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The Silence of the Lambs at 30: An unsettling horror that's still utterly terrifying

Silence of the Lambs
(Image credit: Orion Pictures)

"Have the lambs stopped screaming, Clarice?" Hannibal Lecter (played exquisitely by Anthony Hopkins) asks Clarice Starling (the excellent Jodie Foster) during The Silence of the Lambs. There are few lines in cinema as iconic, and for good reason – it's unsettling, creepy, and sticks with you long after the credits have rolled. Even now, 30 years after the movie’s release, it’s utterly terrifying.

Horror is a genre that ages quickly. A lot of older movies just aren't as scary as they were compared to when they were first released. The Silence of the Lambs, though, has that same thrill factor while also being severely dated in other ways. Released on Valentine’s Day in 1991, the movie – which sees the ambitious young FBI employee Clarice work with the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal to track down the serial killer Jame Gumb, AKA Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) – is the only horror movie to win Best Picture at the Oscars, with Foster and Hopkins winning Best Actress and Best Actor at the same ceremony. It was lauded at the time and remains popular now, with a sequel series centered on Clarice currently airing. 

Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs

(Image credit: IMDb)

Why the acclaim? Firstly, Hannibal Lecter is outright scary – frightening because he is measured, intelligent, and has good manners (at least, for a monstrous cannibal). Hopkins' performance is cool and precise. In conversation with Foster for Variety to commemorate the movie's anniversary, Hopkins said: "The voice had come to me on the first reading. Jonathan [Demme] asked me, and I said, ‘He’s like a machine. He’s like HAL, the computer in 2001: 'Good evening, Dave.'’ He just comes in like a silent shark." 

What’s impressive, though, is that we don't see Hannibal in action – his bloody deeds are never seen firsthand. Indeed, for a movie about serial killers, one of whom eats his victims, there is surprisingly little gore. In the words of director Jonathan Demme: “It’s a suspense movie with a female protagonist who is never in sexual peril. It’s a slasher movie that is devoid not only of slasher scenes but of the anticipation of seeing them.” Visual effects are the easiest way for a film to look outdated and therefore less scary, and The Silence of the Lambs avoids this by subverting our gory expectations. But what it lacks in showing violence on screen, it more than makes up for with suspense.

In that department, the movie is masterful. The frequent use of point-of-view shots allows the audience to see what Clarice sees and feel what she feels; we are directly in the action. This style of camerawork is often used in horror movies, so we associate it with fear. In the same conversation with Hopkins for Variety, Foster said of Clarice: "She had this quietness. There was almost a shame that she wasn’t bigger, that she wasn’t stronger, this person trying to overcome the failure of the body they were born in. I understood that was her strength. In some ways, she was just like the victims – another girl in another town." This relatability makes the movie more frightening, especially if you're watching it as a woman. 

Silence of the Lambs

(Image credit: Oreon Pictures)

The Silence of the Lambs is not a perfect film – the character of Buffalo Bill, the man who kills women in order to wear their skin, is rooted in transphobia. The "cross-dressing criminal" is a tired trope and one that conflates an LGBTQ+ identity with mental illness. Demme has since said that Buffalo Bill "wasn't a gay character. He was a tormented man who hated himself and wished he was a woman because that would have made him as far away from himself as he possibly could be."

As writer Mey Rude noted in an essay for Autostraddle: "The same insanity that causes their transness, is the thing that causes them to become killers, and causes them to be seen as frightening." This isn't unique to The Silence of the Lambs – horror as a genre often falls prey to insensitive tropes to depict the 'Other', AKA the thing we're meant to be scared of. 

However, Clarice, an upcoming TV show about the FBI agent's life post-Silence of the Lambs, has recently cast Jen Richards, a trans actor. "All I can say is that the character intersects with Clarice’s storyline in a way that her transness isn’t central to her storyline," Richards said of her casting in a recent statement. "But her identity as a trans woman prompts her to discuss with Clarice the complicated legacy of Buffalo Bill." 

There's no doubt that the horror of The Silence of the Lambs still holds up, 30 years after its release. It's a scary movie, but one that isn't without its faults. Without it, the serial killer horror genre would have been a lot different today, the movie still influencing modern shows such as David Fincher’s Mindhunter. And while further additions to the stories of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter cannot erase what came before, projects like Clarice can help fans reckon with their feelings towards a movie with a complicated legacy. 

For more horror, check out our piece on the best horror movies of all time and the best Netflix horror movies to watch right now.

I’m an Entertainment Writer at GamesRadar+, covering everything film and TV-related across the Total Film and SFX sections – I help bring you all the latest news and the occasional feature, too. I’ve previously written for publications like HuffPost and i-D after getting my NCTJ Diploma in Multimedia Journalism.