31 Days of Hell: The True Horror of Man: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)


The horror genre and I don’t really see eye to eye. I want to like it. I don’t enjoy being the guy around Spooky Season TM that just isn’t into it but I long ago made peace with the fact that broadly speaking, horror just doesn’t do it for me.

But that is not to say I don’t get the appeal of horror. There is a brand of horror I do like, on the occasions I find myself in the mood. It isn’t the spectacular spectacle of the slasher flick, although Scream is admittedly great.  It is the slow burn, the oppressive dread that comes from examining human nature and our base fears. It is found in Get Out and Night of the Living Dead and in 1990’s classic, The Silence of the Lambs.

The Silence of the Lambs is a classic. You don’t need me to tell you that, but if you haven’t seen it I’m going to take the time to explain to why I find it so compelling, and why I keep returning to it time and time again. It isn’t for Dr. Lecter. Nor is it for Buffalo Bill. The true horror in The Silence of the Lambs is the men. Both the serial killers and, more insidiously, the men who are obsessively there to help Agent Sterling. It is a meta-commentary on being a woman in a male dominated field.

Now I can feel the eye rolling. Yes, the thesis of this review is that the true monster is, in fact, man. I am aware that isn’t a wholly original take. I should also acknowledge that neither the director Jonathan Demme or I are women and that you can ascribe a certain amount of projection to my conclusion and that while some of the men in this feature are creepy, being creepy is not an equal crime to skinning women.

I have no idea what it is like to be a woman in a male dominated field. What I can do is draw parallels to my own experience of  being black in predominantly white spaces and how alienating it is--how conscious I am of how much I don’t fit in. Like Agent Sterling I feel the eyes track me, the long pregnant stares. It’s what made Get Out effective, drawing horror from the real world and real fears that marginalized people have. In Get Out it was the fear of cultural appropriation, of white people literally stealing a black person's identity and body. In The Silence of the Lambs it's the commodification of women. Every man wants something from Sterling, usually framed in a sexual nature. These men don’t value Agent Sterling for her mind. Just what they can get out of her.

I’ve said all this about the atmosphere, the shot composition and the tension and I haven’t even gotten to the acting. Obvious, Anthony Hopinks is great as Hannibal Lecter, a performance that spawned dozens of copycats and some of them, like Raoul Silva in Skyfall, were even good! But Jodie Foster deserves equal measure. She sells not only Agent Sterlings cunning in her dealings with Lecter and manipulating the situations she finds herself in over the course of the flick, but the fear that comes with her novice position. Her determination and drive are the cornerstone of this movie, creating a compelling protagonist we want to see triumph not just over the serial killers but her doubters in the field.

The Silence of the Lambs is a masterfully crafted film. The way it uses the language of cinema to punctuate its suspense, the most notable of which is its use of wide close ups to capture expressions and force that sense of unnatural intimacy--it all adds to this pervasive air of discomfort that permeates the film, and that’s why I keep coming back to it. It is as unnerving to me now, a dozen rewatches later as it was when I first saw it. It is a deeply personal, deeply unnerving movie and a must watch during the Halloween season. 

--Parker Enix-Ross