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Lambs still screams

Twenty years on, five-time Oscar winner Silence of the Lambs endures.


The Silence of the Lambs was released on Valentine's Day, 1991. Directed by Jonathan Demme and adapted by Ted Tally from the novel by Thomas Harris, it stars Jodie Foster as FBI cadet Clarice Starling, assigned to profile notorious criminal Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) as a rote exercise, but really to enlist his knowledge to help find serial killer Buffalo Bill. "If the movie were not so well-made, indeed, it would be ludicrous," wrote Roger Ebert. In 1992, Silence swept the Academy Awards, a remarkable achievement for a horror film released more than a year earlier. Its record five major category wins has not been matched in the ensuing decades.

Shot in muted earth tones by Tak Fujimoto with a foreboding score by Howard Shore, Silence establishes its gothic, strange beauty right away with its no-frills title sequence. Block letters ---THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS--- appear over a trail in the woods. Starling comes running toward us, pulling herself up with a rope over a steep incline. Her uphill battle has already started. Throughout the film, Demme takes great delight in putting tiny Foster against groups of giant men---first in an FBI elevator, later in a funeral home surrounded by cops. Wrote Ebert, "The movie has an undercurrent of unwelcome male attention toward her character; rarely in a movie have I been made more aware of the subtle sexual pressures men put upon women with their eyes."

For his part, Hopkins pitches Lecter as a gentleman with class; he was 52 when the movie was shot and is locked in an airtight dungeon when we meet him---the antithesis of a traditional horror monster. In later scenes, when he escapes in a brilliant, baroque way---he cuts a man's face off!---the violence is much more disconcerting, with Demme resisting many of the obvious gross-out factors. Foster similarly keeps it reined in, playing off her character's intense need for advancement and to please. When she does cry, after her first meeting with Lecter, Demme abandons the movie's copious direct address close-ups with a medium shot of her sobbing against her car, respectful of the moment.

Though Silence is not without its detractors---accused of being anti-fat, anti-woman and anti-trans---as 20- year-old movies go, it holds up well. There's not much technology (microfiche, adorable!) and the hair and costumes are of the generic suit variety. It made a case for horror movie as social commentary, or at least think piece, rather than a guts-fest for teen boys, and for putting a strong, independent woman at the centre (The X-Files' Dana Scully is based on Starling). Its legacy has been somewhat tarnished by the 2001 sequel Hannibal (Foster bowed out and was replaced, ably, by Julianne Moore) and especially Red Dragon, a remake of Michael Mann's original Manhunter that in Harris' novels takes place 20 years before The Silence of the Lambs yet still features a paunchy, 64-year-old Hopkins as Lecter.

That aside, it is a masterclass of acting, directing, writing and cinematography, of tonality, of pacing and of emotion. "We are frightened both because of the film's clever manipulation of story and image," wrote Ebert 10 years later in Great Movies, "and for better reasons---we like Clarice, identify with her and fear for her. Just like Lecter."

Academy Awards
Sunday, February 27
9:30pm, CTV

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