On the very first page of Andrew Delbanco’s book The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil is a picture of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, from the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs. Delbanco could hardly have chosen a more popular icon for evil. In 2003 the American Film Institute named Hannibal Lecter the number one greatest movie villain of the last century. But the inclusion of the image in The Death of Satan says more about Hannibal Lecter than the mere fact of his popularity. The question Delbanco asks – “Why can we no longer call [criminals] evil?” (Delbanco 5) – pertains all too well both to The Silence of the Lambs and to its centerpiece, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Both the film, directed by Jonathan Demme, and the character, played by Anthony Hopkins, evade the labels often used to describe their peers. They are both smart and classy. They both have the power to fascinate as much as they appall. Their ambiguities have given rise to waves upon waves of critical interpretation, undertaken using every theory from film suture to psychoanalysis. Complicated sexual elements in the film motivate critics to scrutinize its apparent messages about sexual identity and gender roles.
I do not wish to dismiss any of these interpretations. In fact I appreciate that all of them implicitly acknowledge the issue at stake: this film and this character are mysteries that deserve special attention. Lecter is too charming and too fascinating to call him an evil killer and move on. Likewise, the movie is too intricate to write it off as a horror flick and move on. Yet this is exactly what I intend to do. Interpretations of Silence of the Lambs that read lofty messages into the film do it a disservice. Delbanco’s insistence that we need to reevaluate our ability to perceive and label Evil applies to the issue of generic classification of this film. We cannot label Silence Horror, though we should. In order to view the film for what it really is I am acting upon a very simple suggestion offered by – savor the irony – the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter himself: “First, principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?” (Silence of the Lambs; all future quotes from this film will be taken from this source). I contend that for all the artfulness, intelligence, and complexity that seem to legitimize the film and mitigate its villain, none of these factors change their fundamental nature or purpose. A study of the historical context of its production and exhibition will show that their sophisticated veneers happened to be marketable at the time, due to the unpopular nature of the more exploitative and blunt horror films preceding it. But for all the attempts Lecter makes to distinguish himself from crude killers, and the ways Silence proves itself “better” than an average horror film, their purposes are all alike: to create terror. No disguise can change that.
I undertake my analysis based on the premise that a film’s intentions cannot be determined on the basis of a close reading alone. In order to understand the context underlying Silence of the Lambs we must begin in 1989, the year it started filming. Doing so will help us discover how it was influenced by and directly reacted against the culture of horror cinema in which it was created. The historical-contextual lens of art interpretation is advocated by two authors whom I will be referring to throughout my analysis. Film historian John Kenneth Muir opens his book Horror Film of the 1980s by stating: “Art does not exist in a vacuum. Instead, it is inexorably bound to the time period from which it sprang” (Muir 5). In the article “Genre and the Audience,” Mark Jancovich refers to an approach called “historical reception studies,” which “reinsert[s] the film into the system of social relations that sustains it” (Jancovich 36). The time period from which Silence of the Lambs sprang was the change between the 1980s and 1990s. The turn of the decade was a particularly critical period in the evolution of the Hollywood horror film. Just as Silence entered production in 1989, an era of horror films collectively named Slasher flicks was coming to a close.
It all began with Halloween. Made in 1978 by John Carpenter, on a small budget, this story of a series of murders committed on the night of the titular holiday turned a massive profit and ignited a new trend in horror. In his 1995 book Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture, Kendall Phillips documents the effect of Halloween and the outbreak of Slasher cinema:
While Carpenter’s tale of baby-sitters stalked by a psychotic madman borrows heavily from [previous horror films] … its simple, stalk-and-slash formula would be repeated, almost verbatim, by innumerable imitators. These imitations, films such as Friday the Thirteenth (1980) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), would in turn spawn numerous sequels, as would Halloween. The age of the horror franchise had begun (Phillips 123).
The “stalk-and-slash formula” to which Phillips refers consisted of a few simple ingredients. According to Muir, the major conventions that define the “Slasher Paradigm in 1980s Horror Cinema” are five: The Organizing Principle, The Deadly Preamble, Character Archetypes, Common Scenarios, and Point of View (Muir 20-30). Using his explanation of the five conventions I will give the outline of a typical Slasher film as Muir sees it: A shockingly grisly prologue-scene sets off what will be the first of an evil Killer’s series of murders (23); the Killer and The Victims are consolidated into one contained locale, such as a summer camp, house, or small town (20); a group of teenage characters gets chased and murdered by the omnipresent and unstoppable killer, especially the kids who smoke, drink, or have sex (30); a thunderstorm inevitably disables the group’s cars, phones, and/or lights (29); in the end, only the smart, virtuous, and brave Final Girl survives either to be rescued or to kill the murderer herself (25). So pervasive was this formula that at one point Muir insists that “the slasher movies don’t merely repeat common plot elements or character archetypes, they tend to repeat the identicalscenarios and scare tactics, almost to a fault” (28, emphasis added).
Throughout the 80s, Hollywood studios exploited this formula for all it was worth. It is estimated that no less than seventy-five Slasher horror films were released between 1980 and 1989 (32). The genre attained incredible consumer success despite the formal condemnation Muir claims they received from just about every angle:
Politicians hoping to score points with “family values viewers,” movie reviewers sick of each new variation on a theme, and even sociologists have all taken turns damning the form. Their primary beef is that it represents a bad influence on society and encourages violence in movie-goers. Plus, they’re anti-women, insist some. Movie critics are more practical. On a purely technical level, they insist examples of the form tend to be poorly made (17).
Despite the general beatings it took from various realms of media and society, Hollywood studios continued to churn them out through the mid- and late-80s; it was a profitable trend and they milked it until it was dry. But the Slasher flick’s life cycle came to a close eventually, fading out around the end of the decade that had witnessed its genesis. At the start of the new decade, the Slasher had lost its clout not only in the media but in the box office as well: “By the end of the 1980s, these films had become so formulaic as to be of interest only to the youngest of audiences; older audiences could find little to identify with in the increasingly graphic and ridiculous plots of 1980s horror films” (Phillips 147). The formula had been cloned so many times that it had lost all ability to do what it had set out to do in the first place: entertain people. Critiquing Nightmare on Elm Street IV (1988) Muir laments, “as the series wore on, they became less and less frightening. And who wants to spend time watching a scary movie that isn’t scary?” (Muir 685). Something had to change.
If the rampant critical and commercial success of The Silence of the Lambs is any indicator, something certainly did. Some of its success can be attributed to its basis in the novel of the same name by author Thomas Harris – but other adaptations of novels in the series, including Hannibal (2001), Red Dragon (2002), and Hannibal Rising (2007) were far less critically well received. The collaborative group involved in Silence, including Demme, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, and lead performers Hopkins and Foster, made a movie with technical craftsmanship, nuanced character portrayals, and intricate storytelling. Their efforts yielded them five well-deserved Oscars at the 1991 Academy Awards – Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay (by Ted Tally, based on Harris’ book), Actor (Hopkins), and Actress (Foster). Sweeping the five major awards was quite a feat. But looking at it in the context of the transition from the 1980s to the 1990s reveals just how Silence of the Lambs became so well-received: it set itself apart from the Slasher flicks of the preceding decade. Like the infamous Hannibal Lecter himself, Silence was artful, intelligent, and complex. Its sophistication won over the audiences and critics who had lost faith in the genre. Silence was, moreover, less blatantly misogynistic than its predecessors. (I say “less” because there is a degree of controversy involved with that statement.) As a matter of fact, it was on the whole so far removed from the cheap stab-fests of years past that people had trouble designating it a horror film at all, though it obviously had the trappings of one. As Mark Jancovich explains in his article “Genre and the Audience,” a historical study of the film’s reception,
sections of the press scrupulously avoided any direct association of the film with the horror genre. Many reviews established the film’s association with horror, but then deflected or neutralized it. In place of generic classifications, reviewers deployed ambivalent adjectives: ‘terrifying’, ‘brutally real’, ‘chilling’, ‘macabre’, ‘dark’, and as having ‘an atmosphere of Gothic gloom’ (Jancovich 39).
Silence of the Lambs had changed the formulas; by differentiating itself from horror film conventions of the time it managed to recreate the genre and surprise audiences with a new approach. In doing so it upset accepted notions of horror, violence, and evil. Its classiness seemed to preclude such labels. However, rather than leave behind the old labels completely, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal Lecter brought them along for a modern re-imagining. Sophisticated elements of The Silence of the Lambs were used purely in reaction to the horror films of the 1980s, in order to modernize Slasher. It retained the better parts of a scary movie and threw away all the less tasteful aspects of the formula. The cinematic/aesthetic craftsmanship, the sophisticated forms of suspense, and the complicated sexual politics were used to lure critics and audiences back into the theatre to once again pay for and approve of a scary movie, and it worked.
Silence of the Lambs throws off associations with the Slasher-film pack at the outset, using a whole array of visual and narrative elements. Noticeable first and foremost is its restraint in depicting gore, especially in the first half. Demme refrains from displaying violence early in the film. In doing so he replaces the Deadly Preamble convention of the Slasher flick. Though the film does refer to the murders that precede the story of Silence of the Lambs, Demme subverts the expectation that the film will reveal bloodshed at the outset. Instead he uses sophisticated techniques of cinematography to let the text speak for itself, allowing, as a book does, the audience to imagine the violence for themselves. Very early in the movie, Jodie Foster Clarice Starling visits Lecter in prison. Dr. Chilton, the ward of the asylum, warns Clarice of Lecter’s savagery by relating a frightening cautionary anecdote: “On the afternoon of July 8, 1981, he complained of chest pains and was taken to the dispensary. His mouthpiece and restraints were removed for an EKG. When the nurse leaned over him, he did this to her.” Chilton shows her a photograph. She looks at it. And naturally, all the viewer can do is picture the contents of the photo. Rather than show it to us, Demme cuts to a close, low-angle shot of Jodie Foster’s face as she looks down on the photograph, which now occupies the blurry foreground at the bottom of the frame. Chilton’s voice continues to narrate from offscreen, saying, “The doctors managed to reset her jaw more or less, save one of her eyes… his pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue.” In the meantime the camera remains stubbornly locked on Starling’s face, expressionless, bathed in red light. Chilton savors his own melodrama, because he, like Demme, enjoys tantalizing people with the power of suggestion, without becoming obscene. He separates himself from the grisliness of the crime, giving himself the status of a clinician explaining the unsavory but important details of a grotesque scene. In this way the film as a whole appears to detach itself from the violence and depravity it goes on to explore. It distinguishes itself from the carnage-happy slaughter fests of the years preceding it, which not only explicitly displayed violence but reveled in it.
In a later scene Demme makes another a bid for legitimacy, and distinction from the Slasher-pic, he picks mood, suspense, and drama in favor of cheap shock-thrills. This is the autopsy of a Buffalo Bill victim. It plays out in such a way that the horror/violence spectacle – the sight of the extravagantly disgusting flayed corpse – is withheld for a long time, shown and described bit by bit. As with the photograph, the body is at first only seen blurrily, in the foreground, as we watch Clarice Starling examine it, from a low angle shot, reminiscent of the shot in which we watched her look at the photograph Chilton showed her. Again, as with the photograph, we hear it described aloud: “Star-shaped contact entrance wound over the sternum. Muzzle stamp at the top...she's not local. Her ears are pierced three times, and there's glitter nail polish. Looks like town to me.” Her voice wavers. We react to the monstrous sight vicariously through her. At this point, Demme allows us a glimpse, cutting to a close up of one bloated and filthy arm. Starling continues to observe, “Two of her fingernails are broken off and there's dirt or grit under 'em. It looks like she's tried to claw her way through something.” We catch a few sights of the corpse’s mouth as a cocoon is removed from its throat. Finally, about two minutes into the scene, Demme cuts to a wide shot of the autopsy room, revealing the entire corpse, flayed and decayed. He doesn’t use the corpse to suddenly startle the audience; on the contrary he makes the viewer anticipate it for so long that its appearance functions more as a gratification than an assault. Backlashes against senseless violence as depicted by the Slasher films led him to recreate horror-violence in such a way that did not offend the sensibilities of the viewer.
The autopsy scene, along with the photograph scene and others, functions to legitimize the film on yet another level – reaction against Slasher films’ derision of female characters. In directing our attention primarily to Starling as she scrutinizes such grotesqueries as the photograph and the flayed corpse, Demme and Foster portray her strength and competence. Several critics allege that the film undermines feminism – or, in the words of Andrew Schopp, “cannibalizes” it (Schopp 6). Their arguments rests on the observation, among others, that Starling allows herself to be metaphorically raped by Hannibal Lecter, and furthermore that she succumbs to the wills of male figures including Chilton and Crawford in order to attain career advancement (Fuller; Robbins). But these allegations do not account for the decidedly positive departure it makes from the exploitative portrayals of women in 1980s horror films. Sonia Baello Allué explains that the film improved upon the stereotypical portrayal of female victims:
Compared to earlier slasher movies, it portrays women as victims, but not as passive ones…. Clarice is depicted as a very competent female detective. For Caputi, she is patronised by Lecter and Crawford but the story is presented as if Clarice, as a woman, were the only person capable of really understanding the victims…. Clarice is the one that joins the pieces in the puzzle, arrives at the serial killer's house on her own, rescues Catherine Martin and kills Gumb. Her competence cannot be denied (Allué 13)
Because Starling has the bravery to face the horrors Demme hardly allows the viewer to see – like the photograph and the corpse – she is called “capable” and “competen[t].” Like the restraint with which Demme approaches horror-violence, this aspect of the film eradicated previously established horror conventions and legitimized the film.
Another crucial part of how Silence of the Lambs resists conforming to the 1980s horror film conventions is by elevating its monster, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, from the level of the Slasher archetype to that of a modern cosmopolitan killer. Recall that the Slasher movie formula established by Halloween involves a “psychotic madman” (Phillips 123). The famous big three titles Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street all feature central villains: Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, respectively. They were all iterations of the archetypical Killer in the shared Slasher formula. They all had gruesome appearances – Michael and Jason both wore masks, and Freddy’s face was itself disfigured. Furthermore, they hardly spoke. Their onscreen action consisted almost solely of stalking and murdering the teenage victims. John Muir quips, “Jason and Michael were the strong and silent types” (Muir 34). He also notes that they each had a signature weapon, always some kind of blade (24). They were all, essentially, terrible and vicious monsters.
Demme’s and Hopkins’ creation inverts all these characteristics. Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s appearance and demeanor are not disfigured like the others, but rather clean and normal. At the beginning of the film, he first appears standing erect and alert, behind a clear pane of Plexiglas. He speaks softly, even elegantly. He refers to cosmetics – “You use Evyan skin cream, and sometimes you wear L'Air du Temps, but not today,” travel – “That is the Duomo, seen from the Belvedere. Do you know Florence?” and fine dining – “I ate his liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti.” He is a cosmopolitan cannibal. As Sonia Baeo Allué points out, “In The Silence of the Lambs Hannibal Lecter is not treated as a monster in a classical sense. He is white, probably heterosexual, intelligent, had a liberal profession and is a gentleman” (Allué 14-15). Lecter further distinguishes himself from the 80s Slasher-villains by functioning in the narrative as more than a silent killer. Starling is forced to rely on the brilliant Lecter’s ability to psychologically profile people in order to catch Buffalo Bill. Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s function in the narrative is as something of a co-protagonist; despite the fact that both Starling and the viewer are aware of his savagery, they have no choice but to trust him. Finally, unlike the Michael-Jason-Freddy archetype, Lecter has no weapon – unless one counts, of course, his teeth. One cannot attribute this choice to Demme, as Hannibal Lecter’s cannibalism obviously began with novelist Thomas Harris. What Demme does choose to do is refrain from ever depicting Lecter’s cannibalism onscreen, with the exception of one brief moment in one scene. It is in this pivotal escape sequence that Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal Lecter expose themselves, revealing that at heart, they are quite the same as the Slashers of years past.
For all its differences, the point of Silence of the Lambs is exactly the same as that of any Freddy, Jason, or Michael movie: to scare people. Both Demme and Lecter expose themselves for what they really are in the escape sequence. It catches the audience off guard despite the fact that its inevitability is made quite clear. When Lecter is transferred to a temporary holding cell in Memphis, his new prison guards are lulled into a false sense of security by his apparent civility. Upon his arrival (straightjacketed and muzzled, naturally) one of these guards tells him: “Welcome to Memphis. I'm Lieutenant Boyle. This is Sergeant Patrick. We'll treat you as good as you treat us. You be a gentleman, you're gonna get three hots and a cot.” Lecter tricks the guards and the viewer into buying into his civility, once again employing cultural sophistication to render himself too classy for murder. The escape sequence begins with a shot of a tape player playing classical music, and of Lecter’s artwork. They bring Lecter a high-class meal – “lamb chops, extra rare.” Lecter greets them civilly: “Good evening, gentlemen.” But as they handcuff him to the bars of his cell and enter, Demme employs the horror convention of informing the audience of impending doom: we see Lecter hiding away a small pin in his cupped hand, unseen by the guards. They cuff him to his cage, and Lecter gets to work picking the cuffs with it. For a few dreadful seconds we know that Lecter is free, and no bars or walls separate him from the guards entering what has become his domain. Demme plays out the inevitable for tension, until the suspense until it is too much to bear, until finally the moment arrives. Boyle gets good and close to Hannibal, who makes his move. In a flash, the handcuffs are on Boyle, the other officer’s face is getting eaten off, and Howard Shore’s menacing score has replaced the gentle sounds of Bach’s piano. Lecter turns back to Boyle, and here, in a deftly disturbing low-angle shot from the helpless officer’s perspective we watch Lecter beat him, slowly and methodically with the other officer’s police baton. We watch Hopkins’ face grimace with pleasurable exertion, and see blood spatter across him, and hear the dull thuds each strike makes. In this sequence we see everything for what it really is. Demme and Lecter savor the brutal moment because, in their heart of hearts, violence really was the agenda all along. Though to this point they have distanced themselves from 80s Slasher conventions in many ways, in this scene they roar into action, reminding us that the lowest common denominator of all horror films, intelligent or cheap, is the same: Silence of the Lambs thrills and scares people.
At its core, Silence was and is a product; the skillful balancing act of tension and horror ultimately amounts to no more than a deliberate strategy for achieving maximum financial and critical success. While on one hand schlocky horror violence lost its credibility in the mainstream, the sale of horror film continues to rest on the one-upsmanship of graphic violence. Stephen Prince explains that new kinds of explicit violence became part of the expectation of filmgoers as horror films throughout the 70s and 80s, continually pushing the envelope for onscreen gore: “To the extent, then, that the violence and fright in modern horror gratifies a sensation-seeking motive in viewers, the genre’s escalation of violence and grotesquerie is comprehensible as part of an ongoing transaction between horror filmmakers and their core audience” (Prince 255). Demme tries to have it both ways. He satisfies the need for “sensation-seeking” while also maintaining a distinction of artfulness and intelligence from the common slasher film. He reveals what Lecter does with Lt. Boyle’s body in very gory detail – intestines and all – but he uses dramatic lighting and artistically placed streaks of red, complementing its bloody insides, to make the suspended corpse look like a piece of art.
However, an artsy corpse is still a corpse, and an artsy horror movie is still a horror movie. In the escape sequence Silence of the Lambs finally exposes itself for what it is. In the opinion of author Carol Clover, none of Demme and company’s demonstration of good cinematic technique change what the film boils down to:
When I see an Oscar-winning film like… The Silence of the Lambs… I cannot help thinking of all the low-budget, often harsh and awkward but sometimes deeply energetic films that preceded them by a decade or more – films that said it all, and in flatter terms, and on a shoestring. If mainstream film detains us with niceties of plot, character, motivation, cinematography, pacing, acting, and the like, low or exploitation horror operates at the bottom line, and in so doing reminds us that every movie has a bottom line, no matter how covert or mystified or sublimated it may be (Clover qtd. in Jancovich 39).
Granted, then, that Silence of the Lambs has a bottom line just like the Slashers it so insistently distances itself from. But might the fact that Silence of the Lambs recreates horror in an intelligent and sophisticated way change its significance? Arguably it does not. Sonia Baelo Allué refers to Demme’s own words in asserting that Silence does nothing to challenge people: “You don't want to cross the line with people, make people physically ill. You don't want to compromise them to that extent. You want to give them the good old-fashioned kind of shock they paid their money for without mortifying them” (Demme qtd. by Smith in Allué 15). As Demme himself admits, when all is said and done, Silence of the Lambs is nothing more than entertainment. However, by inverting the Slasher horror paradigm Silence does achieve an importance that it may not have even intended. The fact that Silence of the Lambs purpose, despite all its sophistication, is still just to “give them the good old-fashioned kind of shock they paid their money for” shows us that the devil in disguise is still the devil.
Putting Hannibal Lecter’s image prominently at the beginning of his book, Delbanco validates his own thesis, that the term “evil” applies even to complicated, sophisticated monsters. Hannibal Lecter is actually just like Michael, Jason, and Freddy, because when push comes to shove they all thirst for blood. They kill. When Demme consciously departed from the Slasher paradigm he made a savvy entrepreneurial choice, not a social or political one. The old style had simply become unpopular. Because he managed to turn the cheap thrills of Slasher horror into more complicated, technically well-crafted “art,” and because Lecter elevates himself to the status of “icon,” we give them respect, even reverence, that we do not give Halloween, to Jason Voorhees, to the exploitative and blunt Slasher formula of the 1980s. Perhaps Silence deserves that respect in the one sense that it took away the Slasher’s misogyny. Other than that, the only thing Silence of the Lambs did was repackage the essence of horror cinema – evil – for the sake of freshness. Putting it into this perspective gives us the power to reduce the film to what it is: a horror movie. It gives us the power to diminish Lecter, to belittle the sophistication and class he uses to justify his own monstrosity. Clarice Starling says at one point in the movie that “they don’t have a name for what he is.” This is the kind of faulty thinking that worries Delbanco. There is a word. No amount of sophistication or charisma changes what Hannibal Lecter is and what absolutely we must label him: Evil.
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The Silence of the Lambs. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. Screenwriter Ted Tally. Orion Pictures, 1991.