My two memories of seeing Silence of the Lambs way back in 1991:
First is the scene where Clarice Starling helps with an autopsy of one of “Buffalo Bill’s” victims. As the autopsy moves forward, the crew realizes that something has been jammed down the dead woman’s throat. Slowly, the pathologist reaches into the woman’s throat with tweezers … And at that point, the elderly woman sitting next to me in the packed theater whispered to her friend, “If that’s a penis, I’m going to throw up.” My pal and me – in the midst of a very quiet and tense moment – burst out laughing.
The second thing I recall is watching Clarice in the basement with James “Buffalo Bill” Gumm, trying to find the depraved killer in the dark. The entire time Clarice is in the basement, I kept waiting for Lecter to appear. I really expected him to be pulling the strings of Gumm, just like he was everyone else he came in contact with. I wasn’t disappointed by the ending, but I was a bit surprised that Gumm was Lecter’s diversion, not his compatriot.
That’s the hallmark of a good villain: Even when Lecter is not on screen, his presence hovers over the action, the viewer anticipating his return, waiting to see what he will try next. Really, Lecter is on screen for about 1/5th of the movie, maybe less. Yet everything that happens is because Lecter wants it to. Lecter wants to escape, so he takes advantage of the carelessness of a pre-eminent mental health practitioner as well as overconfident police. Lecter wants the FBI’s eyes elsewhere while he escapes, so he sets them on the hunt for media star Buffalo Bill. Lecter wants companionship, so he begins a series of tete-a-tetes with young Starling, almost positioning himself as a mentor.
What Lecter wants, he gets. It’s really that simple. Simple except the man spends most of the movie locked in a cage in a basement of a high-security mental health facility. Nothing is done by force. Everything Lecter gets is through manipulation and fear. Reading people, understanding what motivates them, feeding them what they desire until Lecter has them positioned where he wants them. For all of the fear and dread that permeates Silence of the Lambs, there’s very little on-screen violence. It’s all autopsy photos and conversations, mutterings and memories of grim times. No one seems to want to talk aloud about Lecter, for fear the boogeyman will make them his next meal.
It’s a testament to not giving people what they want. Lecter isn’t like his movie monster contemporaries of the late 1980s-early 1990s such as Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Kreuger, Pinhead, etc. He is not about elaborate kills and an enormous body count. It’s the potential of Lecter’s destructive abilities that keep you riveted, knowing at some point that the cobra will quit hypnotically dancing back and forth and lung, fangs bared, ready to bite, pierce, destroy, feed.
Well, at least that’s what you get with the Hannibal Lecter of the Silence of the Lambs. The Hannibal Lecter of Hannibal, the sequel, is Jason, Michael, Pinhead and Freddy. Where Silence of the Lambs is a quiet night home with your wife, Hannibal is a night out with your wife … at the Super Bowl. Hannibal is about the elaborate kills, the blood, the body count. No restraint is shown. It’s steeped in stylization and indulgence, not realism and suspense. There is no tension. We know as soon as we meet pederast Mason Verger, crooked Italian cop Renaldo Pazzi and FBI douche Paul Krendler that they are expendable, sausage for Lecter’s grinder. The hogs, the brain eating, the Christian symbolism and family karma of the Pazzi kill … Lecter may as well have been wearing a hockey mask and a glove with knives attached. It’s not helped by the performance of Hopkins, either. He sleepwalks through Hannibal, emoting nothing but boredom. The eyes, the unmatched fierceness of his gaze is long gone.
Less, in this case, is clearly so much more. I can sum it up with a quick comparison. In Hannibal, for no apparent reason, Lecter seems to be in love (or his version of it, at any rate) with Clarice. He caresses her, kisses her, strokes her. But neither Lecter’s advances nor Starling’s attempts to stop them have any meat to them. It feels forced, unnatural, unbelievable.
Cut to Silence of the Lambs, the scene where Hannibal and Starling meet for the last time. The conversation is intense, and as Starling is being led out of the building by police, Hannibal yells for her. Clarice breaks away, running to Lecter’s cage. He hands her some of his drawings, and – oh so gently – Lecter runs his finger along the side of Clarice’s hand. That soft touch has more intimacy, more desire for connection, more realness than can be found in the entirety of Hannibal.
Less is more. Repeat.