At this rate, Hannibal Lecter has achieved pop culture status, and when a horror figure reaches those heights, that’s pretty big. By now, he’s the James Bond of horror, having been played three times in three very different takes on the character, but all of them appropriate for the mood of the film — or television series — utilizing him. (I’m not commenting on anything having to do with Hannibal Rising, the very film about which you’ve forgotten. In my mind, it doesn’t even exist.)
The Silence of the Lambs is looked upon as the definitive adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel series while also introducing the definitive depiction of Hannibal Lecter, as essayed by Anthony Hopkins. Both are correct. Though my love and respect for Manhunterhas increased over the years, and though I’m sort of in love with Mads Mikkelsen’s version of Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs’ legacy is the most deserved. And there are many reasons to proclaim its superiority over the remaining explorations, due in no small part to its willingness to embrace the dark subject matter of the source novel (something Manhunter shied away from), its across-the-board tremendous performances, and its immortal design. I say immortal because The Silence of the Lambs looks like it could have been shot yesterday, rather than thirty years ago. Where Ridley Scott's Hannibal moved the titular character front and center into a sillier and more visceral experience — a reflection of the source novel — and 2003’s Red Dragon seemed like a move more obligatory than artistic (and a bit too familiar), The Silence of the Lambs was a filmic pioneer in that it plunged into the world of real, actual crime investigations with an emphasis on forensics and postmortem techniques. The source novel for Manhunter, Red Dragon, had its fair share of this as well, but Michael Mann shed much of it from his screenplay, choosing to focus more on the psychological implications suffered by Will Graham (William Peterson) from his uncanny ability to deeply engage with the mind of the serial killer he was hunting. The Silence of the Lambs, both novel and film, resurrects this emphasis on federal investigation, almost feeling like a do-over of the previous novel and film. It is, after all, about someone working on behalf of the FBI to interview a known serial killer in hopes of catching another serial killer. Because of this, it feels more scientific, and hence, more intellectual. And the relationship between FBI Agent Trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and the cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), offers a very different vibe. If ever there were a film about serial killers and cannibals and mutilation and psychosexual perversions that could also, just faintly, just minutely, be sexy, it’s The Silence of the Lambs.
Speaking of sexy, by design, The Silence of the Lambs isn’t attractive. It’s dour, dark, and bleak — not a single sequence shows the sun, nor takes place in any kind of bright and welcoming environment. And once the film is approaching the final act, dealing with Buffalo Bill’s dungeon and house of horrors, the amount of scum and ugliness is at its fever pitch. Color is almost nonexistent. Everything is brown and gray and beige and neutral, although Demme finds ways to play around with colors to a purposely nauseating effect, most notably in the pre-interview sequence where Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) is walking Starling to Lecter’s cell and showing her photos of the nurse Lecter had viciously attacked, all of which is bathed in a sickening red hospital light.
Hopkins and Foster walked away with best actor and best actress statuettes at that year’s Academy Awards, and I’m over the moon that a genre picture was recognized by the typically anti-genre organization in any capacity, but having said that, Ted Levine gives the film’s best performance, period, and that he didn’t come home with his own statue is a shame (although he would have been in direct competition with Hopkins, which would been interesting). Levine’s contributions to The Silence of the Lambs’ enduring legacy is often swept aside in favor of Hopkin’s flamboyant and lovably sadistic Hannibal Lecter, but it’s Levine’s bravery and unhinged performance as Buffalo Bill that gives the film its real sense of danger. Your monster movie (and this is a monster movie) is only as scary as its monster, and in this regard, The Silence of the Lambs is brutally scary. “I ate his liver with some fava beans” might be a popular quote, but, “It puts the lotion in the basket” is the line that’s far more quoted (for some reason).
It’s been two years since director Jonathan Demme passed away, but it still feels like such a recent loss for the horror genre and the filmmaking world at large. (We’ve lost way too many horror directors over the last 5 years – I’m personally still reeling over the losses of Wes Craven and George Romero.) It’s been especially sad seeing Demme appear in the supplements included on the Criterion Collection release where he looks young and healthy, knowing that the director of one of the most respected genre pictures of all time is gone.
Both this and Night of the Living Dead are two of the most mainstream releases that Criterion have released in a while, and it’s kind of fitting that both were released at the same time — as if in a way to honor both directors who are no longer with us, and who will both be sorely, sorely missed.