A villain you hate to love is a hard thing to come by, but a villain you just plain love is even more of a rarity. Despite being an amoral serial killer who eats his victims, Hannibal Lecter is so charismatic he has become a part of pop culture across four films and a TV show that barred his first name. Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) was the second film to feature the character, but it is the one responsible for making him an icon of cinema thanks to award-winning performances by Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal the Cannibal and Jodie Foster as the object of what passes for his affections.
I definitely did my homework on this ghoulish story, having read the book of the same name by Thomas Harris in the late 90s and used it for a book report, much to my teacher’s surprise. Over the years I have read Hannibal the book, seen that movie, watched Anthony Hopkins revisit the role one last time in Red Dragon, and seen Brian Cox first tackle the role in Michael Mann’s Manhunter. Most recently I watched Mads Mikkelsen put his own spin on Lecter in all three seasons of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, a show that was most likely unrealistic, but deliciously campy and bloody. However for some good scares and thrills it is still hard to beat watching Demme’s Oscar-winning film in October for a Halloween fright fest.
The quality of Harris’ books apparently declined with the release of Hannibal Rising, unread by me, but before that one thing you couldn’t deny about the author is he has a fertile imagination for killers. You would think that a psychiatrist who eats his victims would be as bad as it gets, but in The Silence of the Lamb Hannibal Lecter is a consultant of sorts to catch an even bigger threat. Nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” by the press, this serial killer (Ted Levine) kills young women and then skins the corpses, possibly for trophies. Jack the Ripper seems somewhat quaint when compared to the world Lecter inhabits.
Desperate for leads, Jack Crawford (Scott Glen) of the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit pulls young Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) out of training to interview Lecter in the hopes one serial killer might help to catch another. Of course the problem with interviewing a psychiatrist is that questioning people is part of his day job, hence he usually has the upper hand in their conversations, often delving into Clarice’s past. Yet Clarice is smart and stands her ground, something Crawford probably counts on, and gets Lecter to send her on a search for clues. What she probably did not expect was that said clue would be a man’s severed head with a sphinx moth lodged in its throat, which inspired the film’s poster.
The case takes on even more publicity when “Buffalo Bill’ abducts a U.S senator’s daughter. This also gives Lecter a lot more leverage to negotiate for a new prison cell away from the nefarious Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), and for the negotiation he is taken to the senator (Diane Baker) while wearing his iconic face mask. The man is quite like an animal: put your fingers too close to the cage and you might lose a finger, or possibly even the arteries in your neck.
Despite the fact he looks and acts like a monster, Clarice and the audience can’t help but like Lecter. He is after all a cultured man who enjoys classical music, can draw scenes from Italy by memory, and genuinely helps Clarice not only with the case, but also with a childhood trauma that involves the sound of lambs being slaughtered.
For better of for worse, Hopkins will forever be associated with the charismatic cannibal, but Foster is also worthy of praise for her performance as the young Clarice who grows a lot during the investigation, and seems genuinely scared in the scene where the killer is right behind her in a dark basement wearing night vision goggles.
Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees ruled horror cinema in the 1980s, but they are mere caricatures when compared to the smart and well-spoken psychiatrist/cannibal of The Silence of the Lambs. Here was a horror movie that could be entertaining, chilling, and damn horrific while offering stellar performances.