The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
By: Michael McQueen on August 5, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 1:85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1, French 2.0, Spanish 2.0. English and Spanish Subtitles. 118 minutes
The Movie
Director: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Ted Levine, Brooke Smith
Screenplay: Ted Tally
Music: Howard Shore
Tagline: "To enter the mind of a killer she must challenge the mind of a madman"
Country: USA
There are few horror films that can boast the spine-tingling creepiness of The Silence of the Lambs. Based on Thomas Harris' bestseller about transvestite serial killer, Buffalo Bill and infamous cannibal-psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, TSOTL wrote the rule book of the 'psychological thriller' genre, focusing on the intellectual interplay between forensic investigator Clarice Starling (played with a perfect mix of little-girl-lost vulnerability and post-feminist toughness by Jodie Foster), and the deviant but delicate Lecter (brought to life with menacing malice by Anthony Hopkins), who chilled audiences to the bone with the callous utterance: "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti". Since then all other psych/horror films have ridden on the coattails of TSOTL, often upping the gore and the deviant perversions of their evil-doers, but capturing little of Hopkins' subtlety or finesse that provided audiences with a genuine mind-fuck, sending them reeling out of cinemas spooked. The subsequent films in the 'Lecter series' are no exceptions, each trying to match TSOTL's subtle perversity but always falling short of the mark; even Hopkins struggled to recreate the persona that made him one of cinema's most infamous psychos.

The Silence of the Lambs follows the tentative steps of Special Agent Clarice Starling, a trainee at the FBI academy who becomes involved in a multiple homicide investigation and man-hunt for notorious serial killer, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). The FBI have no luck tracking down any leads so, working on the maxim that 'it takes one to catch one', deploy the intellectually sharp but inexperienced and vulnerable Starling to question incarcerated mass-murderer Dr. Hannibal 'the Cannibal' Lecter. The good doctor, a psychological predator, takes a peculiar interest in the naïve Starling and proceeds to toy with her; exploiting her eagerness to prove herself to her male superiors by forcing her to exchange personal information about her traumatic childhood for insight into Buffalo Bill's identity. Starling is determined not to get drawn too close to Lecter and risk getting snagged in his web, but as the clues she procures become more and more indispensable to the investigation she becomes the FBI's sacrificial lamb; a psychological plaything for Lecter to tease and taunt. As Starling becomes more committed to her impromptu 'therapy' sessions she also becomes more driven to rescuing Buffalo Bill's latest victim: US Senator's daughter Catherine Martin. With a Senator's daughter involved, the Bill case becomes politicised and soon the FBI have the investigation - and Lecter – pulled from underneath them. Everything falls apart when Lecter stages an elaborate escape plan and the only solid link to Bill's identity scampers off into the night, leaving behind a trail of mutilated victims. Armed with her keen eye for detail and Lecter's insight, Starling pursues the investigation in a frantic race to save Catherine from Bill's deranged clutches.

The strength of The Silence of the Lambs, its absorbing persuasiveness, lies in the fabulous performances given by Foster and Hopkins; they are the heart of the film's dramatic tension and have become so synonymous with their characters it is impossible to imagine how the film would have succeeded without them. Both actors had something to prove as they took on their roles: Foster was determined to depart from the 'victim' roles she was rapidly becoming typecast for; Hopkins was drawn by another opportunity to crack into the lucrative American film industry – a market that had proved elusive and resistant to the Welsh actor. Hopkins received the lion's share of the acclaim: his portrayal of Lecter – a performance which accounted for only 17 minutes screen time – earned him an Oscar, and the callous minimalism of his characterisation proved an impossible act to follow for Gaspard Ulliel in Hannibal Rising, and even for Hopkins himself in Hannibal and Red Dragon. However, The Silence of the Lambs is not a story about Lecter; it is a story about Clarice Starling, a protagonist who had to earn the audience's sympathy and admiration as a female cop who battles literal and psychological demons. Foster should not be overlooked for her role, which she made entirely her own with a tough-but-tender portrayal that was as finely nuanced and expertly delivered as Hopkins' – her presence was sorely missed in Hannibal as Julianne Moore struggled to fill her shoes.

Overseeing these phenomenal talents was the steady directorial hand of Jonathan Demme, making his horror debut here. Demme's non-invasive approach gave the actors space to explore their character's depth, without resorting to typical Hollywood hamminess that forces scare onto the audience. Demme understands that sometimes the images of terror in the spectator's mind can be more powerful than anything on screen and he allows our imagination to run wild at times, in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) the gritty realism that frames TSOTL. This approach makes the flourishes of gore all the more eye-widening as they explode onto the screen; the threat of the implied becomes the shock of the real. Demme's masterful touch is best evident in the exchanges between Starling and Lecter, as he opts to have his actors speak direct-to-camera (a literal POV shot) for a distinctly unsettling effect that has Hopkins peering directly into the camera's lens: into Starling's eyes and our own. This displays a degree of callow manipulative mastery that's astounding coming from a horror rookie.

An exceptional thriller, The Silence of the Lambs perfectly balances character study and dramatic sequences while incorporating nail-biting suspense with skin-crawling creepiness. Departing from nearly every cliché in the horror genre handbook whilst simultaneously forging its own unique style, the film probably should not have worked as well as it did: Demme made his mark directing comedies and had no experience directing horror; the film emphasised dialogue and drama over action and the female protagonist remained fully-clothed throughout (a rare occurrence in horror!). Even more exceptional at the time was the detailed forensic/procedural elements of police work that marked the beginning of a Hollywood obsession. All these departing factors combined to create a cinematic experience that is tense, taut, powerful and unforgettable. It's a shame that the formulaic omissions which distinguished TSOTL have since found their way back into a plethora of lesser imitators, including its disappointing follow-ups.
The Silence of the Lambs is presented in 1:85:1 aspect ratio with a 16:9 enhancement. The picture quality is slick and schmick with no visible grain, dust or damage.
English is the only language bestowed with the Digital 5.1 track (French and Spanish are presented in 2.0), which is really only bothersome if you want to watch the film in French or Spanish. Howard Shore's score is one of the most memorable pieces of music to accompany a horror film, so the surround sound treatment is well worth it.
Extra Features
Of all the films in the Lecter series, The Silence of the Lambs is certainly the most deserving of the expansion treatment and the Collector's Edition boasts a whole second disc's worth of special features. MGM have pulled out all the stops here, but I should point out that only some of the material is new: whether or not this Collectors Edition is worth forking out for will depend how essential you think extras are.

There are five documentaries on the extras disc: The Silence of the Lambs: the Beginning; Jodie Foster and Jonathan Demme: Making the Silence of the Lambs; Jodie Foster and Jonathan Demme: Breaking the Silence; Inside the Labyrinth: the Making of The Silence of the Lambs; and the original 1991 Making-of-Featurette. The Foster/Demme docos are certainly the best-quality and are loaded with fun trivia and filmmaker's insight, as well as the usual behind-the-scenes anecdotes (Horror buff's note: George Romero makes an uncredited appearance as a prison guard!). Inside the Labyrinth is also a worthy addition and features interviews with noted film critic Amy Taubin, TSOTL screenwriter Ted Tally, production staff and effects artists and even more behind-the-scenes footage of pre-production, set construction, make-up effects, photos, stills and many other delightful etceteras. However, across five documentaries there is a strong feeling of déjà vu as the same information is repeated five or six times, as well as the same movie clips. The original 1991 making-of has been dusted off from the archives but is really for completists as by the time you get to it, you already know what's coming.

Quite generously, MGM have included 22 Deleted Scenes – see the documentaries for additional insight into why some of the scenes never made it – and an Outtakes Reel.

Other features include:

Scoring the Silence, an interview with Howard Shore who shares some of his insights into the minimalist atonal music he composed for TSOTL.

A 1 hour episode of Page to Screen (hosted by The O.C.'s Peter Gallagher) that features corny narration, some extra trivia, more interviews with the same people, and a brief Thomas Harris biography.

A photo gallery featuring 100 photos, 11 Television spots, a theatrical trailer and teaser, and a promotional phone message from Anthony Hopkins.
The Verdict
The Silence of the Lambs rewrote the rules for contemporary horror and to this day it stands as a peerless example of the 'psychological thriller' genre – it receives a perfect rating: 5/5. The extras disc on this Collector's Edition is well-stocked with goodies like Deleted Scenes and Outtakes that should satisfy curious filmgoers and devoted enthusiasts. The documentaries are bursting with trivia and interviews but including five is overkill, given that they repeat each other frequently, and smacks of laziness. This edition is quite inexpensive (mine cost $12.95), so prospective buyers are advised to invest in this option; fans looking to update their original DVD have a generous selection of extras to entice them. Enjoy this one…preferably with fava beans.
Movie Score
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