Goodbye Horses by Q Lazzarus is a great song; however, if you’ve seen The Silence of the Lambs, it is impossible to listen to it without picturing a guy dancing around with his meat and two veg tucked between his legs. Iconic movies create moments like this that become part of our cultural lexicon. If there’s a song attached, the song often becomes synonymous with the film itself. Stuck in the Middle with You from Reservoir Dogs is another example – to hear the song now is to imagine a cop getting his ear chopped off by a psychotic bank robber.
If you haven’t seen The Silence of the Lambs before, the guy with the mangina in question is Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), a serial killer who skins his female victims. As the film starts, he’s notched up five kills, and the FBI is on the case. Trainee agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is dispatched by her boss to the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane to interview an incarcerated killer, Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), in the hope that he will take a shine to the raw young recruit and give them a psychological profile of the man responsible for the grisly murders.
The Silence of the Lambs instantly became a pop-cultural moment and is arguably the most influential horror movie of the last twenty-five years. Like John Carpenter’s Halloween, it was a game changer. The ’80s became the decade of the slasher, thanks to countless inferior knock offs of Carpenter’s streamlined, relentless stalk n’ slash chiller. Similarly, the ’90s became the decade of the serial killer because of Lambs‘ influence, with studios churning out endless copycats (including one called Copycat).
The template was usually the same – an inexperienced and/or troubled protagonist engaged in a battle of wits with a fiendish, brilliant homicidal maniac to solve a series of diabolical murders. By far the greatest of these was Seven, which established a grungy, nihilistic aesthetic which would in turn influence the tone and mindset of the post 9/11 era of “torture porn” – Saw, Hostel, Human Centipede etc.
Compared to its more grisly and explicit offspring, The Silence of the Lambs seems a little dated. Some of the psychology feels a bit basic now that we’re all armchair criminologists, and Hopkins’ performance, in particular, suffers thanks to two and a half decades of parodies and spoofs, and the aura-dispelling sequel, Hannibal, which turned the good doctor into a cartoonish supervillain.
It remains a magnetic performance by Hopkins, defined by stillness – he hardly ever blinks and rarely moves, and the actor is only onscreen for around sixteen minutes. Yet Lecter feels omnipresent in the film, dangerous even though out of commission, relishing a vampiric enjoyment in the pain of others. When he finally springs into action, it is still shocking. His scenes with Starling are among the best the ’90s had to offer, playing like a bizarre riff on the mismatched buddy combos of the previous decade. A frisson of sexual tension is unmistakable, although delicately played.
Foster’s performance has aged better, balancing Starling’s ambition and determination with her uncertainty and vulnerability. When she is scared, we are scared for her. The story is told largely from her point of view, and is an uncomfortable examination of the male gaze.
As a young woman trying to make her way in a chauvinistic world, she is watched all the time. She is constantly sized up, patronized, objectified, dismissed, ogled, lusted after, and eventually finds herself in mortal danger by a foe that she can’t see, but who can see her. Starling is aware of men looking at her, and is not above using her feminine charms to move things along – even with the perceptive and deadly Dr Lecter. It is hard to imagine Demme’s original choice for the role, Michelle Pfieffer, inhabiting this role as well as Foster.
Further down the cast list, Levine deserves kudos for creating such an outlandish yet disarmingly fragile monster. While we have no doubt that he is a psychopath that needs stopping, Levine manages to evoke some empathy for such a terminally broken individual. On the flip side, Anthony Heald plays Lecter’s nemesis, the slimy Dr Chilton. Heald has made a career from playing pompous sleazebags, and he’s so perfect here that we can’t wait for Lecter to get filleting and grilling – something deliciously hinted at in the film’s last scene.
It’s rare that we get the chance to see cornerstones of modern cinema on the big screen, so anyone with even the mildest interest in the history of horror should snap up the chance. These days, The Silence of the Lambs languishes just the right side of camp – if you’re after a realistic portrayal of a serial killer, find Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, one of the best movies you’ll never want to see again. Otherwise, relish Hopkins’ lip-smacking performance and get down to Kino Art on May 16 – it’s a bloody good yarn, really well told.