The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

“You still wake up sometimes, don’t you? Wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs.


And you think if you save poor Catherine, you could make them stop, don’t you? You think if Catherine lives, you won’t wake up in the dark ever again. To that awful screaming of the lambs.

I don’t know. I don’t know.

Thank you, Clarice. Thank you.

Tell me his name, Doctor” – Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

It is finally time to put the spotlight on one of the most influential (and one of my favorite) movies of all time: The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Based on the second book of the Hannibal Lecter series by Thomas Harris and directed by Jonathan Demme, this crime drama has more than enough elements to play in the horror genre.

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is an exceptional trainee at the FBI academy in Quantico, Virginia. She is summoned to the office of Special Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) one day to be given a special assignment. She is being sent to meet the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter, a former psychiatrist who infamously killed and cannibalized multiple victims. In the midst of unsolved murder cases (including a newer serial killer that has emerged), the FBI higher-ups believe Lecter’s insight will help them understand the psychological profiles of the more elusive perpetrators. Lecter has since refused to answer the FBI’s questions, but Crawford wants to give Clarice a try. He warns Clarice to be careful with the psychiatrist, to not let him inside her head.

Clarice travels to Baltimore to meet Dr. Lecter. Following detailed instructions for her safety, Clarice meets the carefully-guarded Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). He waits for her behind a wall of glass. The walls of his cell are covered in detailed drawings he completed from memory. Clarice does her best to gain Lecter’s trust and persuade him to contribute to the FBI’s questionnaire, but Lecter shuts her down and dismisses her. Clarice is assaulted by another inmate when she tries to leave, and Lecter frantically calls her back. He gives her a piece of cryptic advice before rushing her away again. Clarice follows up on Lecter’s comments and makes a discovery that connects Dr. Lecter to the case of Buffalo Bill, an active serial killer who has caught the attention of the nation through his pattern of kidnapping, imprisoning, killing, skinning, and disposing of his victims.

The case takes Clarice beyond the academy grounds and across state lines to track the remains of Buffalo Bill’s victims. When a senator’s daughter is abducted with all signs pointing to the same killer, the race to find answers accelerates even more. All the while, Dr. Lecter shares pieces of information related to a former patient who fits the profile of the serial killer. With very little else pointing them to answers, the FBI are relying on Lecter’s insight as a psychiatrist and serial killer. In exchange, Dr. Lecter requires Clarice to share memories with him from her traumatic childhood, which she has tried to forget. As the case closes in and time to save Buffalo Bill’s latest prisoner runs out, Clarice has only one option: play Hannibal Lecter’s game.

The Silence of the Lambs is so rich in detail that it can take multiple viewings to spot them all and see how they are connected. Anthony Hopkins’ masterful performance of Hannibal Lecter brings an even deeper horror to this mystery. The psychological chess match between him and Jodi Foster’s fragile yet commanding Clarice is the foundation that leaves the audience in anticipation as much as Buffalo Bill’s impending ritual. The story and performances are elevated by masterful directing and a haunting score that carries the viewer through the tense plot and horrific storytelling.

In addition to Clarice’s experiences with sexism and gendered experience in a traditionally masculine workplace, gender plays another major role in this story. Many horror scholars have pointed out the issue of gender non-conformity in the character of Buffalo Bill as a catalyst for his role as a villain. The theme of physical change plays a vital role in the goal of this killer. While I do not make it a point to cite fictional characters for their expertise, I do want to acknowledge that Dr. Lecter addresses the true root of the killer’s motivation. He explains that Buffalo Bill does not truly identify as transgender, but that his conflict with the body and self that has been abused his entire life led him to believe he must be transgender. It is still important for viewers and filmmakers to understand that these public narratives exist and have led to dangerous representation of gender non-conforming individuals. We saw something similar with Psycho (1960); in that case, Norman Bates was not truly transgender either and solely used his mother’s identity to cope with the guilt of her murder. These examples may not be positive representations, but they are important to acknowledge in the film community in order to move forward with better representation that does not consistently cast people of differing gender identity or sexual orientation as villainous.

My first time watching The Silence of the Lambs took place in 20-minute intervals over one of my first weeks of college before I left for class. I would not have done it any other way, because watching this story unfold slowly made it even more impressive and suspenseful. This movie has sat high in my movie collection over the past decade, and I believe it always will. It may have had its controversies, but it remains one of the most impactful films in popular culture and a pillar of the horror community. Even with every other outstanding factor in this film, the performances of the cast are what truly set it apart as a masterpiece.

Until next time,


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