At first The Silence of the Lambs looked like it might have a similar fate to Manhunter even if the connection between the films had been played down. However soon something amazing happened. Word of mouth spread about this film enough to keep it in theatres week after week after week until it officially became a sleeper hit. Hell, when I saw it after my Mother caught the word of mouth, it had already hit the Second Run Cinemas in town!
After that, something even more amazing happened. This film, undeniably a horror film, went on to win all five of the very top Oscars at The 64th Annual Academy Awards! That's right, Best Actor Anthony Hopkins, Best Actress Jodie Foster, Best Director Jonathan Demme, Best Adapted Screeenplay Ted Tally and Best Picture of 1991 for producers Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt and Ronald M. Bozman all went to The Silence of the Lambs! This is even more noteworthy considering this was released in February, not December to be that brilliant Oscar reminder.
Never before or since has a horror film even come close! Even The Exorcist "only" won two Oscars and Best Picture wasn't one of them (though The Exorcist did win Best Sound where Silence lost that one). And make no mistake... It can be called a Police Drama a Psychological Thriller, an Art Film... yes, it's all of these things, but at core, The Silence of the Lambs is a Horror Movie about a Slasher Serial Killer who catches, kills and skins his victims in the hopes of making a female suit out of real female flesh.
This is also the story of another serial killer, whom we've seen before! Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) is known for killing and eating his victims (some of whom were his own psychiatric patients) and his crimes are spoken of, and in some cases shown, in graphic detail. People are beaten, killed, thrown down wells, skinned, stuffed with moth cocoons, gnawed upon and tortured. One character even wears a wig made of a woman's scalp (with the skin still attached) while another wears a mask made from another person's face.
If some of this sounds a little bit like the crimes of Ed Gein , the partial inspiration for such films as Psycho, Deranged and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that's no mistake. Gein was a major inspiration for quite a bit of the Modus Operandi that the novel's author Thomas Harris built his murderers around. Gein, Ted Bundy and Gary Heidnick all went into the makeup of the killers in this story... and all of these guys are scary as hell!
So... Horror? Yes, this is horror! Well done, suspenseful horror, but visceral, terrifying horror nonetheless! This is a horror film so important that its credits feature iconic horror directors Roger Corman and George A. Romero not as producers, creative consultants or contributing writers but as actors in cameo appearances. That's Horror Cred if ever, oh ever, Horror Cred there was!
However, when it comes to the core characters, horror is not only legitimized but is also redefined. Jodie Foster is FBI Cadet Clarice Starling, an ambitious student who is drawn into her Bureau's manhunt for the monstrous serial killer Buffalo Bill (as played by Ted Levine), so named because "he skins his humps". At the present time the good guys have no leads on who or where this slasher is, but they know he's getting better at what he does and more young women are dying and are being relieved of their ample flesh.
The best idea Behavioral Science Unit Director Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) has is to interview Serial Killers who are already incarcerated and attempt to build some kind of psychological profile that can hopefully lead to the capture of Buffalo Bill. After all, it worked last time when Crawford's team brought down "The Tooth Fairy" in Red Dragon!
The difference is that last time Hannibal Lecter was just a bit more helpful. This time Crawford decides to send in the attractive, young Starling to potentially grease the mental wheels of "Hannibal The Cannibal" (Hopkins, of course) and perhaps get the help they require and catch the killer before he kills again.
She has to work quick, because the stakes get a lot higher when Buffalo Bill captures the daughter of a United States Senator. The problem is that Lecter is in no mood to be rushed. Under the heel of the sleazy Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), Hannibal the Cannibal has no view or recreation of any kind, so by "Gumb" he's going to make this one count.
The parts of the film that feature this "Quid Pro Quo" between Lecter and Starling are the very scenes that earned all of the winners their Oscars for that year. This film has action and suspense but the mystery aspects are all psychological. This is no "whodunnit", as the killer's face is shown early on and we get a lot of information about him long before the characters have it. No, this is a horrific drama that focuses around Clarice and Hannibal getting into each other's heads. He offers her clues about the murderer while she gives him puzzle pieces about her own life. The very idea of a psychopath sociopath who is also a psychiatrist and socialite is both intriguing from a storytelling standpoint and frightening from a human perspective.
Hopkins truly sells Lecter to us with his playful, brilliant and classy menace. Anthony Hopkins is incredible in this film! The look of HUNGER on his face never leaves and he seems to drink in every piece of information he receives like a nice Chianti. Even at his most insane and horrific, he seems to be in complete control and at peace.
Foster not only stands up against Hopkins' Brilliance but shines brightly all her own. She ranges from professional officer to hopeful idealist to frightened child and back all in the space of mere moments, yet she remains an exceptional and strong female lead, never becoming waifish or weak even at her most frightened.
Ted Levine gives a completely different kind of frightening menace than Hopkins, but he does an incredible job of acting out the demented psychopath that Jame Gumb is, showing his humor and his insane terror all at once. On the flip side, Scott Glenn's Crawford is steady and calm, serious about catching the killer, but doing things by the book in his calm, controlled methodology. While the film belongs to Hopkins and Foster, The Silence of the Lambs would be a very different movie without the contributions of Ted Levine and Scott Glenn.
The rest of the supporting cast is likewise excellent. Standouts include Brooke Smith, Kasi Lemmons, Diane Baker, Frankie Faison and Chris Isaak. The leads steal their own show, but the ensemble is really something to see. This is equally true in what you hear. As frightening as Hannibal is and as emotional as Clarice is, they are made ever so much more so when enhanced by the classical score by Howard Shore!
Nitpicking such an incredible film is very hard to do. On one hand we can always say "The Book is Better"... and this is no exception. Trust me, I've read it several times. Occasionally the quality of a good book tends to stand in the way of the enjoyment of an adaptation. I think we've all stopped and said "Why would they do it THIS way?" This may still be true in the case of The Silence of the Lambs, however, the superb adapted screenplay by Tally and the tight, smart and thorough direction of Demme becomes absolutely mesmerizing, especially when fed through the acting of Foster and Hopkins. Every step of the way Demme knows when to use a close up and when to breathe in the scenery with the cinematography of Tak Fujimoto!
The best part is that the film never devolves into a fright fest designed to startle. Demme is the director of such films as Married to the Mob and Philadelphia, so he's not really the kind of man who would set out to make a "Splatter Flick". In spite of the content of this film, this is truly about the deep terror and suspenseful horror that moves something inside the audience's collective chest as they witness it. There is nothing truly designed to make one jump out of the seat. Instead, the engrossing story and taught execution is calculated to keep everyone in the audience planted firmly where they are to see just where this deep and gripping horror film is going, regardless of their comfort level!
The Silence of the Lambs is truly great for everything it is and everything it is not. It's never quite what we expect, it's never quite one single thing or one single genre and it's never worth less than the full Five Stars out of Five! It's fully worth the five Oscars it received (as well as the other two it was nominated for but didn't win). Every step is calculated and striking and every puzzle piece fits just right... when it's supposed to. The unsettling nature of this film is outshined only by the artistic and positive execution by the talented cast and crew. This is a model for modern realistic horror and a film that we've never seen before or since. When the Silence finally comes... that's when we're just about ready to scream one last time.