Film Review: The Silence of the Lambs
The defining horror film of the nineties, The Silence of the Lambs is the only horror film to make a clean sweep of the Academy and Fangoria awards. It created one of the most iconic villains in screen history, a strong female lead who paved the way for women in horror to be more than just screaming victims, and set pieces that are still influential to this day. Silence of the Lambs was a true phenomenon, but does it hold up today?
The answer is the strongest yes possible. Viewed in 2013, Silence of the Lambs is still easily one of the greatest horror films of all time. Never before or again has there been such a high standard of acting, writing and directing. It may not quite be the scariest, with no big jumps or chilling atmospheres, but it doesn’t feature two of the most disturbing villains in a film, and some of the bloodiest set pieces. It is also astonishing to remember that Silence of the Lambs is one of only three films since the 1920’s to win every major award (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay) at the Academy Awards, since films as grisly and nasty as Silence of the Lambs are usually scoffed at by serious Academy voters.
It’s quite difficult to pinpoint why Silence…is an exception to the rule; perhaps it is due to the high quality of acting from Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, or the sublime direction from Jonathan Demme; or maybe it is just because Silence of the Lambs strives for something more than cheap pulp thrills, and treats the horror genre with class and dignity and respect.
By now, everybody knows the plot, so just briefly; Foster plays Clarice Starling, training to be an FBI agent, who is called in to help with the case of “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), a serial killer who skins his victims. Starling must interview infamous psychiatrist and prolific serial killer Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector (Hopkins) to get into the mindset of the killer. The plot is straightforward, but its simplicity is what makes it work; rather than dealing with twists and sub plots, the focus is entirely on Starling’s journey into the unknown, fuelled by her meetings with Lector.
Our first encounter with Lector is a bonafide classic scene; Lector, stood silently, snake like eyes piercing the camera, waiting for Starling in his dungeon like cell. He’s a dangerous man, and though an anti-hero in this film, with iconic lines (“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti”) and borderline flamboyancy, he is never quite human enough to be likeable. We are constantly reminded of just how evil he is; convincing his neighbour to kill himself, slaughtering prison guards, the list goes on. Lector is now an iconic villain up there with Freddy and Jason, and he is still scary to this day.
It is fair to say the real success comes in the acting. Hopkins, who won a Best Actor award for just 16 minutes of screen time, chews the scenery with a delicious relish; if it were anyone else, it would be laughably audacious, but in Hopkins’ hands, you are simply transfixed. Foster, picking up her 2nd Best Actress award is similarly excellent, if overlooked next to Hopkins. She gives Starling a much needed edge that gives her the strength to keep up on the pursuit of Buffalo Bill.
Speaking of which, in by far the most underrated performance in the film, Ted Levine gives a really fantastic portrayal of a man uncomfortable in his own skin. Though slightly camp during his early scenes, he has far more depth than your average serial killer; he has no emotion for his victims, but has a breakdown when his beloved cat is threatened. Characterisation puts Silence of the Lambs a cut above just about any horror film of the nineties; every character is a real person, with real reasoning and ideas. There are no cartoons in Silence of the Lambs, just messed up people.
One of the greatest films put to celluloid, awards or not, Silence of the Lambs is a rare treat for horror fans: a horror film, with proper gore and scary villains, that earns just as much respect from genre fans as pretentious critics. Fortunately, it deserves every bit of praise it gets, as it is one of the best films, horror or not, of its decade.
By Harry Ford