The Silence of the Lambs is a piece of classic horror cinema, and in the great canon of Hollywood horror it sits happily alongside The Exorcist and Nosferatu.
The film is being re-released as part of the “BFI Thriller: Who Can You Trust” season and has been artfully up-scaled and rendered in 4K. The visuals are enhanced and do not look that out of place with modern Hollywood productions, aside from the obvious slight dull look to the colours.
It has an effective, timeless, storyline with Jonathan Demme’s masterful direction taking us inside the world of cannibal, “Dr Hannibal Lector” and rookie FBI agent, “Clarice Sterling” and so it lends itself well to the BFI’s rerelease campaign. Anthony Hopkins as “Lector” is a triumph of weirdness. His performance is still as unsettling as when the film was first released. The effective use of his twists in personality alongside crash zooms and unexpected close ups work well in ramping up the tension and his performance resonates not just for the way in which he delivers the famous lines but also his stillness. It is not dramatic or flamboyant, it is carefully curated and Hopkins uses the space of his jail cell to great effect, making it appear as if he is trapped inside his body as well as his reinforced cell.
Jodie Foster as “Clarice Sterling” plays the role of the rookie FBI agent with a high level of believability. The role is not focused on the brawn of an FBI agent but the brains. “Sterling” is a real female heroine and one that Foster clearly relishes playing. Foster plays her as whip smart along with being unafraid of showing the characters rookie insufficiencies. Foster won her second Best Actress Oscar for the role, her first was for her portrayal of Sarah Tobias in “The Accused”. “The Silence of the Lambs” was the first film Foster made after completing “The Accused”; both films clearly show an actor at the height of her prowess.
Serial killers have often been a fascination for film directors and film studios alike, as they offer both psychological exploration and a way to ramp up the body count with veritable splatter and gore. The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t tread this path and thus risked, and continues to risk, not easily finding its audience, outside of those who had read the source material. It is much more of an art project than a traditional slasher horror/thriller film; it’s not the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and it is definitely not American Psycho. The film relies more on the intricate plot mechanisms of the thriller genre than the salacious pleasures of the horror genre and the audience are left waiting in suspense, with reveals needing to be earned. One scene in particular, involving a body in a lift and a body in an ambulance still has the desired effect and easily stands the test of time.
Serial killer films often occupy themselves with white males, in white neighbourhoods with innocent white, female victims. The Silence of the Lambs is no different and the film roots itself within these parameters. It’s rare to see a film where a serial killer kills outside of his racial group and often Hollywood serial killer films tap into the underlying, broken version of the individual American dream, focusing on the idea of a character taking his own ‘freedom’ and desire for individual success to a gruesome conclusion.
It is also common for serial killers to have imitators or devotees who want nothing more than to be like their murderous idols and the central premise of “The Silence of the Lambs” uses this idea to great effect with “Buffalo Bill” acting like a second rate, “Dr Hannibal Lector”. Bill’s storyline is gross, vile and deeply upsetting but the main attraction of the film is the relationship between “Clarice Sterling” and “Dr Hannibal Lector”, with Foster and Hopkins bringing chemistry to the screen that is almost palpable.
If you haven’t seen the film since its first cinema release or you’ve never seen it, I thoroughly recommend seeking it out at the “BFI Thriller: Who Can You Trust” season.
The Silence of the Lambs is re-released in cinemas from Friday 3rd November.