‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ Is Still The Greatest Horror Movie Ever

Whenever feasible, one should always try to eat the rude

Before he skins them, the killer sticks a moth down his victim’s throat, symbolic of his own aberrant psycho-sexual condition- the need to turn from a moth to a butterfly.

The superbly crafted suspense thriller that director Jonathan Demme has made from Thomas Harris’s best-selling novel The Silence of the Lambs slams you like a sudden blast of bone-chilling, pulse-pounding terror. It follows Clarice Starling, played with heartfelt tenacity by Jodie Foster, as an FBI trainee on the trail of a serial killer. But the most exciting presence in the film is Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter- the devastatingly demonic and brilliant and incarcerated psychopath who agrees to help her in her search.

In The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins makes the most unforgettable anti-entrance of any screen villain in years; he doesn’t enter into the movie, the movie goes to him. The opening steps of the film’s breathless path are a preparation, a psyche-up, for us and FBI trainee Clarice Starling who has been summoned to question the incarcerated Lecter in hopes of gleaning clues about another grisly killer known as Buffalo Bill played by Ted Levine. Hannibal Lecter lives deep within the bowels of a Baltimore institution for the criminally insane and when he arrives, he is as still as a guillotine blade perched to drop. Those 15 minutes are a crackling swirl of movement, rife with an apprehension that sets your stomach churning like a tumble dryer.

We in the audience, along with Clarice, are geared to expect a bone-chilling monster, the maniac cutthroat of all time. But there he is- standing before us handsomely in a soothing, almost fatherly way, his big bright eyes gazing out at the world with exquisite sensitivity. Lecter’s dark hair is slicked straight back in such a way that it heightens his forehead- a skull-and-bones caution label that reads “Lethal brilliance lodged inside”. There’s a touch of androgyny in his ironically serene presence; he’s at once virile and soft, like a ballet dancer. And when he begins to talk, the words come out with pinched elegance and are seamless, playful, and as thrillingly seductive as a dancer’s movements- “Let me see your credentials, Clarice. Come closer, please”.

Clarice has been assigned to get Hannibal Lecter’s help because she’s a novice and extremely attractive, but she turns out to be savvier. Her girlish ingenuousness does get to Lecter, but so does her sharp, intuitive mind, since that’s what he values most in a person. Intrigued and infatuated, Lecter sets a deal in motion. Tell me about yourself, he tells Clarice- “Reveal your secrets, your fears, your soul, and I’ll look over the evidence and help you find Buffalo Bill”. The Silence of the Lambs jumps between their conversations, Clarice’s investigation into the killings, and scenes set inside the anonymous small-town lair of Buffalo Bill, a.k.a. Jame Gumb- a would-be transsexual who is keeping his latest prey alive in a dungeon-like hole in the basement.

Anthony Hopkins is so chillingly submerged in this character that you may occasionally feel the need to look away from the screen. We can sense that savagery and tenderness coexist in Lecter. What makes the character so prickly and fascinating is that his homicidal impulses are a natural extension of his intelligence, his ability to appreciate people’s most intimate qualities. Lecter seeks complete knowledge of everyone he encounters- By killing people and eating them, he literally consumes their identities.

The coiled potential of Hannibal Lecter – our imaginings of what could happen if we got too close to the glass reflecting ourselves – is the real horror of this truly horrific movie. What keeps The Silence of the Lambs just this side of exploitation is its decision to keep the brutality off-screen- we feel the awfulness of Buffalo Bill’s murders without bearing witness. Until the rather nasty last half hour, we are kept on edge by Clarice’s efforts to draw Lecter out without succumbing to his head trips. Here is a man, after all, who has the manipulative talent to talk someone into swallowing their tongue.

Jodie Foster, on the other hand, gives Clarice a brisk, no-nonsense attitude and, beneath that, a beguiling blend of curiosity and fear. Clarice never seems more accomplished than a freshman overachiever, yet we’re also convinced that she’s daring enough to lock eyes with a lethal game-player like Lecter.

The movie takes its eerie resonance from the bond between these two. The bond works because Lecter, as Hopkins plays him, remains weirdly, perversely likable — despite the fact that he’ll tear people’s faces off when given the opportunity. It works as well because Clarice’s openness with Lecter isn’t sentimentalized; it’s shown to be part of what makes her a good detective. What Clarice and Lecter share is a desire for something that few besides born detectives would ever seek: the full, horrifying knowledge of human darkness. For all the unbridled savagery on display, what is shrewd, significant and finally hopeful about The Silence of the Lambs is the way it proves that a movie can be mercilessly scary and mercifully humane at the same time.



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