By Bianca Garner
“Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.”
These words uttered by Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) in The Silence of the Lambs are a warning to us all. We do not want Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in our heads; but ultimately we become obsessed about him as the film’s narrative unfolds. He is truly a threat to society (I.e. us, the audience) because he doesn’t appear like your usual Michael Myers silent monster; Lecter is dangerous because he is intelligent and charming. He is not a disfigured, masked, silent anomaly, but someone who patiently plots and plans his revenge. And we are not alone; Lecter invades Clarice’s mind too. He breaks her and gets her to confess the trauma of her father’s death, it is common practice by psychiatrists to have their patients relive trauma.
The film’s director (Jonathan Demme) takes on the role of the audience’s psychiatrist and forces us to recall our trauma’s and thus we must embrace our own fears. We can draw on own experiences in many of the scenes we see take place in the film’s narrative – whether it be encountering an unsettling man in a white van, or suffering from humiliation for being the opposite sex. This is what makes The Silence of the Lambs so effective as a horror because it’s rooted in everyday realism.
The film presents the audience with a truly three dimensional female hero, the likes of which have been poorly replicated in countless other psychological crime thrillers, but they have never managed to capture the true essence of the character of Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). Foster’s excellent performance creates a strong empathetic bond between the character of Clarice and the viewer, we are placed in her shoes and see the world from her point of view. She is our anchor to what is consider right and lawful, she’s resourceful, intelligent and determined, which are all the characteristics of the final girl character from traditional horror film.
What makes the film so effective in my personal opinions is that it reinforces the concept that women can be the hero in the cinematic universe. And what really makes Clarice stand out is that she’s perhaps the only redeeming human in the film. The character of Clarice is very fleshed out (no pun intended), she’s a young determined woman who gives as good as she gets. To dismiss her as simply being another hysterical young woman with daddy issues is insolent, disrespectful and demeaning.
Foster well and truly deserved her Academy Award for Best Actress; she presents us with a character who is truly believable and grounded in reality. Clarice fights against the monster that is Buffalo Bill; but also fights against the misogyny she faces from her male peers who belittle her and try to reduce her down to a mere sex object. She rises above the harassment and the humiliation to take down the predator. But the film’s ending suggests that her struggle is not over yet, perhaps mirroring the ongoing battle between the sexes for equality and respect.
The Silence of the Lambs was the last film to win Academy Awards in all the top five categories: Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Adapted Screenplay. And perhaps more surprisingly, it remains the only horror film to win best picture. And yes; The Silence of the Lambs is a horror film, and more importantly it is an intelligent horror film which is increasingly getting to become a rarity nowadays. What makes The Silence of the Lambs stands out from other horror films is that we well and truly believe that the film is set in the ‘real’ world. In my personal opinion the threat of a serial killer such as Lecter or Buffalo Bill, is more disturbing because these characters were based on actual people (Ed Gein and Ted Bundy).
The audience is not spoon-fed information, but treated with respect and left to make their own conclusions with the open ended finale. The plot is complicated and character’s true motives remain unknown for the majority of the film, something which is missing in contemporary cinema’s “treat the audience like they’re all children” attitude that has emerged in the last fifteen years. The Silence of the Lambs is an effective horror because it relies very little on jump scares, blood, violence, and gore, so when these do take place within the film’s narrative it is far more shocking and impactful.
The effectiveness of the film is that the true horror lives on, Lecter is somewhere in the big wide world living his life with no regards to society’s rules of law and order. The last sentence uttered to us from Lecter is still chilling, “I’m having an old friend for dinner. Bye.” He’s not only mocking Clarice and reinforcing his dominance over her, but he is verbally attacking us. He is belittling the audience and breaking the fourth wall. We know he’s out there, lurking and the story isn’t over yet. The FBI may have captured one serial killer but in turn their incompetence have allowed another bigger threat to walk free.
After re-watching the film for the first time in years, I still felt that chill running down my spine as the credits began to roll. And without a moment of hesitation, I double checked that my front door was locked. You see, that’s what a good horror film does, it gets into your mind and it stays there, long after the credits have rolled.