The episode of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? covering The Silence of the Lambs was Written by Mike Holtz, Narrated by Adam Walton, Edited by Victoria Verduzco, Produced by Andrew Hatfield and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.
A serial killer who has excellent taste in music but happens to skin women alive. Another serial killer who eats his victims and sometimes wears their faces. A prison inmate who throws his bodily fluids in the face of passers-by and freaking BUGS. Welcome to the 1992 Academy Awards Ceremony. Wait, what? That’s right kids! Do you enjoy listening to Primus and want to see Hannibal Lecter make potato chips out of each one of your eyelids? Once upon a time, horror put on its best face; LITERALLY, and was the belle of the fanciest ball of them all. And every little girl deserves to go to the ball. Just how did our beloved little genre shed the judgment of the people to reach the tippity top of the mountain? Let’s find out together just WTF happened to 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs.
In 1981 Thomas Harris published a novel titled Red Dragon which featured an FBI profiler who must turn to an imprisoned serial killer and cannibal to capture another killer dubbed “the tooth fairy”. Though, I must admit I feel weird reducing the nuanced man known as Hannibal Lecter to the term “cannibal”. I feel like we should call him a “fancy” cannibal or something? But that just reminds me of ketchup. The book was so successful it would be adapted into a film in 1986 starring Brian Cox as the titular character, titled Manhunter. The film was met (at the time) with minimal success but that didn’t stop Thomas Harris from penning his sequel novel. You guessed it: Electric Boogaloo 2: Secret of the Ooze. Okay, you got me. The Silence of the Lambs (watch it HERE). This book was met with even more praise for Harris and was adapted as well into the movie we’re talking about today: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. I swear, that was the last one.
Originally, The Silence of the Lambs was to be produced in part by filmmaker-friendly Orion Films and partly financed as well by the great Gene Hackman, who was set to direct and possibly star in the film as agent in charge of the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI, Jack Crawford. Hackman was excited enough to put up $250,000 of his own money to help finance the film and writer Ted Tally was chosen to adapt the screenplay from the novel. Oddly enough, while the script was still being written, Hackman decided that the film was just too violent and that there was no way he could do it. Later that year, Hackman would build his very own steakhouse from the ground up only to realize he was a vegetarian on opening day. Orion was cool with it and refunded his money.
Executive VP of Orion at the time, Mike Medavoy told screenwriter Ted Tally (who no doubt was wearing his brown pants to work every day at this moment) “Keep writing, don’t give up and when you finish the script, we will find another director”. Medavoy reached out to his frequent collaborator and director of Married to the Mob, Jonathan Demme. It seemed like a strange match at the time with even Medavoy stating “Most people thought I was really being foolish to go with Jonathan on a picture like this, but I knew his work and I felt like he could do a really good type of thriller.” a bet that unlike most of mine this past weekend….paid off. Does anyone have a quarter I can borrow?
Demme originally declined the offer, taking a quick look at it and deciding it was just another run of the mill slasher but when encouraged to look deeper he realized the project had potential. With a director and a script in place, it was time to cast the role of Hannibal Lecter. A role so pivotal that it would have to be a performance that would eat people’s faces off. Literally. The legendary Sean Connery was reached out to but declined due to the characters’ chest hair not being shown enough. Unfortunately, that’s a lie (I think), like Hackman, the film proved to be too violent for Connery. The unfair stigma of horror movies being beneath other forms of theatrical art striking once again; little did they know this picture would be the one to break that stigma possibly more than any other before it or since. That is until the Winnie the Pooh slasher sequel releases. Then they’ll have no choice but to respect us!
Moving on, the list of actors once considered for the role of Lecter would become more intimidating than Donnie Darko’s Iowa test scores. It was a list that would feature Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Dennis Hoffman, Forest Whitaker, and Daniel Day Lewis. But the movie gods knew only one man was meant to play the role and finally… Anthony Hopkins came into the fold. Hopkins said of receiving the script for the first time “I thought it was a children’s story. A Bedtime story. And I knew when I read the script it was probably going to change a lot of things in my life. This is that sort of once in a lifetime script that comes along.” But Anthony! Isn’t it too violent? WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN? Hopkins later elaborated “I understood the man and how to play him. I knew he was the shadowy figure that lurks inside of all of us. And I don’t know why I have an instinct about those kinds of things, but I do. I’m fascinated by the shadow side of our psyches because they are also the most creative sides of us and if we deny the shadow side the dark side of our nature you live a pretty bland or destructive life because it will come out in the end in some form or another.” Well said, Anthony.
With Hopkins in the fold and working on creating what would be one of the scariest human beings ever to grace a screen, the hunt for our heroine, FBI Agent Clarice Starling was also taking place. Demme had suggested Michelle Pfeiffer after working with her before, but she turned down the project due to it not having ENOUGH violence in it for her personal tastes. Just kidding. She said it was too violent as well. Weren’t you in Scarface? Did they not chop a dude up with a chainsaw in a bathtub?
All would be just fine, however. There was indeed an actress not only willing to accept the role but actively pursuing and campaigning for it. And her name was Robert Paulson. Shoot, sorry. Her name was Jodie Foster. That’s incorrect. What I meant to say was “Fresh off winning an Academy Award for Best Actress for The Accused … Jodie effin’ Foster”.
The perfect casting wouldn’t stop there, however, as the thankless role of serial killer Buffalo Bill was thankfully taken on by the great Ted Levine. Now, don’t get me wrong. We’d all have a total blast blaring some ‘Goodbye Horses’, dancing around and trying on some sweet new threads but this role came with its own dark baggage for Levine who would end up being type cast not only career-wise but sometimes in his personal life. He was so haunting and believable in the role, that he once said he “really had to sort of fight to be seen as husband, father, good person kind of thing. But still people respect me for it.” A respect that’s well deserved. That role and the infamous lines just wouldn’t have been the same without his dedicated performance to the role.
Furthermore, the character itself was the source of what may be The Silence of the Lamb’s biggest controversy of all when activist groups found themselves upset at their opinion of the films portrayal of the LGBT community which led to controversy in the community and many protests of the film. Despite both Demme and Levine being on the record stating they never saw the character as LGBT. Part of the argument was that the character simply hated himself so much he wanted to get as far away from himself as possible, which for him was in the literal skin of a woman. Levine said that he’d decided himself the character wasn’t a member of the LGBT community early in the process, saying, “The stance I took was more one of an acutely homophobic heterosexual man doing that mocking thing.”
Demme at one point also stated that “We knew it was tremendously important to not have Gumb misinterpreted by the audience as being homosexual. That would be a complete betrayal of the themes of the movie. And a disservice to gay people.” Furthermore, there’s a line in the film itself where Hannibal Lecter, while breaking down the psyche of the character for Clarice, that “Billy is not a real trans-sexual, but he thinks he is. He tries to be. He’s tried a lot of things, I expect.” Ultimately, the waters in this situation remained muddy and Demme himself expressed regret for any bad light the role shined on the community. He would go on to direct Philadelphia two years later.
Controversy aside, our script, director and main trio of cast members were complete but The Silence of the Lambs would go on to round out an absolutely astounding supporting cast that included Scott Glenn as Clarice’s boss Jack Crawford in a role based on the real-life FBI Agent John E Douglas who actually helped prep Jack Crawford for the role. In fact, the FBI were more than accommodating to the production of Silence of the Lambs, even letting them film their FBI training sequences on location in Quantico, Virginia. The FBI saw the character of Agent Starling and her portrayal by Jodie Foster as so impressive, they considered it a recruiting tool for future female agents and offered to help any way they could.
This aspect of The Silence of the Lambs was a backbone for the film from the very beginning. Throughout the film’s entirety, we are placed in the point of view of Starling. If you notice throughout, the extreme closeups of characters while speaking to Starling are looking directly at the audience. However, during Starlings close ups, she is looking slightly away to specifically put us in her point of view. Another theme of the film is just how difficult it was for her to navigate this world of the FBI as a female amongst mostly dismissive males including Anthony Heald as Dr. Frederick Chilton who was amazing in playing the epitome of a complete and total douche nozzle.
In fact, it is suspected that the character of Starling was the main draw of the initial creation of the novel to begin with. Screenwriter Ted Tally stated“I think what especially interested Tom when writing Silence of the Lambs was to try to live inside the mind of a female character. To put a woman at the center of a book and I think that was the challenge he set himself.” Which pays off in a major way as we learn not only about Starling’s past but watch her literally earn her skills and toughness as the movie unfolds. We learn to respect AND care for the character while also acknowledging the deck stacked against her. This makes the audience feel oh so vulnerable when she’s locked in the dark basement of this absolute Super-Shredder level psycho wearing night vision goggles and reaching for her hair like fake Michael Myers reaching for Laurie before getting his head chopped off.
There’s no doubt Jodie Foster embodied the character of Clarice Starling and was absolutely essential in the film to succeed as it did. Then there’s the other side of that coin. Anthony Hopkins embodied Hannibal Lecter with his looks, voice and movements in a way that burns itself into your brain and leaves you in fear but absolutely captivated with his every movement. Using a voice technique somewhat inspired by Hal 9000, the vocal stylings of Truman Capote and a dash of HOLY HELL this is Satan himself and he’s staring directly at me! Hopkins absolutely transcends into an utter madman while simultaneously being the calmest man in the room.Of his portrayal Hopkins said, “They talk about him for 10 minutes before he’s seen as if he’s some babbling psychopath and I wanted to play him the opposite. You always play the opposite of what the audience expects.” Hopkins maintained eye contact with whomever he was speaking with while moving his head as little as possible and not blinking. The result is absolutely terrifying. All before we even see him eat a single nose. I would argue that it has to be in any conversation for the single greatest horror performance of all time.
As far as his look and presence, a lot of work and brilliant decision making went into that as well. Painstaking efforts were made to decide on his overalls and overall look which went from orange and yellow jumpsuits, ultimately deciding on the dark blue before Hopkins recommended, he wear all white during the escape scene because it reminded him of his fear of dentists. Same, dude *Clip of Arnold and Carl Weathers locking arm handshake in Predator*. The infamous half mask we see during his transport to keep him from getting “bitey” was created by a man named Ed Cubberly who created masks for NHL goalkeepers. The FX crew ordered the mask with the intention of painting it to their liking once it had arrived, but the paint job worked so well for that whole “I eat people” aesthetic that they decided to leave it just as it came…and history was made.
The classic scenes of Starling and Lecter going back and forth were set up using plexiglass rather than your typical prison bars to make the closeups of Lecter far more intimate than they would have been with bars between the camera lens and the audience. This also afforded a chance for Hopkins to ad lib smelling Clarice through the holes. GOD, I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE DEEP SNIFF ME! The worst!
When I think of The Silence of the Lambs, I think of it as the horror genre’s version of Morgan Freeman walking through the library in Seven while Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D Major played over the speakers (I totally had to google that). It’s a film that just feels so refined and prestigious despite having just as much depraved and sadistic content as any other horror film. This is in part due to the people involved from the top to the bottom. Nearly every account of working on the set created by Jonathan Demme and company was a complimentary one. This culture created the environment for everyone to do their best work including the FX team which thought it would be disrespectful to use true crime photos as the movie told of Buffalo Bill’s previous crimes. They instead went through painstaking details of bringing in actors and recreating the corpses of the victims before photographing them. The moths found in the victims’ throats were even made of tootsie rolls and gummies so that if an accident occurred and they were swallowed, the actor would be safe.
All of these folks’ best efforts would pay off in the end with The Silence of the Lambs being released onto the masses on Valentine’s Day weekend of 1991 and raking in $17 million of its $20 million dollar budget back on the opening weekend alone. Then, due to word of mouth and excellent critics reviews the film would stay at #1 in the box office for a whopping FIVE weeks. The Silence of the Lambs would end up making $273 million dollars worldwide and become an international sensation. On the initial $20 million dollar budget, Producer Ron Bozman said “It was a pretty modest production. It wasn’t an attempt to go make an Academy Award winning film.” WELL SLAP ME AROUND AND CALL ME SUSAN! That’s exactly what came next….
The Silence of the Lambs arrived on Oscars’ night and took home awards for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay AND Best Picture. Anthony Hopkins won the award for Best Actor despite having the lowest on-screen time percentage than any other before him, having been on screen for only 21% of the film. The Silence of the Lambs is now widely considered one of the greatest films of all time and produced multiple sequels and a beloved yet cancelled far too early TV show in Hannibal. Anthony Hopkins went from almost giving up on a Hollywood career to being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for “services to the arts” and is now known as SIR Anthony Hopkins if you’re nasty. That’s what I call putting the lotion in the basket. And that is WTF happened to The Silence of the Lambs. I’d love to stay and chat but I’m having an old friend for dinner. Then I’m going to throw on some Goodbye Horses by Q Lazzarus, break out a full-sized mirror and see where the night takes me! Wait, is this mic still on?
A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? can be seen below. To see more, head over to our JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!