“The Silence of the Lambs” 30 Years Later

By Christian DiMartino

Has any movie been referenced/parodied more than The Silence of the Lambs?

From Austin Powers in Goldmember to The Fairly OddParents to Joe Dirt (one we all wish we could forget) to The Cable Guy to Dumb and Dumber to Family Guy to Clerks II. There’s even one called, I kid you not, The Silence of the Hams, starring Dom Deluise as… Dr. Animal Cannibal Pizza. Have I seen it? Shockingly no, but something tells me I’m not missing much. In any case, these are just the films that come to mind immediately; there is probably quite the plethora of references in other things. Yet what is it about The Silence of the Lambs that is so subject to mockery? Well, it’s not that it’s a film that deserves to be made fun of, by any means. Rather, it’s such a cultural landmark that any time something DOES reference it, unless you live under a rock, you get the joke immediately.

The film turns 30 today, Valentine’s Day, of all days, and nothing screams romance more than cannibals and people being… well, skinned. Truth be told, I have been watching this film since I was in the 3rd grade, which probably says something about how I turned out. Yet the film, directed by the late, great Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia, Rachel Getting Married) is one of the rare few that has truly stood the test of time. No matter how many times you see it, The Silence of the Lambs pretty much always causes a feeling of pure unease, lingering and haunting the mind long after you see it. It’s such an uncompromisingly chilling film that people refer to it as a horror movie.

Now, this is something I’ve never fully seen eye-to-eye with people on. When I think of horror, I think of movies I’d watch around Halloween time, like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Sleepy Hollow, etc. The Silence of the Lambs is scary, in its own way, but it’s always felt a little more psychologically scary. At least, that’s how I see it. The fright at the heart of the film stems from the fact that Demme portrays two villains who are so unsettling, you’re not only afraid of what they do, but you’re afraid of what they might do next.

Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill is a… cross-dressing? Transgender in transition? Either way, he abducts overweight women (“Oh wait… is she a great big fat person?”) and he skins them, in an attempt to make a female body suit. So yes, this person is a total nutbag, and so much more. Yet it’s Anthony Hopkins’ Dr. Hannibal Lecter who runs away with the movie. Perhaps it’s the way it is shot, perhaps it’s his surroundings, perhaps it’s just how well mannered he is, or perhaps it’s what we’re told about him and WHAT he is capable of, but the first time he enters the movie, there is no way you won’t be frightened of him. You know the scene: Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) walks slowly down a dark, sinister-looking hallway. At the end of this hallway is Lecter, standing and waiting calmly in his cell. The unease sets in even more whenever he asks to see her credentials, and he urges her to get closer and closer to the glass, which separates the two of them.

Much has been written about The Silence of the Lambs, and what has been said has been said. So do I need to add to it? Well, no, but I will anyways, because it’s the kind of film that has always earned and deserved its praise. Demme’s film is a masterpiece; an unforgettably disturbing thrill-ride that changed the game. A film that stands beautifully on its own, and believe it or not, it’s technically a sequel (preceded by Michael Mann’s Manhunter, also chilling but drastically different in tone).

Here is a film anchored by its writing and directing, but in particular, its acting. Front and center are the performances from Hopkins and Jodie Foster, both of which won Oscars for this and deservedly so. The two performances pretty much complete each other; their onscreen chemistry (no, not that way) is pure perfection, as we see two people who are trying to pick each other apart. Starling is trying to tap into the psyche of a madman, whereas Lecter, an expert in psychology, knows more about Starling than she knows about herself.

Since The Silence of the Lambs, we’ve had the release of Hannibal, Red Dragon, and Hannibal Rising, along with TV adaptations such as Hannibal and the recent CBS drama Clarice. I haven’t seen any of the latter two- Hannibal is supposedly excellent, and I have zero interest in Clarice. Yet the other three films- two of which star Hopkins- I will write about soon as well. Yet while there is merit in (most) of the other films, what can also be said about them is that, at the end of the day, they’re just not The Silence of the Lambs. Few films are, honestly. This is, and perhaps always will be, one of the greatest films ever made. Not one for the faint of heart, or the queasy, but a film that is just as chilling now as it was then. It’s so iconic, so nutty, and yet so remarkable, if you close your eyes, you can see certain images as clear as day. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m having an old friend for lunch.

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