Blog Directory CineVerse: Why The Silence of the Lambs still gets under our skin

Why The Silence of the Lambs still gets under our skin

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Three decades after making its theatrical debut, The Silence of the Lambs continues to terrify, intrigue, and inspire. Performing a closer examination of this seminal film and asking deeper questions reveals several key points as well as a greater appreciation of what is now considered one of the very finest films in several categories, including horror, police procedural, psychological thriller, and drama.

Why does The Silence of the Lambs still matter 30 years later, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It matters because of its exceptional craftsmanship. Think about the way the film turns the tables on us as viewers by employing various clever techniques.
    • Example #1: From the start, we identify with and admire Clarice – a small, outnumbered female in a world dominated by men. We often see Clarice’s point of view and are commonly reliant on her discovery of the facts to help uncover the mystery; interestingly, near the end of the film the POV shifts abruptly after the lights go out in Buffalo Bill’s subterranean lair; suddenly, we are given Bill’s perspective, which shows a terrified Clarice seen through night-vision goggles – which makes us all the more fearful for her.
    • Next, note how we are tricked by Lecter’s clever escape scheme in which he masquerades as a wounded police officer; after that stunt, the audience isn’t sure what to trust with their own eyes.
    • Example #3: The film brilliantly utilizes parallel editing – also called crosscutting – in which the shots of two separate but concurrent sequences, each taking place at separate locations, are juxtaposed to make us think that a SWAT team has amassed outside of the home of Buffalo Bill, whom we see reacting to the ring of his doorbell; only it’s Clarice who has actually pressed his doorbell, at the same time a plainclothesed officer rings the bell of a different house. What a sequence.
    • Also, ponder the amazing sound design throughout the film – especially that climactic scene where Clarice enters Bill’s home: we hear barking, yelling, rock music, flapping sounds, and heavy breathing – all of which add up to an unnerving audio wallpaper. Earlier, we hear subtle but strange and disembodied breathing, cries, and sighs (including an exhalation audible when the Gypsy moth is removed from the throat of Buffalo Bill’s first victim), as well as low-frequency rumbling and water plops.
  • Furthermore, The Silence of the Lambs remains an innovative study in suspense and horror.
    • Here’s a horror movie in which the hero is a woman, the leading man is a psychopathic killer who eats people, there is no sex or romance, and there are two monsters: one on the loose and another who is caged – at least for most of the film. Buffalo Bill may be more abhorrent to us, but Hannibal is just as violent, dangerous, and loathsome, although the audience is rooting for him to express his intelligence, match wits with Clarice, and aid her in her task, which makes him more sympathetic.
      • Director Jonathan Demme said: “It’s a suspense movie with a female protagonist who is never in sexual peril. It’s a slasher movie that is devoid not only of slasher scenes but of the anticipation of seeing them.”
    • It’s riveting, as well, because there’s a time limit involved: We know that Clarice only has three days in which to find Buffalo Bill or his captive will be killed.
    • The Silence of the Lambs has also stood the test of time because it showcases its genre film roots proudly and plays upon our fears of real-life psychopaths and serial killers.
      • It riffs on old-time horror movies like Frankenstein, Nosferatu, King Kong, and Psycho – all of which contain monsters that, to some extent, Lecter resembles or makes us think of – as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey (its villain, HAL 9000, inspired Hopkins’ performance, he revealed) and Aliens – another horror film that features a strong female protagonist who hunts monsters and plays the part of a rescuer.
      • Interestingly, it features brief cameos by two renowned horror directors: Roger Corman and George Romero.
    • It would have also conjured up earlier memories of John Hinckley and his obsession with Jodie Foster before attempting to assassinate Ronald Reagan; real-life serial killer Ted Bundy who donned a cast to appear benign and lure victims into his vehicle; and another true-life serial killer, Ed Gein, who also used the skin and human remains of his victims.

In what ways was this film influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?

  • Unlike predecessors that depicted psycho killers and mentally deranged sociopaths, this movie attempts to employ a forensic psychology approach to better understanding the mindset and motivations for the criminals.
    • Film reviewer Richard Scheib wrote: “Prior to The Silence of the Lambs, the psycho movie genre’s view of psychology and behavior had been rooted in absurdly outmoded and melodramatic forms of Freudian trauma – Psycho (1960) and successors – or where killers were stripped of human motivation and seen as incarnate faces of evil – Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) and various sequels. The forensic psychology psycho-thriller gave the psycho film psychological motivation – it took a glimpse inside the heads of psychopaths and what made them tick behaviorally.”
  • While many earlier or films had already established the formula of the “final girl” – in which the last survivor is a vulnerable female who has been pursued and attacked by an antagonist, this picture refreshingly presents a strong female protagonist who is the hunter instead of the hunted, the hero instead of the victim, and the rescuer. Clarice presents an inversion of the “knight in shining armor” male archetype who has to rescue the fair maiden locked in the villain’s castle.
  • This movie’s influence was wide and vast in popular entertainment.
    • Consider all the imitators that came in its wake, including pictures like Se7en, Copycat, Kiss the Girls, Beyond Bedlam, Just Cause, The Cell, Angel Dust, When the Bough Breaks, The Bone Collector, etc.
    • It may also have inspired the forensic police procedural TV dramas that came a few years later, including CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Bones, Without a Trace, etc.
    • It created a cottage industry of sequels, prequels, and TV shows based on the film’s characters, including three subsequent movies featuring Lecter, the NBC series Hannibal, and the brand-new CBS series Clarice, which debuts this month.
    • The Silence of the Lambs has also been constantly referenced in pop culture over the past 30 years, with mentions, spoofs, and parodies in films like Austin Powers in Goldmember, Fatal Instinct, and Dumb and Dumber along with nods in The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy.

What themes, messages, motifs, or symbols are explored in The Silence of the Lambs?

  • Breaking through barriers. Clarice, a lone female in a male-dominated profession, is challenged with breaking through the glass ceiling. Symbolically, the film features multiple barred doors that Starling must pass to enter the domains of both Lecter and Buffalo Bill, respectively. And interestingly, Clarice has to ascend and descend through different levels to achieve her goals. The film opens with her jogging up a hill and climbing over training obstacles, but soon she must descend various levels to reach the villains – both Lecter and Buffalo Bill.
  • Usurped gender conventions. Consider that Bill is a seamstress, regarded by many as a female vocation, while Clarice is a rugged and resourceful FBI agent, a role often assigned to males.
  • Voyeurism and watching. We are given many shots from Clarice’s point of view. But more often we observe recurring POV shots that demonstrate Clarice is being watched as well as shots of Clarice being outnumbered, dwarfed, objectified, or leered at by groups of men or a single man. “All of the shots contribute to the impression that Clarice is not in command of her own space, but is threatened by others,” wrote Roger Ebert.
  • Pairing and twinning. Lecter and Clarice serve as parallel characters.
    • As Ebert surmised: “Both are ostracized by the worlds they want to inhabit – Lecter, by the human race because he’s a serial killer and a cannibal, and Clarice, by the law-enforcement profession because she is a woman. Both feel powerless – Lecter because he is locked in a maximum-security prison… And Clarice because she is surrounded by men who tower over her and fondle her with her eyes. Both use their powers of persuasion to escape from their traps… And both share similar childhood wounds.”
  • American iconography. The film repeatedly uses the colors red white and blue as well as American flags and additional symbols of patriotism – such as the Washington Memorial and the Capitol building as well as a cake sporting the seal of the Department of Justice. In a perverse subversion of the American Eagle, Lecter displays the spread-eagled body of one of his victims.

What elements from this movie are showing some wrinkles?

  • Controversially, it taps into fears and misconceptions by heterosexuals of gay and transsexual people in how it depicted Buffalo Bill as a confused and disturbed homosexual/wannabe transgender who may or may not have come out of the closet. Many in the LGBT community despised this portrayal as stereotypical and damaging.

What are this film’s greatest gifts to viewers?

  • The mainstream introduction of one of contemporary horror cinema’s greatest and most iconic characters – Hannibal the cannibal – thanks, in large part, to the exceptional and unconventional manner in which Anthony Hopkins plays this character. There’s a good reason why this persona has launched so many spinoff works: Lecter is spellbinding, unpredictable, inventive, perceptive, and smarter than anyone else in the room, which makes him a refreshing departure from a mindless monster or cliché slasher killer.
  • Equally great is the character of Clarice, who, as a sturdy, resourceful, and quick-witted heroine, has aged so gracefully over 30 years. Thinking back now on how far women have come in the past three decades, how they command greater respect and admiration as well as demonstrate more agency, it’s easy to observe Clarice and see her as a trailblazer helping to supplant the archetype of the passive female lead, the obligatory love interest or sex object, or the damsel in distress. Jodie Foster infuses this role with incredible humanity and vulnerability but also quiet conviction, resiliency, and fearlessness. She and Starling prove they should not be underestimated. As with Hopkins, this is probably Foster’s finest work.
  • Its third greatest gift is its subjective camera and commitment to close-ups. By continually bringing us up close and personal to the character’s faces, we are provided an often unsettling intimate view into the minds of these characters, particularly Starling and Lecter. These POV shots are logical, in that we see through his or her eyes, and we are then given a counterpoint shot, but these tight shots are most effective psychologically because they eliminate the periphery and focus intently on what the character is seeing, hearing, perceiving, and experiencing – causing the viewer to do the same.
  • Demme was quoted as saying: “The most powerful shot of all is when you put the viewer right in the shoes of one of the characters so they are seeing exactly what the character is seeing.”

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