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The Silence of the Lambs: Revisiting a classic 30 years on

Released on Valentine’s Day in 1991, the Oscar-winning film continues to shock, revolt and grip in equal measures.

February 13, 2021 / 06:56 PM IST
The Silence of the Lambs won Oscars for Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Image: Orion Pictures

The Silence of the Lambs won Oscars for Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Image: Orion Pictures

I first heard about The Silence of the Lambs when it was released in theatres in the US in 1991. Folks back home were not comfortable with the idea of me watching the movie and did their best to keep me away from it. When I did see it, the film shocked, revolted and grossed me out in equal measures. Now 30 years later, I am better placed to see it as the horror classic that it has come to be.

The plot of The Silence of the Lambs is quite gruesome. FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is pulled out of training from Quantico to interview the incarcerated Dr Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and seek his help in nailing the serial killer Buffalo Bill, who skins his female victims after murdering them.

Foster and Hopkins won Oscars for their performances. Directed with a rare verve by the Oscar-winning Jonathan Demme, the screenplay was based on an acclaimed novel by Thomas Harris and adapted by Ted Tally, who, too, took home an Oscar.

Horror films rarely, if ever, win an Oscar and the Best Picture award during the 1992 Academy Awards ceremony sealed the deal. The Silence of the Lambs swept the top five Oscars, only the third film to do so.

The film was slickly shot by Tak Fujimoto, helping it gain a mainstream audience even as the movie was packaged as a thriller and smuggled quietly into theatres, where it became a sleeper hit. Howard Shore’s music is sublime.

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Neither Demme nor Hopkins was the first choice for the film. Gene Hackman was to direct it but the deal fell through. Hopkins luckily agreed to play Lecter after Jeremy Iron and, inevitably, Robert De Niro declined.

Hopkins becomes the first reason to see the movie. He is especially convincing in the early prison scenes between him Foster. The bloodletting during his escape from prison is also quite horrific but gripping.

In the book, Lecter, or Hannibal “The Cannibal”, invites Starling into the darkest chambers of his mind and reveals to the FBI rookie that she wants the screaming lambs of a childhood incident to be silenced forever. As both of them race to catch Buffalo Bill, Starling finally confronts the serial killer in his gory, terror-inducing basement.

In the film, we are taken into the geeky world of movie cannibals through the eyes of the young Starling. It’s easy enough until this part but the film steadily gets frightening, apart from being disturbing.

The cult of The Silence of the Lambs will last forever along with movies like NosferatuPsycho and Halloween.

Lecter and Starling, who are etched in our minds, have much in common. “People will say we’re in love,” Lecter cackles. Both are ostracised by society. Lecter because he is a serial killer (a malevolent but likable presence) and Starling because she is a woman surrounded by men in her profession who undermine her.

The Silence of the Lambs is also a movie about psychiatry. In exchange for information about Starling (whose father is killed in the line of duty), Lecter agrees to build a profile of Buffalo Bill who is recreating an identity for himself with the skins of women he murdered. The movie was so successful that it became a model for the decades that followed.

Today, the film is hailed as a timeless classic in the horror genre. The thing to do is go down memory lane and catch this masterpiece again.

(Nandhu Sundaram is a journalist based in Chennai.)
Nandhu Sundaram lives in the tiny town of Arumanai in Tamil Nadu. He is a freelance journalist who writes on film and politics and the intersection between the two.
first published: Feb 13, 2021 04:03 pm

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