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The Silence of the Lambs

(Directed by Jonathan Demme)

What else can you say about one of the most revered and award-winning genre films (and it IS horror, make no mistake) of the 90s? Its success, both on a critical and globally financial basis, gave horror a sheen of respectability and quality that it hadn’t had for ages, and it lost at least part of the sneering taboo that mainstream critics gave terror-flicks at the time. This feat is something that has been arguably accomplished by only a few other genre films since then (The Shape of Water, Get Out, etc.). Be that as it may, the lovechild of sadly-missed director Demme and cult author Thomas Harris gave birth to an unlikely franchise that culminated in a sequel, a prequel-remake, a cult TV series, and a huge dent on pop culture. The film itself had a slightly tortuous origin. Originally Gene Hackman took a shine to the 1988 novel of the same name and was driving the project so he could take the role of FBI mentor Jack Crawford (eventually played by Scott Glenn). When the Hackster dropped out, and Demme came on board, the hunt was on for FBI wunderkind Clarice Starling and classy serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter.

Believe it or not, several actresses were courted and turned down the role of Starling due to the violence and gore. Allegedly this included the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Laura Dern, and Meg Ryan. But Jodie Foster was keen to play the strong female role after coming off her Oscar-winning turn in The Accused, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else portraying the character in hindsight (with apologies to Julianne Moore). Of course, Lecter (or “Lecktor”) had already been impressively played by Brian Cox in 1986’s Manhunter. Actors considered for this interpretation were: Sean Connery (!?), Al Pacino. Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman. But of course, Hopkins snagged it and made it his own. The story follows that of the book quite closely (screenplay adapted by Ted Tally, who went on to Dreamwork films in later years. Really.), with nascent FBI profiler Starling engaging with Lecter about an autogynephilic (look it up but clear your browser history afterwards) serial killer called “Buffalo Bill” (unnervingly played by a twitchy Ted Levine). “Bill” is currently holding a Senator’s daughter hostage, with the intent to kill and skin her. An unlikely “friendship” builds up between Starling and Lecter, as two killers near the climax of their frightening plans.

Lambs is the epitome of modern “gothic horror”. If Bladerunner influenced a generation of sci-fi films and art, then “Lambs” is the horror version of that. The grubby, imaginative, and surreal set designs would go on to influence everything from Se7en to Saw. The intelligence of Lecter and Hopkin’s inflexions on the character (lip-smacking, confident stillness, etc.) would become a benchmark. Even Foster’s nuanced, nervous, and brave take on Starling would lead to her becoming a female icon. After all, she is the “Final Girl” for the whole plot. The triple whammy of intelligent horror, perfect performances, and stunning visuals (and also a brilliant and underrated soundtrack from Howard Shore) meant it became a huge “sleeper” hit that no one saw coming. Demme, Foster, Hopkins, and Tally all won Oscars for their efforts, and Lambs won “Best Picture”. Unheard of for a film containing so much blood, violence, and deprivation, it gave horror a badge of honour for once. Admittedly the characterisation of “Bill” feels a little thin (despite Levine’s performance), and it didn’t go over well with some LGBT+ representatives at the time, so certainly would pick up controversy if it were released now. But overall, it’s an unmitigated classic. Standout moments include: Starling’s blind stumble through Bill’s dungeon, the aftermath of Lecter’s escape with the skinned cop and his “wings”, Lecter languidly beating the crap out of his tormentors with a baton, and any monologue scene with Foster or Hopkins dominating the screen. Sheer brilliance, and of course we wouldn’t have had Hannibal without it. BTW: Rumours about a revived season for Hannibal periodically surface and CBS is currently shooting a TV series based on Clarice Starling’s career after the events of Lambs, with actress Rebecca Breeds in the lead role. Presumably, this will ignore events from the “Hannibal” film and book…