Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins star in “Silence of the Lambs.”
“Believe me, you do not want Hannibal Lecter inside your head,” veteran FBI Agent Jack Crawford warns trainee Clarice Starling, and viewers, at the start of Jonathan Demme’s Academy Award-winning film “Silence of the Lambs.”
Thirty years later, the charming, yet monstrous, villain remains fresh in the minds of modern audiences.
“Silence of the Lambs” is not the first film to delve into the twisted mind of Dr. Lecter, and certainly wasn’t the last. It’s based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name, which was actually the second book he wrote centered around the prolific and eerily bewitching serial killer, a follow-up to the hit “Red Dragon.”
Released on Valentine’s Day in 1991, “Silence of the Lambs” was a low-budget sleeper hit that gradually gained widespread critical acclaim and box office success. With Demme at the helm, the film was not only lauded as a cinematic work of art, but has had a lasting impact on Hollywood.
The film follows a young FBI trainee named Clarice Starling who is tasked with interviewing the brilliant psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who has been imprisoned for murder and cannibalism. Senior FBI Agent Jack Crawford believes that Lecter may have insight into an ongoing serial murder case and Starling could be the perfect bait to get his cooperation.
Starring Jodie Foster as Clarice and Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Lecter, “Silence of the Lambs” quickly captured the imaginations of moviegoers.
“When I think back on the movies I really remember seeing in theaters, you know… it’s an alarmingly short number,” said Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and a pop culture expert. “I left the theater thinking I had seen a movie to be reckoned with, in a way I didn’t usually feel leaving the theater.”
A big win for the horror genre
The film opened on a Thursday, garnering $1.4 million in ticket sales domestically. By the end of the weekend, it had tallied $11.6 million, according to data from Comscore.
And that was after running in less than 1,500 theaters, a relatively small number compared to modern day wide releases which often debut in up to 5,400 locations, explained Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.
The film had long legs in theaters, running for eight months and collecting more than $130.7 million in the U.S. and Canada and a total of $275 million worldwide.
Although not the first horror film to be nominated for the Academy Awards, or for the ceremony’s best picture honor, it was the first film in the genre to win the top award. In fact, “Silence of the Lambs” swept the 1992 Oscars, becoming only the third film in history to win best film, best director, best actor, best actress and best adapted screenplay.
“It Happened One Night” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” were the only films to previously achieve this distinction and no film has done it since.
“It was horror as presented by the Louvre,” Dergarabedian said.
Best Actor recipient Anthony Hopkins, Best Actress recipient Jodie Foster and Best Director recipient Jonathan Demme hold their Oscars at the 64th annual Academy Awards March 30, 1992 in Los Angeles, CA.
John T. Barr | Hulton Archive | Getty Images
While the horror genre has often been synonymous with blood, gore and jump scares, it’s actually a bit more broad and nuanced. Generally, the horror genre encapsulates any form of storytelling that is intended to scare, shock or stir up dread and terror in an audience.
This can take on many forms. “Silence of the Lambs,” for example is a psychological thriller in addition to being a horror film. Whereas a movie like “Poltergeist” is a supernatural horror film or “Shaun of the Dead” is a comedic horror film.
“If you define what the horror genre was before ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ it wasn’t all goofy slashers,” Thompson said. “There had been intelligent horror films, but I think there was a sense with ‘Silence of the Lambs’ that really did change the idea of what could constitute a horror movie. “It wasn’t so much about the moments of screaming, it was a much more almost quiet sense of absolute hopeless terror.”
Filmmakers had blended genres long before Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs.” The film arrived in Hollywood at a time when the horror genre had become inundated with “creatively exhausted” slasher films, said Adam Lowenstein, professor at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Horror Studies Working Group.
After the success of films like “Halloween,” “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th,” the entertainment industry began to churn out films in the slasher subgenre. While there were a number of horror films produced in the ’80s and ’90s that went on to cultivate cult audiences, the majority of films were widely panned by critics and the category was soon thought of as inferior compared to other genres.
“I saw it when it came out and I was very impressed and very excited,” Lowenstein said. “Not just because it was a good movie, but because I was excited for the genre at large because here was in my mind an undeniable horror film that was winning all sorts of acclaim and it felt like a breakthrough in a sense.”
Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs.”
Prior to “Silence of the Lambs,” there had only been two films in the horror genre nominated for best picture since the very first Oscars ceremony in 1929 — “The Exorcist” in 1974 and “Jaws” in 1976.
In the years that followed, only three joined that list. “The Sixth Sense” was nominated for the top prize in 2000, “Black Swan” in 2011 and “Get Out” in 2018.
There is some debate within the entertainment community about whether Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” which won best picture in 2018, should be considered along these other films. After all, del Toro’s film was inspired by “Creature From the Black Lagoon.”
Lowenstein argued in favor of this. However, it seems that the film’s horror elements are overshadowed by other classifications like fantasy, romance and drama.
The brilliance of Jonathan Demme
Much of the success of “Silence of the Lambs” as a film is due to Demme. The filmmaker, who studied under horror legend Roger Corman, dialed back on the gore, at least for the first two-thirds of the film, and relied on tight close ups, editing and exposition to stir dread and terror in audiences.
With only around 16 minutes of screen time, Hannibal Lecter looms over all of the characters in the film. Ahead of his first appearance, Clarice is repeatedly warned about him. Crawford tells her not to let him into her head and Dr. Chilton, the director of the sanitarium in which Lecter resides, describes in detail how she is to behave around the imprisoned psychiatrist.
He then shows Clarice the reason the sanitarium insists on such precautions. Lecter had complained of chest pains nearly a decade before and was brought to the building’s medical center for an EKG. When his restraints and mouthpiece were removed, he brutally attacked a nurse.
“The doctors managed to reset her jaw more or less,” Chilton says, showing Clarice a picture. “Saved one of her eyes. His pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue.”
The audience is not privy to the image, but the implied violence is enough to set a firm picture of “Hannibal the Cannibal.” That is, until audiences first lay eyes on him.
Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins star in “Silence of the Lambs.”
The man waiting for Clarice to approach his cell is a gentleman. His speech is impeccable, a cutting and succinct dialect that Hopkins said he mirrored from Hal 9000, the evil computer from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The camera begins cutting between Clarice and Hannibal, extreme close-ups that seem to suggest the characters are speaking to the audience and not each other, and the terror builds.
“Hopkins is only in it for 16 minutes,” Thompson said. “That piece of data is a real testimony to the real power of that movie and the highly disturbing nature of the message that I left [the theater] with. The intellectualizing of horrible behavior, the idea that this really monstrous character thought and behaved in ways that were rational and intelligent and ways in which I was taught to admire.”
It is only in the last third of the film when audiences get a glimpse at the physical monster lurking beneath the surface. Lecter, who had been planning his escape since the beginning, savagely beats two guards; hangs one from the rafters of the court house, disembowled, and carves the face from the other, using it to pose as the deceased officer in order to gain transport in an ambulance.
“Demme is not afraid to showcase [the film’s] attachments to the genre,” Lowenstein said. “He understands the need to alternate graphic violence and implied violence. You increase the impact of each by alternating them. ‘Silence of the Lambs’ does that very well.”
The case of Buffalo Bill
One piece of “Silence of the Lambs,” which has become a hot topic in recent years, is its portrayal of Buffalo Bill.
In Harris’ novel and Demme’s film, Jame Gumb is a disturbed man. He is a man who kidnaps women so he can make suits from their skins. Within the film, Gumb dances around wearing women’s clothing, a woman’s scalp complete with blond hair, and has had a homosexual relationship with a least one man.
On the surface, the character is very negative stereotype of the LGBTQ community. However, in both the book and the film, it is pointed out that Gumb is not actually a transsexual person.
“Look for severe childhood disturbances associated with violence,” Dr. Lecter tells Clarice about the serial killer. “Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse. Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.”
Ted Levine as Jame Gumb aka Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs.”
“When ‘Silence of the Lambs’ came out, the list of trans characters in big movies and in television was a pretty short list,” Thompson said.
While the filmmakers intention may not have been to showcase the trans community in this way, with so few of these characters in the industry, having someone who is questioning their identity be a savage serial killer didn’t help public perception of transgender individuals.
Not to mention, during the time that “Silence of the Lambs” was released, the majority of transgender characters were either portrayed as prostitutes or male characters dressing in drag for comedic effect.
“There’s no doubt that we live in a time now that our awareness of not just queer but trans issues is so much more nuanced and mainstream,” Lowenstein said. “There’s no doubt that the portrayal of Buffalo Bill would have to undergo a rewrite of some kind and would have to deal with it in a more in-depth way.”
“I don’t think it disqualifies the film from admiration or further study,” he continued. “It is, as all film, a product of its era. It’s valuable to go back and study old films. They tell us something about the time they came from.”
An enduring legacy
“Silence of the Lambs” helped elevate the horror genre in the decades after its release, but it also had a clear rippling effect across the entertainment industry.
Harris wrote four novels that centered around the character of Dr. Lecter — “Red Dragon,” “Silence of the Lambs,” “Hannibal” and “Hannibal Rising” — and there have been adaptations of each in the last four decades.
However, Demme’s film took Harris’ work and brought it into the mass culture. The iconic portrayal of Dr. Lecter by Hopkins, the quiet and profound performance by Foster and the psychological elements of the film that captured audiences and filmmakers in 1991 are still influencing them today.
Nearly 30 years to the day of the anniversary of “Silence of the Lambs” debuting in theaters, CBS launched a series called “Clarice” which follows the newly minted FBI agent a year after the events of “Silence of the Lambs.”
Clarice Starling and the VICAP team are deployed to Tennessee where the FBI is laying siege against a fringe militia group called “The Statesmen,” on CBS’ “Clarice.” , Thursday, Feb. 18 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured Rebecca Breeds as Clarice Starling (Photo by Brooke Palmer/CBS via Getty Images)
CBS Photo Archive | CBS | Getty Images
Only a few years ago, NBC had a three-season series called “Hannibal,” which followed the psychiatrist in the time leading up to his arrest.
Outside of direct adaptations, “Silence of the Lambs” has inspired and laid the groundwork for numerous projects.
“You look at a series like ‘Dexter,’ it owes so much to ‘Silence of the Lambs,'” Thompson said.
The Showtime series, which ran for eight seasons, follows Dexter Morgan, a Miami-based blood spatter expert who doesn’t just solve murders, he commits them, too. He’s a serial killer, but only murders the guilty. His adoptive father, recognizing his homicidal urges at a young age, taught him to hone his skills and use them for good.
Dexter is an antihero that, by all accounts, audiences should be rooting against. However, he is portrayed as a normal guy who rationalizes his addiction — murder — in such a straight-forward way that viewers begin to rationalize it, too. His intellect, tenacity and sense of justice almost shield him from ire. The audience sympathizes with him.
Then there is NBC’s series “The Blacklist,” which started as a show about a career criminal named Raymond Reddington who turns himself in to the FBI, but will only talk to Agent Elizabeth Keen, who is coincidentally starting her first day at the bureau.
James Spader stars as Raymond Reddington in “The Blacklist” on NBC.
When Keen first meets Reddington, he’s sat in a glass cage waiting for her with a similar expression as Dr. Lecter had while waiting for Clarice to arrive. While the show ultimately deviated from “Silence of the Lambs,” its initial premise centered heavily around Reddington using his expertise while incarcerated to help Keen solve crimes and apprehend criminals.
A similar storytelling setup can be found in Fox’s “Prodigal Son,” although the Hannibal/Clarice relationship is now between a father and son.
Malcolm bright is an ex-FBI agent turned NYPD consultant whose father, Martin Whitly, is a serial killer known as “The Surgeon.” Malcolm is forced on multiple occasions to consult with his father on cases because of his unique insights into the psychology of criminals and murders.
Tom Payne and Michael Sheen star in Fox’s “Prodigal Son.”
Some of the marketing for “Prodigal Son” even featured Whitly standing behind his son, mimicking the iconic shot of Clarice with Dr. Lecter.
“‘Silence of the Lambs’ opened the door for other filmmakers,” Dergarabedian said. “You could pitch unconventional heroes and antiheroes and not get a boot out the door.”
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.