‘Silence of the Lambs’ turns 30: How the horror masterpiece is still gripping Hollywood

Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins star in “Silence of the Lambs.”

Orion Pictures

“Believe me, you do not want Hannibal Lecter inside your head,” veteran FBI Agent Jack Crawford warns trainee Clarice Starling, and viewers, at the begin of Jonathan Demme’s Academy Award-winning movie “Silence of the Lambs.”

Thirty years later, the charming, but monstrous, villain stays contemporary in the minds of trendy audiences.

“Silence of the Lambs” is not the first movie to delve into the twisted thoughts of Dr. Lecter, and positively wasn’t the final. It’s primarily based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the similar title, which was really the second e-book he wrote centered round the prolific and eerily bewitching serial killer, a follow-up to the hit “Red Dragon.”

Released on Valentine’s Day in 1991, “Silence of the Lambs” was a low-budget sleeper hit that steadily gained widespread important acclaim and field workplace success. With Demme at the helm, the movie was not solely lauded as a cinematic work of artwork, however has had a long-lasting affect on Hollywood.

The movie follows a younger FBI trainee named Clarice Starling who is tasked with interviewing the sensible psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who has been imprisoned for homicide and cannibalism. Senior FBI Agent Jack Crawford believes that Lecter could have perception into an ongoing serial homicide case and Starling may very well be the excellent bait to get his cooperation.

Starring Jodie Foster as Clarice and Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Lecter, “Silence of the Lambs” shortly captured the imaginations of moviegoers.

“When I think back on the movies I really remember seeing in theaters, you know… it’s an alarmingly short number,” mentioned Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and a popular culture professional. “I left the theater thinking I had seen a movie to be reckoned with, in a way I didn’t usually feel leaving the theater.”

A giant win for the horror style

While the horror style has typically been synonymous with blood, gore and bounce scares, it is really a bit extra broad and nuanced. Generally, the horror style encapsulates any kind of storytelling that is supposed to scare, shock or fire up dread and terror in an viewers.

This can tackle many kinds. “Silence of the Lambs,” for instance is a psychological thriller along with being a horror movie. Whereas a film like “Poltergeist” is a supernatural horror movie or “Shaun of the Dead” is a comedic horror movie.

“If you define what the horror genre was before ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ it wasn’t all goofy slashers,” Thompson mentioned. “There had been intelligent horror films, but I think there was a sense with ‘Silence of the Lambs’ that really did change the idea of what could constitute a horror movie. “It wasn’t a lot about the moments of screaming, it was a way more nearly quiet sense of absolute hopeless terror.”

Filmmakers had blended genres long before Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs.” The film arrived in Hollywood at a time when the horror genre had become inundated with “creatively exhausted” slasher films, said Adam Lowenstein, professor at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Horror Studies Working Group.

After the success of films like “Halloween,” “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th,” the entertainment industry began to churn out films in the slasher subgenre. While there were a number of horror films produced in the ’80s and ’90s that went on to cultivate cult audiences, the majority of films were widely panned by critics and the category was soon thought of as inferior compared to other genres.

“I noticed it when it got here out and I used to be very impressed and really excited,” Lowenstein said. “Not simply because it was a superb film, however as a result of I used to be excited for the style at massive as a result of right here was in my thoughts an simple horror movie that was profitable all types of acclaim and it felt like a breakthrough in a way.”

The brilliance of Jonathan Demme

The man waiting for Clarice to approach his cell is a gentleman. His speech is impeccable, a cutting and succinct dialect that Hopkins said he mirrored from Hal 9000, the evil computer from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The camera begins cutting between Clarice and Hannibal, extreme close-ups that seem to suggest the characters are speaking to the audience and not each other, and the terror builds.

“Hopkins is solely in it for 16 minutes,” Thompson said. “That piece of information is an actual testimony to the actual energy of that film and the extremely disturbing nature of the message that I left [the theater] with. The intellectualizing of horrible habits, the concept that this actually monstrous character thought and behaved in ways in which had been rational and clever and methods wherein I used to be taught to admire.”

It is only in the last third of the film when audiences get a glimpse at the physical monster lurking beneath the surface. Lecter, who had been planning his escape since the beginning, savagely beats two guards; hangs one from the rafters of the court house, disembowled, and carves the face from the other, using it to pose as the deceased officer in order to gain transport in an ambulance.

“Demme is not afraid to showcase [the film’s] attachments to the style,” Lowenstein said. “He understands the must alternate graphic violence and implied violence. You improve the affect of every by alternating them. ‘Silence of the Lambs’ does that very properly.”

The case of Buffalo Bill

An enduring legacy

Clarice Starling and the VICAP team are deployed to Tennessee where the FBI is laying siege against a fringe militia group called “The Statesmen,” on CBS’ “Clarice.” , Thursday, Feb. 18 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured Rebecca Breeds as Clarice Starling (Photo by Brooke Palmer/CBS via Getty Images)

CBS Photo Archive | CBS | Getty Images

Only a few years ago, NBC had a three-season series called “Hannibal,” which followed the psychiatrist in the time leading up to his arrest.

Outside of direct adaptations, “Silence of the Lambs” has inspired and laid the groundwork for numerous projects.

“You take a look at a collection like ‘Dexter,’ it owes a lot to ‘Silence of the Lambs,'” Thompson said.

The Showtime series, which ran for eight seasons, follows Dexter Morgan, a Miami-based blood spatter expert who doesn’t just solve murders, he commits them, too. He’s a serial killer, but only murders the guilty. His adoptive father, recognizing his homicidal urges at a young age, taught him to hone his skills and use them for good.

Dexter is an antihero that, by all accounts, audiences should be rooting against. However, he is portrayed as a normal guy who rationalizes his addiction — murder — in such a straight-forward way that viewers begin to rationalize it, too. His intellect, tenacity and sense of justice almost shield him from ire. The audience sympathizes with him.

Then there is NBC’s series “The Blacklist,” which started as a show about a career criminal named Raymond Reddington who turns himself in to the FBI, but will only talk to Agent Elizabeth Keen, who is coincidentally starting her first day at the bureau.

James Spader stars as Raymond Reddington in “The Blacklist” on NBC.


When Keen first meets Reddington, he’s sat in a glass cage waiting for her with a similar expression as Dr. Lecter had while waiting for Clarice to arrive. While the show ultimately deviated from “Silence of the Lambs,” its initial premise centered heavily around Reddington using his expertise while incarcerated to help Keen solve crimes and apprehend criminals.

A similar storytelling setup can be found in Fox’s “Prodigal Son,” although the Hannibal/Clarice relationship is now between a father and son.

Malcolm bright is an ex-FBI agent turned NYPD consultant whose father, Martin Whitly, is a serial killer known as “The Surgeon.” Malcolm is forced on multiple occasions to consult with his father on cases because of his unique insights into the psychology of criminals and murders.

Tom Payne and Michael Sheen star in Fox’s “Prodigal Son.”


Some of the marketing for “Prodigal Son” even featured Whitly standing behind his son, mimicking the iconic shot of Clarice with Dr. Lecter.

“‘Silence of the Lambs’ opened the door for different filmmakers,” Dergarabedian said. “You may pitch unconventional heroes and antiheroes and never get a boot out the door.”

Disclosure: Comcast is the father or mother firm of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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