I rate this as one of my favourite films ever, although it is not quite the scariest. I have also seen it many times and performed some detailed analysis of the narrative, mise-en-scene, cinematography and editing. This much analysis could lessen its impact, but The Silence of the Lambs never fails to draw me in, particularly in its most chilling moments. Both Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) are terrifying creations that could so easily have been crass and lurid, but director Jonathan Demme uses a strikingly sparse approach, both narratively and stylistically. This sparseness has the effect of focusing the viewer’s attention on the events unfolding, and the focus exacerbates the fear.
Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) provides a viewer’s surrogate. For much of the film we are aligned with her, learning more about Buffalo Bill through her conversations with Dr. Lecter as well as autopsies and other parts of her investigation. Jodie Foster has been rightly praised as giving one of the great screen performances, and on my first viewing I was struck by the film being very much about her. Not only do we experience her intellectual investigation, but her compassion, discomfort and eventual fear are all beautifully expressed, both by Foster’s performance and Demme’s direction. A particular technique used is subjective camera angles, with conversations shot face-on rather than a more typical over-the-shoulder shot. When Starling and Dr. Lecter converse, the shot/reverse-shot pattern fills the frame with their faces, which is especially unnerving when Dr. Lecter is staring out at you. Anthony Hopkins uses a simple technique of not blinking, making his stare all the more unsettling.
Hopkins is sometimes criticised for being something of a ham, and in Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001) and (to a lesser extent) Red Dragon (Brett Ratner, 2002) there are grounds for that. But in The Silence of the Lambs he is perfectly restrained, as part of Demme’s sparse approach. Impressions often misrepresent the famous “FFFFFF” over the census taker’s liver, hamming it up beyond what Hopkins does. Like the film as a whole, his performance is tightly wound and precisely focused.
The film’s precision and sparseness make the moments of violence all the more shocking and frightening. Dr. Lecter’s escape from his elaborate cage is ghastly in its unrestrained savagery, and the baroque display he leaves behind expresses the monstrous intelligence behind such brutality. But his most frightening moments are psychological, his psyche boring into Starling’s to expose her vulnerabilities and leave her open to a disturbingly invasive interrogation.
Invasion is a key theme throughout The Silence of the Lambs. Gumb’s attempt to transform into a female is an invasion of his own identity and, more disturbingly, that of his victims. The women slain and skinned by Gumb not only have their bodies invaded, but their minds as well with the psychological torture inflicted in his well, demonstrated through the suffering of Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith). Furthermore, Gumb invades their very identity by appropriating them for his own purposes. In her meetings with Dr. Lecter, Starling’s mind is invaded as he identifies her concerns and forces her to confront her central fear, manifested by the screaming of the lambs. In conversations, I have heard criticisms of Starling’s central fear, questioning the credibility of such an event being so traumatic. To me, it does not matter whether I or anyone else would find a particular event upsetting or traumatising – this is Starling’s fear and it matters to her, and I have always found her sufficiently engaging to accept her position. The point is not what her trauma is, but that she has one, which Dr. Lecter identifies and forces her to confront. Call it fear therapy.
The invasions work on a wider scale as well, as the genre of The Silence of the Lambs is a source for debate. Narratively, it is a detective thriller, but a detective story invaded by tropes and elements of horror. Horror moments abound: the storage unit Starling explores; the Gothic-esque halls of the Smithsonian where she meets the etymologists; the death’s head moth itself. The climactic sequence in Gumb’s cellar is both an invasion of his space by Starling, and an invasion into her security as she is viewed through Gumb’s night vision goggles. Starling’s final victory over Gumb breaks the window of his cellar, allowing sunlight to invade this dark recess, but the bright, sunlit places are themselves invaded, as the final scene features Dr. Lecter at an island resort, watching Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) whom, he indicates, will shortly be on the menu. Buffalo Bill is disposed of, but there are still monsters out there, stalking.
A key component of horror cinema is cruelty, the continued depiction of people being hurt or persecuted. Action cinema focuses on the hero fighting back and demonstrating their ability to take control of their situation. Horror continues the subjugation, cruelly prolonging the plight of its characters. Even when Starling should have Gumb cornered, the film’s cruelty continues as we watch her plight in POV shots from Gumb’s perspective. Horror cinema compels us to watch the disturbing and horrific events through long takes, static camera and subjective shots. If we are to maintain our engagement in the film, we must continue to endure this cruelty. The end credits of The Silence of the Lambs perpetuates the film’s cruelty by not fading to black as a long take continues over the street, people walking about their daily lives, with Dr. Lecter having disappeared into the distance. We want him to reappear, perhaps even to be caught, but the film tantalises us with this possibility, perhaps inducing us to check the front door is locked.
I first saw The Silence of the Lambs on a very small TV, with a single speaker, in black and white. Despite the basic viewing conditions, I was utterly hooked and thoroughly petrified. I have subsequently seen it many times, on DVD and in colour, on a much larger TV, and it still grips and chills me in equal measure. Other Thomas Harris adaptations have varied in quality – Hannibal is operatic but rather silly; Red Dragon is taught but fairly ordinary (I am yet to see or read Hannibal Rising [Peter Webber, 2007]). Before all of these came Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986), which I have a close relationship with. Manhunter is a fascinating film, operating on a number of stylistic, narratological, psychological and philosophical levels. It is striking, compelling and at times disturbing, but I would not call it frightening. The Silence of the Lambs, however, remains both shocking and disturbing in equal measure, and one of the scariest films I have seen. Not quite the scariest though.