How ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ Saved Horror And Shook Up The Oscars

By the time The Silence of the Lambs hit theaters in mid-February of 1991, horror movies had pretty much been reduced to the bottom of the barrel. Thanks to the, for lack of a better word, overkill of slasher movies in the 1980s, it seemed most horror movies were just pure schlock. They would feature an actor who was on an episode of one of your favorite TV shows and a down and out veteran actor who needed a good paycheck that makes the straight to DVD movies Bruce Willis and Nicolas Cage did look like Casablanca and Citizen Kane.

The movies would play for about a week or two here and there before they would go to the horror sections of the video rental places about six months later. You’d occassionally find these movies on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon scanning the aisles and then you’d remember seeing the commercial about a year earlier and unless you were a true horror fan, you’d leave it for someone else to find. With the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street movies exhausted and an attempt to revive the Halloween franchise becoming unsuccessful, Child’s Play 2 managed to be a modest success. (Incidentally, MGM refused to go ahead with the Child’s Play sequel as horrors were shown to be mostly unsuccessful. It took some convincing by Steven Spielberg, of all people, to executives at Universal Pictures to take on the franchise.)

But even William Friedkin, the man who made audiences run from the theater in terror from The Exorcist, didn’t have much luck with The Guardian. Was mainstream horror dead? Was it now just going to be low-budget horror movies that would end up being hosted by Gilbert Gottfried on USA Up All Night?

Surprisingly, it would be a former music video director who made quirky dark comedies like Something Wild and Married to the Mob who would turn the franchise on its head. Even though he had cut his teeth directing movies for Roger Corman in the 1970s, Demme seemed the least likely director of a movie about an FBI agent-in-training tracking a serial killer who skins heavyset women by seeking help from a pscyhotic cannibal killer.

At one point, Gene Hackman was considering directing the movie and appearing as the FBI agent Jack Crawford, a role that went to Scott Glenn. It’s very likely that if Hackman had directed the movie, Crawford’s role would have been greatly expanded. Hackman had partnered with Orion Pictures to adapt the novel by Thomas Harris, but negotiations fell through.

Dino De Laurentiis had the rights to Harris’ novel Red Dragon as well as the character of Hannibal Lector. He had made an adaptation of the novel in 1986 under the title of Manhunter with Brian Cox playing Lector, but spelled Lecktor. Even though it’s now considered a great horror/thriller, the movie bombed at the box office and De Laurentiis allowed the producers to have the license of Lector for free. However, he would later produce the sequel Hannibal and another adaptation of Dragon in 2002.

Sean Connery had been considered for Lector but turned it down. I’ve even heard reports Hackman was later approached to play Lector but didn’t want to play the character either. Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro and even Daniel Day-Lewis had been considered. Forest Whitaker has reported that he auditioned for the role. Sir Anthony Hopkins was reportedly one of the last actors to be considered and when approached, Hopkins thought it was a children’s movie.

Hopkins himself had a successful early part of his career playing Richard the Lionheart in The Lion in Winter, then appering in A Bridge Too Far, A Doll’s House and The Elephant Man. But his career stalled after playing Captain Bligh alongside Mel Gibson in The Bounty. He had appeared in a few critical hits in the latter half of the 1980s but the 1990 adaptation of Desperate Hours, which De Laurentiis produced, had failed with critics and at the box office.

Because Hopkins wasn’t as well known by the winter of 1991 is partly why he’s so easily to disappear into the role of Hannibal the Cannibal. Pacino and DeNiro have played evil people, but there is something about Lector that Hopkins brings to the role. Even though Hopkin’s Welsh, I wouldn’t say Lector has a more ambiguous nationality even though he’s supposed to be Lithuanian and have Italian ancestry. It’s surprising how little we know about Lector in this movie compared to the other movies. He’s as much a mystery as the Buffalo Bill killer the FBI is chasing.

When we first see Lector, he’s in a cell encased in glass. He’s locked away in a basement that of a mental hospital in Baltimore that looks more like a dungeon. The hospital administrator, Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald in a sleazy role), has some issues with Lector and describes an attack Lector did to a woman while receiving medical treatment. He never really does say what all Lector did just how they had to do surgery to treat the woman and even mentions that Lector’s pulse never got above 85 “even when he ate her tongue.” Chilton shows Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) a photo that we don’t see but we do see her response.

And when we finally do see Lector the camera pans pass several other inmates before coming to him, standing at rest in a jumpsuit. Because he’s believes in chivalry, as a gentleman, he would stand for a woman who walks into the room. At first Lector is excited to see Clarice, but when she tells him she’s a trainee, you can see he feels insulted by Crawford. This is why he continues to berate her and criticize her questioning. But when she stands up to him and he talks about eating the liver of a Census taker, he does so because now he’s angry at her.

But as Starling is trying to leave, the inmate in the next cell throws semen on her. Almost immediately, Lector’s attitude changes. He apologizes to her as he feels embarrassed and thus gives her a tip about tracking down a former patient. This scene solidifies the relationship the two will have for the rest of the movie. In many ways, I think Lector is atrracted to her but not sexually.

After Starling discovers the decapitated head of the patient in a car in a storage locker, Lector offers a towel for her as courtesy as she was wet from the rain outside. Lector may be a psychotic killer but he still has morals and etiquette. Lector forced the inmate next to him swallow his own tongue because he mostly targets rude people. At the same time, Chilton refers to Lector by his first name. Everyone else calls Lector by his name acknowledging his medical degree. Chilton doesn’t see Lector as a doctor or he views him as an equal, hence why he uses the first name. But Lector finds it insulting.

During questioning, Starling reveals more about her past. Her father was a town marshal in a small West Virginia town who was killed in the line of duty. Demme uses two flashbacks to show Starling as a child with actress Masha Skorobogatov and they’re both with her father (one in which she is meeting him as he comes home and the other as she is looking at his body at a funeral).

One scene that isn’t mentioned is when Starling tells Lector about her dead mother. His head is turned away from her in the dark and he closes his eyes and lets out a little sigh. It shows that Lector is developing feelings for Starling. This is very telling of Lector’s past because it means he’s lost his mother too. It’s later revealed that Lector was orphaned during World War II. Both oprhans growing up, he feels there is a kinship which is why he seems to be more willing to talk to her with respect.

In Tennessee, the Buffalo Bill killer, who is later revealed to be Jame Gumb (Ted Levine) has tracked down Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), a heavyset woman and kidnapped her pretending to be injured to gain her sympathy. Catherine is the daughter of U.S. Sen. Ruth Martin (Diane Baker) and it makes it national news as well as an urgency to find Buffalow Bill. The body of one of Buffalo Bill’s bodies has been found and there is a bug cocoon in the throat.

After Crawford sends Starling to entice Lector with a fake offer for his help to be moved to a better mental hospital. Chilton finds out about it and contacts Sen. Martin who works with the FBI on a real deal. Lector is taken to Memphis where he is placed in the custody of the Tennessee State Police but lies to authorities about the real identity of Buffalo Bill. Starling manages to get herself in to question Lector where he prods her more about her childhood.

She finally tells him about what happened after her father’s death when she was sent to Montana to live with a relative on his sheep farm. But Starling tells him about she was awaken when they began to slaughter the spring lambs. She was horrified by the experience and tried to free the lambs but they wouldn’t run away. She foolishly took one thinking she could save it. She was later found and the relative kicked her out. The lamb she tried to save was killed.

This is where the title comes from. Lector deduces that the murder of her father inspired her to go into law enforcement but it was the trauma of seeing the slaughter of the lambs that led to her wanting to join the FBI. If she can save Catherine, she can stop the horrifying memories of the screaming of the lambs. Originally, Demme had filmed a flashback sequence that was to play with Foster’s voice-over. However, Foster gave such a good performance not even flinching when a noise was made off camera that they decided to cut the flashback from the final cut. I’ve looked and searched but never seen the footage. However, I did see a still of the young actress holding a lamb.

This is how the movie differs from other horror movies. To include the flashback would be nonsensical. Starling is an character who has a dark past that she’s hiding. Throughout the movie, Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally put Starling in situations where her gender comes into play. Chilton is smitten with her at first but soon loses interest when she rebuffs him and over the movie gets more upset with her as he can’t control her.

A bug specialist who helps the FBI identify a moth cocoon hits on Starling. Earlier at the funeral home as they examine the body, the sheriff and deputies don’t think highly of Starling, especially when she orders them out of the examination room. When Starling is jogging with Ardelia Mapp (Kasi Lemmons), another woman FBI trainee, they pass by some men trainees who turn and look at them as they pass. There’s even a scene of Starling getting into an elevator where she is smaller than the other men in the elevator. Law enforcement was and is still very male-dominated and that’s why Crawford wants to send Starling to initially question Lector. He hasn’t seen a woman in years.

As for Jame Gumb, he is wanted to transition to be a woman. This was and is still controversial as transgendered women aren’t thought of being violent. But I would say that’s probably why he hasn’t successfully transitioned through hormone replacement therapy because of his pyschological behavior. Any person who wants to skin women and wear them as a women suit is very deranged. Referring to Catherine as “it,” is a way he doesn’t have to see her as a person.

Lector does successfully escape from the Memphis courthouse where he was being temporarily housed by getting the best of the law enforcement. Interestingly, this is the only time in the movie’s nearly two-hour run time when there is a scene of violence that is graphic. Earlier, we see the body of one of Buffalo Bill’s victims which is horrific. Lector uses the interior of a pen to open handcuffs and kills Lt. Bill Boyle (Charles Napier) and Sgt. Jim Pempry (Alex Coleman). Earlier I said we’re never told much of Lector’s crimes, but when he plots his escape, we really see his full-blown violent behavoir on display.

This is what makes it more horrible to watch. He bites the nose off of Pembry and sprays mace in his eyes before banging his head against the metal bars of the cell. He had surprised Boyle by handcuffing him to a metal bar and he stands over Boyle beating him to death with a baton as a conductor directing a symphony. He later cuts Boyle’s abdomen open and hoists up his body to crucifying it against the cell bars.

He has removed the skin of Pembry’s face to put on his to make it appear he is Pembry so the medics and ambulance will take him out of the courthouse while police and SWAT swarm the area. This is one of the most thrilling parts of the movie and I must admit, Demme and Lector make us kinda root for him as he finds a way to get out. Yet we don’t discover that Lector has skinned Pembry’s face until the medical staff knows it’s too late. But Demme doesn’t show us anymore. He doesn’t have to.

Along with Starling shooting Gumb at the end, there’s only three characters who die on screen and we see the aftermath of a Buffalo Bill victim. The body count is short but it’s still gruesome and effective. This is the difference between the slasher movies that turn into just a bunch of dumb, horny teenagers being stabbed. Sometimes the idea of what happened is a lot worse than seeing it happen. A good director will make you see something that isn’t there.

What’s so great about Silence is we get two killers for the price of one admission. Both Hopkins and Levine turn in some of the best roles of their careers. Much of both killers’ behaviors are based on true-life cases. Gumb is inspired by Ed Gein, a killer in Wisconsin in the 1950s who used human skin for upholstery. Lector is believed to have been mostly inspired by Alfredo Balli Trevino, a physician and killer in Mexico. Others believe writer Thomas Harris drew inspiration from Albert Fish who confessed to the killing of three children from 1924 to 1928 but is believed to have killed five people.

While he was in custody, Ted Bundy was used to help authorities hunt for Garry Ridgway, the Green River Killer. However, Ridgway wasn’t arrested until 2001 13 years after the book was published. And Bundy was killed in the electric chair in Floriday on Jan. 24, 1989. Gumb faking an injury to lure his victims was something that Bundy would do. Serial killer Gary Heidnik kidnapped, raped, torturred and killed six women in the Philadelphia area and he kept them in a self-dug pit he had in the basement of his home.

The Silence of the Lambs was filmed during the harsh winter of 1990 in Pittsburgh and neighboring areas. It was intended to be released in the Fall of 1990 but Orion Pictures was going through financial difficulties and only could distribute Dances With Wolves, which they felt would be more commercial. Yet, buzz and good reviews helped propel Silence of the Lambs to gross $131 million in the United States and Canada and a total of $273 million worldwide against a budget of $19 million.

As the 1991 year ended, many movies were being released during the Fall/Christmas season to compete for the box office and the awards season. By 1991, most movies were being released sometimes in the last couple of weeks of the year only to go to wider release after the first of the following year. As a matter of fact, many movies weren’t really being released until late spring through the Christmas season as the winter months were often considered the months for studios to drop movies they knew were going to bomb but were contracturally obligated to release in theaters.

This had been different from the past in which many movies were released year-round but spent months in theaters if they were successful. The Godfather was released in mid-March of 1972. Silence helped change all that. And that might have been why it was so popular among the Oscars. It was on the home video market. Oscar voters had to deal with going to movies to watch all the movies in theaters. However, it’s easier to go down to Blockbuster or whatever video rental shop is nearby, snatch up a video cassette copy and watch it in the comfort of their home. And they got to rewatch it without having to pay again.

So, when the nominations were announced, Silence was nominated for seven Oscars, winning five including Best Picture, Best Director for Demme, Best Actor for Hopkins, Best Actress for Foster and Best Adapted Screenplay for Tally. It’s only third movie ever to achieve this feat in the Oscar’s history. And many people were surprised that a horror movie had won. The Golden Globes had awarded Best Drama to Bugsy. And the buzz was that Warren Breatty’s biopic about Benjamin “Bugsy” Seigel would be the front-runner. It had been nominated for 10 Oscars but only won two for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

But even beyond the box office and award ceremonies, Silence proved that horror movies could be entertaining if done right. There’s a rumor that Stanley Kubrick once said he was going to make a porno just to show how it could be done right. Horror has always been considered a step up from porno. And while The Exorcist and Kubrick’s The Shining proved that horror can be made well, people forget that Jaws is also a horror. What Silence had and what those other movies I mentioned had was a good story, good thrills and a collection of characters we cared about.

The success would inspire other studios and filmmakers to duplicate it with only Se7en coming close in 1995. As people tried to say that Silence was a “psychological thriller,” horror fans were quick to correct that the movie is a horror movie. Hopkins would return for Hannibal in 2001 and Red Dragon in 2002 but Foster didn’t and was replaced by Julianne Moore in Hannibal. Even though it made more money worldwide, it wasn’t as successful with the critics.

A series based on Harris’ novels also called Hannibal ran on NBC from April 2013 to August of 2015. In 2021, CBS had a series Clarice, focusing on Clarice Starling in the years after the events of Silence that ran for one season before being canceled. Sadly Demme died on April 26, 2017 at 73 from esophageal cancer and heart disease.

On July 19, 2022, Diane Luckey, also known as Q Lazzarus at 61. While you may not know her name, her song “Goodbye Horses” was used during a scene that is often parodied in which he see Gumb dancing nude in front of a video camera as Catherine tries to get his dog, Precious, as a way to get out. Luckey vanished from public eye in the mid-1990s and internet rumors began to circulate she had been kidnapped herself. However, it was later revealed she had become a bus driver on Staten Island.

Now, more than 30 years later, The Silence of the Lambs remains one of the best horror movies as well as one of the rarest moments in which many people agree the Oscars made the right decision.

What do you think? Please comment.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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