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The Silence of the Lambs: Still Draws a Thin Line Between Terror and Horror

By Carrie Stemke · August 24, 2014

There are about a billion serial killer movies (and I’ve probably seen at least half of them), but throughout the years, The Silence of the Lambs, based on Thomas Harris’ 1988 book of the same name has stood the test of time as one of the best.

One of my favorite things about this onscreen adaptation is that it’s a horror movie that managed to not only become mainstream, but also to shoot all the way to the top: the film was not only the third film in history to win the Big Five Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Adapted Screenplay), but it’s also one of the only-if not the single-horror movies to ever achieve that feat. And although Gene Siskel would disagree with me, I think it deserved them all.

The film version of The Silence of the Lambs brings Harris’s characters to life in the best way possible: the predatory, intelligent Hannibal Lecter; the young FBI agent, Clarice Starling, whose fear and determination are palpable throughout the story. Big name actors can frequently be found in horror movies, but this one has an all-star cast who made the roles iconic. The well-spoken Anthony Hopkins played, in my opinion, one of his most iconic roles with Hannibal the Cannibal. Hopkins’ portrayal of Lecter is, in a word, perfection. Hopkins’ Lecter has the characteristics of a human combined with a complete lack of humanity that makes him inhuman: indeed, Lecter is more human when separated from the rest of the world by glass than he is walking amongst other people. Despite his separation from others, however, Lecter still holds a certain power over them: take, for example, the famous scene in which he torments the Senator whose daughter has been kidnapped. Although he is completely physically restrained, Lecter’s cutting words inflict so much pain on the Senator that she becomes disgusted and leaves. The pairing of Hannibal Lecter and Jodie Foster’s young, inexperienced, almost vulnerable Clarice Starling is strangely fascinating. At first glance, Foster’s Starling seems the perfect victim for someone like Hannibal Lecter: a person who is easy to read, with terrible past memories of the kind that Lecter loves to exploit. However, the film (and Harris) don’t just leave the heroine floundering around, barely managing to make headway and only doing so through sheer luck. Instead, Foster also portrays Starling as brave and determined: she has the courage to go after Buffalo Bill alone, even though she is afraid. To me, that made Clarice Starling not only a character to whom one could relate, but also someone to admire.

The interesting, multi-faceted characters are complemented by an equally interesting plot. Although the “serial killer helping the police” plotline has become less original over the years, both Harris and Ted Tally show that a plot doesn’t necessarily have to be extremely original to be great. With strong characters and carefully crafted twists, The Silence of the Lambs remains a masterpiece despite being surrounded by similar plotlines.

Overall, the film is a fascinating character study. The killers in The Silence of the Lambs are uniquely horrific: we have Hannibal the Cannibal and Buffalo Bill, a deranged loner who is creating a literal suit out of his victims in the hopes of transforming himself. The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t try to horrify the viewer with graphic images; instead, it perfectly demonstrates the terror that we feel knowing that there are people in the world who are almost inhuman, and who feel no empathy or compassion towards others. Lecter is the great example of this: even as he helps Clarice Starling and the FBI, he is helping himself. Clarice Starling stands in direct contrast to her counterparts in the movie. She is very human, and I think that everyone in the audience can find a bit of Clarice Starling in themselves.