Throughout the month of October, Chris Eggertsen will offer his personal take on several titles listed in the Top 100 of HitFix's Ultimate Horror Poll from last Halloween. Today, he shines a spotlight on No. 31-ranked The Silence of the Lambs.
When discussing The Silence of the Lambs as a horror film, it's worth noting that some don't actually consider the Jonathan Demme-directed serial killer flick to be a horror film at all. As screenwriter Ted Tally told Rolling Stone earlier this year, “They like to say it's the only horror movie to ever win Best Picture. But I always thought of it as a detective movie or a thriller. I have nothing against horror movies. But to me, horror movies involve the supernatural. Lecter may border on supernatural, but he's not.”
That's an interesting take, but one that feels too reductive of a genre that has, after all, given us such decidedly non-supernatural classics as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Psycho, Jaws, Scream and Roman Polanski's Repulsion. And besides, The Silence of the Lambs (based on the bestselling novel by Thomas Harris) is scary, and more than that it's clearly designed to be, particularly in the third-act climax set inside Buffalo Bill's basement dungeon that represents the film's most traditionally “horror” set piece.
But what sets Silence of the Lambs apart from the aforementioned titles (and indeed most horror films) is that it actually became a legitimate awards contender at the 1992 Oscars, going on to win the “Big Five” categories (Picture, Director, Actress, Actor and Adapted Screenplay) at the ceremony. Those accolades, along with rave critical reviews and top-shelf talent, gave Lambs a “prestige” sheen that's not traditionally seen as compatible with the horror genre, and that no doubt contributes to its latter-day reputation in some quarters as a “thriller” rather than an outright scare flick.
However you personally choose to categorize The Silence of the Lambs, what can't be disputed is that on HitFix's Ultimate Horror Poll conducted last fall, a total of ten respondents did see fit to name it one of the greatest horror movies of all time, from filmmaker Jennifer Lynch to Leigh Whannell, who alongside James Wan helped create Saw and Insidious, two of the most successful horror franchises of the new century.
A lot has been made of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins' Oscar-winning performances as FBI trainee Clarice Starling and the brilliant psychopath Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, and the delicate dance they perform on screen is indeed hypnotic to watch (though Hopkins occasionally lays it on a tad thick for my tastes). But Ted Levine's non-Oscar-nominated turn as the soft-spoken Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb — a serial killer who kidnaps women and, after starving them enough to make their skin loose, skins them in order to craft a “woman suit” for himself — gives the film a jolt of deranged, unwieldy energy that stands as a direct counterpoint to the relative restraint of the scenes inside the psychiatric hospital and the Big Hollywood confines the film itself exists within. It is a riveting, terrifying, deeply discomfiting performance, and when he's on screen Lambs truly lives up to the transgressive promise of its concept.
Watching The Silence of the Lambs in 2016 can feel discomfiting in other ways, too. In a '90s Hollywood landscape woefully short on sympathetic transgender characters, Levine's Buffalo Bill played on mainstream perceptions of transgender individuals as somehow deranged in the most extreme terms possible, only adding to the stigma around that population. While there was quite a bit of uproar among the LGBT community at the time of the film's release, it's easy to imagine its awards-season prospects actually being hurt, if not completely annihilated, had the film come out in the much more “woke” era of 2016, when calls for representation are regularly broadcast en masse over social media platforms and picked up by content-hungry media outlets.
Despite its lurid subject matter, The Silence of the Lambs rose to the top of the awards-season heap in 1992 because it brought high gloss to an outlaw genre, offering viewers just enough “prestige” sheen to leave them feeling rattled, but not dirty, walking out of the theater. Some would say it's a great horror film, while others would say it isn't even a horror film at all. I would say it's a film that tries to have it both ways, and is astonishingly successful at walking that tightrope. But while it took home the gold by bringing Hollywood finesse to a story about the darkest corners of human nature, it also left some of the danger and grit that marks some of our greatest horror films at the door.
You can check out the full Ultimate Horror Poll here.