up as part of his skin dress once she’s trapped in his basement lair.
The most notable technique in the frequently-discussed cinematography of The Silence of The Lambs is the POV shot – placing the audience in the shoes of the characters in the scene. When the audience is viewing Hannibal Lecter through Clarice Starling’s eyes, there is no barrier between them and the killer. Demme deliberately frames Lecter in extreme close-up to emphasise his power and dominance in the burgeoning relationship with the rookie FBI agent. This dominance is further asserted when he instructs her to sit and she obeys. The conversation continues but she’s now looking up throughout, having assumed the submissive role. When he steps into position, Lecter’s eyes are unblinking, focused totally on her, a snake manoeuvring itself ready to strike, hypnotising its victim with its stare. Clarice is transfixed, her fear rendering her (and us) immobile.
Placing the audience in the middle of the action isn’t just reserved for character close-ups. During Lecter’s escape, As the police officers are taking who they believe to be their terribly lacerated colleague down in the elevator, the framing remains a single shot as the cops notice blood dripping from the elevator roof. The view slowly moves from blood to ceiling; to Sgt Tate with his eyes fixed on the hatch above as he draws his gun and continues his radio report so as to not raise alarm. The tension through the scene palpably rises, largely due to Demme’s refusal to cut away from this shot, and through the economical pacing of what we see and when we see it.
The amount of blood and violence on screen is surprisingly minimal, with Demme frequently allowing the audience’s imagination to work for him. Almost every moment of Lecter’s violence is described, cut away from or viewed from a POV that stays focused on his face as he inflicts his carnage. Bloodied fingernails left embedded in brick tell us everything we need to know about a victim’s attempted escape from her subterranean dungeon. So much of the horror is portrayed through characters’ reactions – often with an obliging camera zoom framing them for maximum effect, such as Crawford’s realisation that a lone Clarice is at Buffalo Bill’s house while he and his colleague are raiding the wrong address. The editing between these two scenes to fool the viewer into thinking Crawford and his team are the ones at Bill’s house is expert misdirection.
There is also an emphasis on strong visuals. Lecter, reflected in the glass of his cell, appears like a phantom in Starling’s shot. Later, he’s dressed all in white with his ghostly pale face smeared with fresh blood from biting off the tongue of Officer Pembry. Charles Napier’s Lt Boyle is trussed up with guts splayed and backlit with haze like an image of hell from Dante’s Inferno as the music climaxes. Perhaps the most chilling is that of Starling lit darkly green through night vision goggles, the POV of Bill himself in the film’s climax. With Starling blinded in total pitch blackness and Bill enjoying the ability to see, we are again back to our most primal basic fears; helplessness in the dark as a predator stalks.
It’s in preying on these fears that The Silence of The Lambs has ensured it’s continuing relevance thirty years later. The Oscars may have seen other horror films winning since, but none have permeated the collective consciousness quite like the story of a soft-spoken, hypnotically-eyed Doctor, a psychopath with a penchant for moths and nicely-lotioned skin, and a rookie FBI Agent battling her doubts and fears in a patriarchal world where women are treated as objects. It’s a near perfect film with career-defining performances from a cast at the top of their game. There is no doubt it will still be terrifying audiences thirty years from now.
The Silence of the Lambs was released in the US on February 14 1991 – Happy Valentine’s Day!