The Silence of the Lambs: A Thinking Person’s Monster Movie

We look at how Silence of the Lambs created one of the screen's most iconic monsters...

“Is it true what they’re saying?” a cop asks FBI agent Clarice Starling around The Silence of the Lambs‘ midpoint. “That he’s some kind of vampire?”

The cop is referring, of course, to Hannibal Lecter, the former psychiatrist and serial killer played by Anthony Hopkins. Originally created by author Thomas Harris and making his first appearance in the 1981 novel Red Dragon, Lecter – otherwise known as Hannibal the Cannibal – has long since become a fixture on the pop culture landscape. The Silence of the Lambs isn’t specifically about Lecter – rather, it’s about Starling (Jodie Foster) and her efforts to catch another murderer, Buffalo Bill – but the character dominates the movie, providing some of its most oft-quoted lines and parodied scenes.

It’s often said that The Silence of the Lambs is, as well as a thriller, also a horror film in disguise. An entry in a genre reliably overlooked by the Academy, it became a rare film that swept the board at the 1991 Oscars. In this respect, director Jonathan Demme’s movie is not unlike Lecter himself: a predatory monster wearing the demeanor of a more respectable, mainstream genre. Although light on blood and lacking a shred of the supernatural, horror runs deep through The Silence of the Lambs, and its plot, adapted from Harris’s novel by screenwriter Ted Tally, gives us a big-screen monster perhaps as iconic as the vampires, werewolves, and revived corpses of Universal Studios’ golden age.

To see just how differently Thomas Harris’s writing can look and feel in the hands of another director, it’s worth taking a trip back to director Michael Mann’s 1986 film, Manhunter. Adapted from Red Dragon, Mann’s thriller was barely distributed on release, and only really came to wider attention when Silence of the Lambs ignited a media fascination with serial killers in the early 1990s. Manhunter concerns another FBI agent, Will Graham (William Petersen), who’s lured back to his job when entire families are slain at the hand of a killer dubbed The Tooth Fairy. To help “get the old scent back,” Graham pays a visit to jailed killer Hannibal Lektor (it’s unclear why his name was misspelled), here played by Brian Cox.

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Although Manhunter has its own share of horrifying events, Mann’s film is firmly in the vein of a procedural thriller. The scene where Graham visits Lektor, it’s in a ghost-white cell where the light chases away the shadows. Cox plays Hannibal not as a keenly-intelligent predator, but as a smooth authoritarian who, if you didn’t know better, might even come across as charming and dry of wit. It’s only the slight deadness around the eyes that hints at something dangerous in Lektor’s psyche.

Now contrast this scene with Clarice Starling’s first encounter with Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. The young trainee agent is led into the bowels of the Baltimore State Hospital by Lecter’s preening captor, Doctor Chilton (Anthony Heald), to a dimly-lit, Victorian chamber of horrors where the killer’s kept in solitary confinement. The cells are shadowy, but Lecter stands in the light, almost to attention, as Starling approaches. It’s all part of Hopkins’ subtly aggressive interpretation of Lecter. From his use of words to his unblinking stare, this Lecter uses every weapon he has to belittle and control Starling: note how one of the first things he does is play on Starling’s obvious lack of experience by inspecting her badge and smirking, “That expires in one week. You’re not real FBI, are you?”

Much has been written about Demme’s extensive use of close-ups, both in Silence of the Lambs and elsewhere, and it’s true that those eerie long takes of Lecter staring almost right back at us do much to burn his image – that pale face against the stone grey walls of his cell, that slicked-back hair – into our consciousness. But Hopkins also brings an immense and easily-overlooked physicality to Lecter. It’s interesting that, although Hannibal sits or stands perfectly still for much of the film, we’re given the distinct impression that he could move quickly if he wanted to – like a panther or a coiled cobra.

It’s an important quality for Lecter to possess, since it has a bloody pay-off towards the end of the second act. Handcuffed to the bars of a temporary cell in Memphis, Lecter manages to break out of his bonds as a pair of officers are bringing him his dinner. That the killer’s ability to outsmart and kill two experienced cops seems so convincing is thanks entirely to Hopkins’ performance. He successfully captures both the murderous and the calculating sides of his character. 

Brian Cox’s Lekter and Hopkins’ Lector are, for this writer, equally effective in their own way: one befitting the eerie restraint of Mann’s direction, the other perfect for the more gothic overtones seen in Silence of the Lambs. As Cox said himself in 2011, “They’re two different animals, they really are. It’s like comparing two Hamlets, or two Lears. [Silence of the Lambs] is a different style of film, and it works. It has immense theatricality, and it’s powerful.”

Look at the pay-off to Lecter’s escape sequence: the blood-soaked body rising from a gurney in the back of an ambulance, a hand removing the mask of human flesh. It’s a pure horror image, like a spin on Lon Chaney revealing his face in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera. In this respect, The Silence of the Lambs continues what such writers and directors as George Romero, Stephen King, and John Carpenter were doing in the 60s and 70s: taking horror from castles and period locales and into the present.

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That the story’s protagonist is a young woman is vital, because one of its most prevalent themes is the hint of monstrousness that exists in all men, and not just Lecter and Buffalo Bill (played to freaky effect by Ted Levine). Dr. Chilton, who unsubtly propositions Starling in his first scene, is one of the film’s minor antagonists: petty, lecherous, vain, and attention-seeking. Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto are careful to show us multiple sequences from Starling’s point of view – male cops glaring at her with what might be desire or thinly veiled contempt. Inmates’ faces contorted and jeering inside their cells. Lecter and Buffalo Bill are serial killers, yes – but who’s to say that a small predatory streak doesn’t lurk inside every guy that stares down at Clarice? 

This, of course, gets to the heart of what’s both magnetic and disturbing about Lecter as a movie monster – even more so than Bill, the subterranean, textile-obsessed murderer who keeps pet moths. Lecter isn’t a vampire in a remote European castle, or a creature stitched together and emerging from a lab; he’s smart and educated and externally, at least, he’s just another middle-aged man.

The success of The Silence of the Lambs launched a string of other Lecter-related films and TV shows, some better than others: Ridley Scott’s sequel, Hannibal; the ill-advised prequel Hannibal Rising; Brett Ratner’s forgettable second adaptation of Red Dragon. In them, Lecter became a movie monster in the less interesting sense: predictable, over-exposed, and faintly quaint, like the Frankenstein sequels cranked out by Universal all those years before. TV’s Hannibal series, with Mads Mikkelsen in the title role, did much to restore a sense of depth and menace to a now familiar character.

Even after years of copycat thrillers and procedural TV shows that have mined its ideas, The Silence of the Lambs exerts a grim power. Demme’s filmmaking style dovetails with the themes of voyeurism and unfathomable desires. The grand performances are in keeping with the murk and subterranean locales, and towering over it all is Lecter himself – the thinking person’s movie monster.