Kathryn O’Brien: You ever see a tiger at the zoo?…You remember looking in its eyes? There’s something in there that tells you you’ll never be able to tame it. You can cage it up, teach it to do stuff, but give it half a chance and it’ll tear your goddamned head off. And it knows you know, that’s what its eyes are saying. If the moment comes, pal, don’t kid yourself you’ll last a second.
- The Punisher MAX #3, “In The Beginning (Part Three),” written by Garth Ennis, illustrated by Lewis LaRosa and Tom Palmer
In 1981, Red Dragon, a novel written by Black Sunday author Thomas Harris, was published and sold in bookstores nationwide. It was the result of months of research about serial killers and the people who investigate them that Harris has conducted in the late Seventies at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia. It told the story of Will Graham, an FBI agent who is coaxed out of retirement to help find and catch a serial killer known as “the Tooth Fairy,” who has been murdering entire families. Graham is blessed and cursed with the ability to mentally and emotionally place himself into the mindset of the serial killers that he goes after, but he finds himself in need of further assistance in order to figure out who The Tooth Fairy is and what his next move will be, so as a last resort, he turns to Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic murderer who was apprehended by Will (and who nearly killed Will during that encounter) and has been locked away in a mental health facility ever since. Will’s decision to ask Lecter for help only results in Lecter using the opportunity to strike back at Will by contacting the very person that he’s hunting, and place both him and his family in grave danger.
Red Dragon was later adapted into a film by writer/director Michael Mann. Since producer Dino De Laurentiis thought that Red Dragon would make this project sound more like a kung-fu movie, he had the title changed to Manhunter.
Manhunter starred William L. Petersen (Will Graham), Kim Greist (Molly Graham), Dennis Farina (Jack Crawford), Stephen Lang (Freddie Lounds), Joan Allen (Reba McClane), Tom Noonan (Francis Dollarhyde a.k.a. “The Tooth Fairy”), and Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter (whose surname was changed to “Lecktor” for some unknown reason). (Chris Elliott also makes a brief appearance in the film as one of several FBI agents discussing ideas with Will and Jack on how to trap The Tooth Fairy). Despite its poor box-office performance, it has become a much-appreciated cult classic.
Harris then went on to write the sequel to Red Dragon. It was called The Silence Of The Lambs, which was published in 1988 and would soon be adapted into a film by director Jonathan Demme, which opened in theaters on February 14, 1991.
Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is on the verge of completing her training to become an FBI agent, and hopefully work in the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit, when she is suddenly recruited by Special Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to interview renowned psychiatrist/serial killer Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter and gain his knowledge and insight on unsolved cases where other serial killers are on the loose. Crawford’s real goal, however, is for Clarice to somehow convince Lecter into helping her and the FBI catch a serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), who is kidnapping, torturing, and murdering plus-size women. Despite Crawford’s warnings that she keep her distance and not provide any personal information that could allow Lecter to know more about her and get inside her head, Clarice has no choice but to ignore those warnings and allow Lecter to know her deepest fears in order to gain his help in catching “Buffalo Bill” when Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), daughter of a U.S. Senator, ends up being kidnapped by Bill. And it’s only a matter of time that she will end up like all of his other victims unless Clarice is able to find out who he is and get to him first.
There are so many things about The Silence Of The Lambs that have cemented its status as a classic horror film — yes, it is also a psychological thriller, but at its core, The Silence Of The Lambs is a straight-up horror film, and not a “social thriller” or an “elevated horror film” as many an A24 admirer would probably call it, as if horror is a genre that needs saving or even respect from the mainstream — that is an absolute pleasure to watch whether it’s for the first time or the 50th time. Howard Shore’s musical score. Ted Tally’s screenplay. Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography. Seeing Catherine driving home and singing along to Tom Petty’s “American Girl” at full volume before she is kidnapped by Buffalo Bill. Clarice’s friendly and flirtatious banter with Dr. Pilcher, which is one of the very few times we actually see her close to being relaxed and comfortable while in the presence of any of the film’s male characters. Demme’s casting (with the help of casting director Howard Feuer) of familiar and talented character actors in smaller roles (Tracey Walter, Daniel Von Bargen, Frankie Faison, Dan Butler, Charles Napier, and even Chris Isaak makes an appearance) who are able to bring so much to the scenes they are in with just a look or a sentence (“It’s Jim Pembry! Now talk to him, dammit!”). Demme’s ability as a director to slowly but effectively immerse the audience into every environment seen in the film, whether it’s the offices of the FBI, Buffalo Bill’s “home,” the airport hangar where Dr. Lecter and Senator Martin meet one another, and the mental health facility where Lecter is imprisoned, and have us expect something terrifying or disturbing to occur in each place at any given moment, which it often does. The fact that the film is just really damn good at how it uses deception to scare the audience and truly make them feel the gut-punch of what comes next, whether it’s convincing us that Officer Pembry is hanging on to dear life in an ambulance, only to reveal that it’s actually Lecter wearing Pembry’s entire face as a disguise so that he can escape from captivity and shed even more blood on his way to freedom, or Crawford and his fellow FBI agents kicking in the door to Buffalo Bill’s house so that they can finally take him down, but end up realizing that this is no longer his home and that the person who will soon be arriving at his actual front door with no backup? Clarice.
Of course, at the very top of that list: Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins as Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter. They each brought their A-game to the film, especially to their scenes in which they appear opposite each other, and watching the two interact in what feels like the most disturbing, heartbreaking, and completely unconventional therapy sessions to ever take place, is a large and important part of why so many people continue to rewatch The Silence Of The Lambs and hold it in such high regard.
Much like how Steven Spielberg treats the Great White shark in Jaws, Demme also leaves plenty to the imagination at first when it comes to what Hannibal Lecter and “Buffalo Bill” are capable of doing to their victims. When he finally pulls the curtain back and shows us the carnage that they’re willing and able to inflict, it defies all expectations as to how gruesome and terrifying they can be.
And then there is Demme’s trademark usage of close-ups.
For each conversation that we view the actors in close-up, whether it’s Clarice and her best friend, fellow agent-in-training Ardelia Mapp (Kasi Lemmons), discovering just how “Buffalo Bill” is choosing his victims, or Clarice being warned by Crawford on what to expect from Lecter before the two of them finally meet, or Lecter listening intently as Clarice opens up to him about how she was affected by her father’s death and why that now contributes to her doing whatever it takes to find and rescue Catherine, these shots encourage both the intensity and the intimacy of what the characters are revealing to one another and to themselves, as well as what they’re revealing to us in the audience.
Jack Crawford very much comes across as the supportive mentor who you never want to disappear or let down, and yet underneath that paternal demeanor lurks his manipulative tendencies, which he uses to have Clarice interview Dr. Lecter without telling her exactly what she’s there for (to seek out information that could assist in Buffalo Bill’s capture), why she was chosen (young, ambitious, incredibly smart trainee who is also an attractive young woman that will be pleasant for Lecter to look at) and to fool a group of local cops into thinking that he shares their sexism towards Clarice in order to get them out of the way for his fellow agents to do their work. Which, as Clarice rightly points out, only accomplished Crawford showing the local cops that if it’s all right for an FBI agent to be sexist in order to get the job done, then it’s all right for them as well. But you also get the feeling that just because he’s called out on those tendencies by Clarice and by others, it doesn’t mean that he will stop or that he has learned his lesson. It means that he will still persist, but learn to get better at how he does it.
Like Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon, Jame Gumb, a.k.a. “Buffalo Bill,” strongly believes that with every woman he kills, with every woman who he skins and whose flesh becomes just one more addition to his “skinsuit,” he will become one step closer to achieving his true form and becoming what he truly wants. And as for his victims, such as Catherine, they’re nothing more but a means to achieving that end, as evidenced by how he refers to Catherine as “it” when ordering her to follow his instructions, as if he’s reading from a book. Buffalo Bill’s infamous lines of dialogue, “It rubs the lotion on its skin, it does this whenever it’s told,” and “Now it places the lotion in the basket,” have become pop-culture quotables, but they truly hammer home how Bill is unwilling and/or incapable of viewing the humanity of these women, hence Senator Martin’s insistence on repeatedly referring to Catherine by name during the press conference when she begs for her daughter to be released.
Polite, charming, articulate, and brilliant. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is all of those things. He is also cruel, ruthless, cunning, vain (just look at the way he says “Jack Crawford sent a trainee to me?” when he first meets Clarice) and diabolical when it comes to getting what he wants and who he wants. Hannibal may be willing to help Clarice catch Buffalo Bill, but only to see who Clarice really is beneath the surface and what she’s truly capable of, which leads to his growing respect for her and for her professionalism, especially after she is horribly mistreated by Miggs after their first meeting and when she later opens up to him with so much candor. Despite the fact that he’s been locked away in a cell for eight years, Lecter’s refined and dignified manner make it easy for some to forget or even ignore at their own peril what Jack Crawford and Dr. Chilton tell Clarice (and the audience) about him at the very beginning of this story: He’s a monster.
The very first time we see Clarice Starling onscreen is when she is pushing herself to complete the obstacle course located near FBI headquarters, with Crawford requesting to see her in his office being the only reason why she doesn’t see it through to the very end. With every obstacle that she faces throughout the film, whether it’s memories of her father’s murder when she was a little girl, being sexually assaulted by an inmate right after being insulted to her very core by Lecter, and dealing with acts of sexism and aggression from Dr. Chilton (his refusal to even offer her a seat in his office when they first meet so that he can keep gazing at her and commenting on her looks), from her colleagues at the FBI, and from police officers who question her authority and her very presence on any crime scene without even saying a word, she absolutely stays determined to keep going and become stronger than whatever it is that has knocked her down. That same determination, combined with her refusal to suffer fools gladly, her investigative skills, and her willingness to help those who need it most even if it means putting her own emotional well-being in jeopardy by ignoring Crawford’s advice and permitting Lecter to get in her head by sharing her most painful memories with him, all of those qualities are what keeps her on the trail of Buffalo Bill and what keeps Lecter from toying with her even further and shutting her down completely with nothing at all to work with. As Lecter says to her when explaining why she doesn’t have to worry about him ever coming after her: the world is a more interesting place with Clarice Starling in it.
And as a bonus, the funniest moment in The Silence Of The Lambs, a film that isn’t exactly known for eliciting much laughter, is the nervous chuckle that comes from Clarice, right after she has used her own car jack to pry open the door to Your Self Storage with no help at all from the elderly owner’s driver since he’s too lazy to perform any physical labor, and tells the owner who to call if the door comes down and she is trapped inside.
Two other performances that deserve to be recognized as well are Anthony Heald as Dr. Frederick Chilton, who makes it very easy to understand why both Clarice and Lecter find him utterly detestable and why it’s hard to feel much sympathy for his plight when Lecter discovers his location at the end of the film as part of his plan to “[have] an old friend for dinner,” and Brooke Smith as Catherine Martin, who is clearly terrified at the thought of what Buffalo Bill will do to her as he keeps her captive, but refuses to let that stop her from fighting back against him and doing whatever she can to tilt the scales in her favor in order to escape.
Not only did The Silence Of The Lambs go on to be acclaimed by critics and a box-office hit, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards and would go on to become the third film (after It Happened One Night and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) that would win Oscars in nearly all of the major categories (Best Actress for Jodie Foster, Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins, Best Adapted Screenplay for Ted Tally, Best Director for Jonathan Demme, and Best Picture). Its success would also go on to inspire many other films of varying quality that tried to follow in its footsteps (Seven, Kiss The Girls, Just Cause, Switchback, etc.) as well as a couple of television shows, such as Millennium, Profiler, and The Following.
After The Silence Of The Lambs, Thomas Harris went on to write Hannibal, which didn’t completely surpass expectations and was more well-known for its very controversial ending, in which Clarice and Hannibal hook up and decide to live happily ever after with one another. That novel was published in 1999 and was adapted into a film directed by Ridley Scott, with Hopkins reprising his role as Hannibal, Julianne Moore taking over as Clarice Starling when Jodie Foster chose not to return, and
Mitch McConnell Gary Oldman as Mason Verger, a former patient of Lecter’s seeking revenge against him for his disfigurement.
In 2002, Brett Ratner (angry-sighs) decided that he would take a shot at doing his own film adaptation of Red Dragon, with Edward Norton as Will Graham, Harvey Keitel as Jack Crawford, Mary-Louise Parker as Molly Graham, Emily Watson as Reba McClane, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie Lounds, Ralph Fiennes as Francis Dolarhyde, and Anthony Hopkins once again returning to play Hannibal Lecter.
Harris followed up the end of the Hannibal Lecter saga by taking readers all the way back to the beginning with Hannibal Rising, the origin story of Hannibal Lecter and the circumstances that led to him becoming a cannibalistic serial killer in the first place. Not surprisingly, that was also made into a film, with Gaspard Ulliel as Hannibal, Gong Li, Rhys Ifans, and Dominic West.
In 2013, writer/producer Bryan Fuller created the television series Hannibal, which adapted elements from Red Dragon, Hannibal, and Hannibal Rising throughout its run. it focused on Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) who is recruited by Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to track down a serial killer, with the assistance of forensic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), who is hiding the fact that he himself is a serial killer and becomes more fascinated with Will the more they work together. To say that this was one of the best and most beloved adaptations of the Hannibal Lecter saga would be a massive understatement, so much that fans of Hannibal (a.k.a. “Fannibals”) are still hoping that the show is revived for a fourth season, long after it was canceled by NBC back in 2015. And I don’t know if this applies to anyone else, but watching the show has the same effect on me as iZombie, in that it not only makes me hungry but also makes my viewing experience feel incomplete if I’m not eating my own delicious meal while watching an episode.
And most recently, another adaptation of the Hannibal Lecter saga has been made for television: Clarice, which takes place one year after the events of The Silence Of The Lambs, and follows Clarice Starling as she returns to duty while still suffering from PTSD as a result of the “Buffalo Bill” case and how it ended. Due to rights issues, the show is not permitted in any way to refer to Hannibal Lecter by name and can only use vague descriptions when referring to him, much like how characters on the Marvel Netflix shows would refer to the Avengers (“the big blonde dude with the hammer,” “the green monster,” “the old dude with the shield”).
The impact that The Silence Of The Lambs has made since its release has not been an entirely positive one. For starters, there’s the song “Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazzarus.
Its songwriter, William Garvey, has said this about the meaning of the song: “[“Goodbye Horses”] is about transcendence over those who see the world as only earthly and finite. The horses represent the five senses from Hindu philosophy (the Bhagavad Gita) and the ability to lift one’s perception above these physical limitations and to see beyond this limited earthly perspective.” It is quite the lovely and memorable song, which is now forever associated with the scene in which Buffalo Bill puts on makeup and talks to himself in the mirror, as he attempts to embrace his sexuality and what he believes to be his eventual transformation into a woman. But for many years, that scene as well as the song that accompanies it, has been treated as a source of laughter and derision, as evidenced by the numerous parodies that have occurred in other movies and television shows, such as Clerks II and Family Guy. And it has also led some people to wonder whatever happened to Q Lazzarus herself. Was she still singing and performing? Did she move on to another career? Was she even still alive? And many of those answers were answered back in 2017 when Q Lazzarus reached out to a fan of hers on the Internet, all of which is described in this Stereogum article here.
Yesterday out of nowhere, a woman claiming to be Q Lazzarus tweeted back at me saying she was indeed alive. I thought it was a joke, so I simply responded “you’re my new favorite account” and thought nothing more of it. This morning, that account tweeted “Any questions?” to which I responded “a whole email’s worth actually.” I then got a direct message stating the following:
“Hi, sorry to bother you. I just wanted people to know I am still alive, I have no interest in singing anymore. I am a bus driver in Staten Island (I have been for YEARS), I see hundreds of passengers every day so I am hardly hiding (or dead!), I have given Thomas Gorton (Dazed) my fone number and address just to confirm I am ‘real’, sorry if this is a boring end to the story, I am going to come off twitter soon as I find it odd, please take note of this message incase anyone else is interested. THANK YOU”
As for the film’s impact on the transgender community via “Buffalo Bill” and whether or not The Silence Of The Lambs should be viewed in any way as transphobic because of that character … there have been many informative articles written about it that go into further detail, and much like I did when I wrote about The Matrix and its importance to the trans community, I’m going to admit and accept that what I know about how the trans community truly feel about The Silence Of The Lambs and how they’ve been (and continue to be) affected by it couldn’t fill a shot glass, hence me falling back like Homer Simpson and leaving that topic of conversation to those who are more knowledgeable about it than myself.
It’s too soon to tell whether Clarice will live a long life as a television series, as well as if there will be any other new chapters or additional remakes/revivals of the Hannibal Lecter saga to be read on the page or seen on movie and television screens in the near future. But whatever happens next, there will always remain the option of watching The Silence Of The Lambs to see Clarice Starling learn how to slay the demons in her head before she can go on to slay actual demons in the real world, and to see Hannibal Lecter show us all that his bite really is just as deadly as his bark.
Header Image Source: Orion Pictures