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& # 39; Silence of the Lambs & # 39; turns 30: How the horror masterpiece Hollywood nonetheless grabs

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

Orion pictures

"Believe me, you don't want Hannibal Lecter on your mind," warns FBI veteran Jack Crawford of trainee Clarice Starling and viewers at the start of Jonathan Demmes' Oscar-winning film "Silence of the Lambs".

Thirty years later, the charming but monstrous villain remains fresh in the minds of modern audiences.

"Silence of the Lambs" is not the first film to deal with the twisted thoughts of Dr. Lecter, and certainly not the last. It is based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Harris, which was actually the second book he wrote and which revolved around the prolific and eerily adorable serial killer, a sequel to the hit "Red Dragon".

"Silence of the Lambs" was released on Valentine's Day in 1991 and was a low budget sleeper hit that gradually gained widespread recognition and box office success. With Demme at the helm, the film was not only praised as a cinematic work of art, but also left a lasting mark on Hollywood.

The film follows a young FBI intern named Clarice Starling who works for the brilliant psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who is imprisoned for murder and cannibalism. Senior FBI agent Jack Crawford believes Lecter may have insight into an ongoing serial murder case and Starling could be the perfect bait to collaborate with.

"Jodence of the Lambs" with Jodie Foster as Clarice and Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Lecter quickly caught the imagination of moviegoers.

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

A big win for the horror genre

The film opened on a Thursday and had domestic ticket sales of $ 1.4 million. By the end of the weekend, it had been $ 11.6 million, according to Comscore.

And that after operating in fewer than 1,500 theaters, a relatively small number compared to modern releases that often appear in up to 5,400 locations, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

The film had long legs in theaters, ran for eight months, and raised more than $ 130.7 million in the US and Canada, and a total of $ 275 million worldwide.

While it wasn't the first horror film to be nominated for the Academy Awards or for Best Picture Award at the ceremony, it was the first film in the genre to win the highest award. In fact, "Silence of the Lambs" won the Academy Awards in 1992, making it the third film in history to win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

"It Happened One Night" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" were the only films to have earned this award before, and no film has done it since.

"It was horror as presented by the Louvre," said Dergarabedian.

Best Actor Recipient Anthony Hopkins, Best Actress Recipient Jodie Foster, and Best Director Recipient Jonathan Demme hold their Oscars at the 64th Annual Academy Awards on March 30, 1992 in Los Angeles, CA.

John T. Barr | Hulton Archives | Getty Images

While the horror genre has often been synonymous with blood, blood, and jump scares, it's actually a bit broader and more nuanced. In general, the horror genre encompasses any form of storytelling designed to terrify, shock, or arouse fear and horror in an audience.

This can take many forms. "Silence of the Lambs", for example, is not just a horror film, but also a psychological thriller. While a film like "Poltergeist" is a supernatural horror film or "Shaun of the Dead" is a comedic horror film.

"If you define what the horror genre was before 'Silence of the Lambs', it wasn't all goofy Slashers," Thompson said. "There have been intelligent horror films, but I think there was a point in 'Silence of the Lambs' that really changed the idea of ​​what a horror film could be." It wasn't so much about the moments of screaming as it was a much calmer feeling of utterly hopeless terror. "

Filmmakers had mixed genres long before Demme's Silence of the Lambs. The film came to Hollywood at a time when the horror genre was inundated with "creatively exhausted" slasher films, said Adam Lowenstein, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Horror Studies Working Group.

Following the success of films such as Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, the entertainment industry began producing films in the slasher sub-genre. While a number of horror films were produced in the '80s and' 90s that cultivated cult audiences, the majority of the films became widely ranged by critics and the category was soon seen as inferior to other genres.

"I saw it when it came out and I was very impressed and very excited," said Lowenstein. "Not just because it was a good movie, but because I was excited about the genre as a whole, because I had an undeniable horror movie in my head that got all sorts of recognition and felt like a breakthrough in a way."

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs".

Orion pictures

Before "Silence of the Lambs" there were only two films of the horror genre that were nominated for best picture since the first Academy Awards in 1929 – "The Exorcist" in 1974 and "Jaws" in 1976.

In the years that followed, only three joined this list. "The Sixth Sense" was nominated for the grand prize in 2000, "Black Swan" in 2011 and "Get Out" in 2018.

There is some debate in the entertainment industry about whether Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water," which won Best Picture in 2018, should be considered along with these other films. After all, del Toro's film was inspired by "Creature From the Black Lagoon".

Lowenstein spoke out in favor of it. However, it seems that the horror elements of the film are overshadowed by other classifications such as fantasy, romance, and drama.

Jonathan Demme's brilliance

Much of the success of "Silence of the Lambs" as a film is thanks to Demme. The filmmaker, who studied under horror legend Roger Corman, retired the gore for at least the first two-thirds of the film, relying on close-up, editing, and exposure to instill fear and horror in audiences.

With only about 16 minutes of screen time, Hannibal Lecter towers over all the characters in the film. Before his first appearance, Clarice is repeatedly warned about him. Crawford tells her not to let it in her head, and Dr. Chilton, the director of the sanatorium where Lecter lives, describes in detail how she should behave towards the imprisoned psychiatrist.

Then he shows Clarice the reason the sanatorium insists on such precautions. Lecter had complained of chest pain nearly a decade ago and was taken to the building's medical center for an EKG. When his cuffs and mouthpiece were removed, he brutally attacked a nurse.

"The doctors managed to more or less reset their jaws," says Chilton, showing Clarice a picture. "Saved one of her eyes. His pulse never went above 85 even when he ate her tongue."

The audience is not familiar with the picture, but the implicit violence is enough to give a solid picture of "Hannibal the Cannibal". That is, until the audience looked at him for the first time.

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

Orion pictures

The man who waits for Clarice to approach his cell is a gentleman. His speech is flawless, a cutting and concise dialect that Hopkins mirrored from Hal 9000, the evil computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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

"Hopkins is only in 16 minutes," said Thompson. "These dates are a real testimony to the real power of this film and the highly disturbing nature of the message I left (the theater). The intellectualization of terrible behavior, the idea that this really monstrous character thought and acted in ways that were rational and intelligent and that I learned to admire. "

Only in the last third of the film does the audience get a glimpse of the physical monster lurking beneath the surface. Lecter, who had planned his escape from the start, brutally beats two guards; hangs one from the rafters of the courthouse, stripping and carving the other's face, posing as a deceased officer to be transported in an ambulance.

"Demme is not afraid to showcase (the movie's) ties to the genre," Lowenstein said. "He understands the need to alternate graphic violence and implicit violence. You increase the impact of each one by alternating them. 'Silence of the Lambs' does that very well."

The case of Buffalo Bill

One piece of "Silence of the Lambs" that has become a hot topic in recent years is the portrayal of Buffalo Bill.

In Harris' novel and Demmes film, Jame Gumb is a distraught man. He's a man who kidnaps women so he can make suits out of their skin. Within the film, Gumb is dancing around in women's clothes, a scalp of a woman with blonde hair, and has had a homosexual relationship with at least one man.

On the surface, the character is a very negative stereotype of the LGBTQ community. However, both the book and the film point out that Gumb is actually not a transsexual person.

"Look for serious childhood disorders that are associated with violence," says Dr. Lecter Clarice from the serial killer. "Our Billy wasn't born a criminal, Clarice. He was turned into one through years of systematic abuse. Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times wilder and wilder. " more terrifying. "

Ted Levine as Jame Gumb aka Buffalo Bill in "Silence of the Lambs".

Orion pictures

"When 'Silence of the Lambs' came out, the list of trans characters in big movies and on TV was a pretty short list," Thompson said.

While the filmmakers' intent may not have been to showcase the trans community this way, it hasn't helped so few of these characters in the industry become a savage serial killer who questions their identities, the Improved public perception of transgender individuals.

Not to mention, during the release of "Silence of the Lambs," most of the transgender characters were portrayed as either prostitutes or male characters dressed in drag for a comedic effect.

"There is no doubt that we are living in a time when our awareness of not only queer but also transgender issues is much more nuanced and general," said Lowenstein. "There is no doubt that Buffalo Bill's portrayal needs rewriting and further exploration."

"I don't think that precludes the film from admiration or further study," he continued. "Like any film, it's a product of its time. It's valuable to go back and study old films. They tell us about the time they came from."

An enduring legacy

"Silence of the Lambs" helped improve the horror genre in the decades following its release, but it also had a noticeable ripple effect across the entertainment industry.

Harris wrote four novels centered around the character of Dr. Lecter shot – "Red Dragon", "Silence of the Lambs", "Hannibal" and "Hannibal Rising" – and adjustments have been made over the past four decades.

However, Demme's film took Harris' work and brought it into mass culture. The iconic depiction of Dr. Lecter by Hopkins, Foster's calm and profound performance, and the film's psychological elements that captured audiences and filmmakers in 1991, still influence her today.

Almost 30 years prior to the anniversary of "Silence of the Lambs" debut in theaters, CBS launched a series called "Clarice," which follows the newly minted FBI agent a year after the events of "Silence of the Lambs".

Clarice Starling and the VICAP team are dispatched to Tennessee, where the FBI is besieging a fringe militia group called "The Statesmen" on CBS "Clarice". , Thursday, February 18 (10: 00-11: 00 a.m. 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

Just a few years ago, NBC had a three-season series called "Hannibal," which followed the psychiatrist in the period before his arrest.

Outside of direct adjustments, "Silence of the Lambs" has inspired numerous projects and laid the foundation for them.

"You're watching a series like 'Dexter' that owes so much to the 'Silence of the Lambs'," Thompson said.

The Showtime series, which lasted eight seasons, follows Dexter Morgan, a Miami-based blood spatter expert who not only solves but also commits murders. He's a serial killer, but only murders the guilty. His adoptive father recognized his urge to kill at a young age and taught him to hone his skills and use them forever.

Dexter is an antihero that the audience should turn against after all. However, he is portrayed as a normal guy who rationalizes his addiction – murder – so directly that viewers also begin to rationalize it. His intellect, tenacity, and sense of justice almost protect him from anger. The audience sympathizes with him.

Then there's NBC's "The Blacklist," which began as a show about a professional criminal named Raymond Reddington who signs up for the FBI but only speaks to Agent Elizabeth Keen, who happens to be starting her first day in the office.

James Spader plays Raymond Reddington on "The Blacklist" on NBC.


When Keen first met Reddington, he was sitting in a glass cage, waiting for her with an expression similar to Dr. Lecter while waiting for Clarice. While the show ultimately deviated from "Silence of the Lambs," its initial premise focused heavily on Reddington, who used 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 Hannibal and Clarice's relationship is now between a father and a son.

Malcolm Bright is a retired FBI agent turned NYPD advisor whose father, Martin Whitly, is a serial killer known as "The Surgeon". Malcolm is forced to consult with his father on several occasions because of his unique insights into the psychology of criminals and murder.

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 and Clarice's iconic take on Dr. Lecter imitated.

"'Silence of the Lambs' opened the door to other filmmakers," Dergarabedian said. "You could line up unconventional heroes and anti-heroes and not get a boot out the door."

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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