The Best Horror Movie of 1991: The Silence of the Lambs

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The Best Horror Movie of 1991: The Silence of the Lambs

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

The horror genre had been slightly tapering off since the late 1980s, but 1991 is the year that things sort of fall off the map once again. The fact that the #1 spot is anchored by a classic like The Silence of the Lambs initially gives an impression of prestige, but once you get past the best few films on the list, you come up with slim pickings pretty quick, especially compared to some of the glory years in the mid-1980s.

Why did this happen? Well, it certainly feels like there’s a degree of fatigue with the genre involved at this point. The ’80s had been saturated by horror films to a point the industry had never seen before, and so defined by the slasher genre that the fortunes of those movies dictated public perceptions of horror cinema to some extent. And by the time we get to 1991, the legacy of the slasher genre is at a particularly low point—this year sees the release of such anti-classics as Child’s Play 3 and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, along with multiple Puppet Master sequels and the beginning of the Subspecies series in the direct-to-video world. The regular theater-going audience at this point could be forgiven for thinking that horror had jumped the shark a bit.

This is not to say that the 1990s are a horror decade without merit, but they’re considerably more sporadic than the decades that came before—some years have relatively decent horror crops, while others are comparatively barren. That’s just going to be our reality for a while, until the genre steadily recovers at the end of the decade.

As for the rest of 1991, we have the modern remake of Cape Fear, which falls into the same “is it really ‘horror,’ per se?” camp of the original, plus Wes Craven’s unequivocally horror (but memorably goofy) The People Under the Stairs. And, you know … The Addams Family, which is as funny and charming today as ever, but does it really belong on any kind of list with “horror” in the title? We’ll leave it to you to decide, while simply stating that as a comedy, the film is pitch-perfect, making 2019’s upcoming Addams Family seem particularly unnecessary.

1991 Honorable Mentions: Cape Fear, The People Under the Stairs, The Addams Family, The Resurrected, The Pit and the Pendulum

The Film: The Silence of the Lambs
Director: Jonathan Demme

Director Jonathan Demme came up in the New Hollywood generation as a member of the so-called “Corman Film School,” working for the prolific B-movie producer’s New World Pictures and directing influential exploitation films such as the “women in prison” movie Caged Heat. It’s only fitting, then, that his best-known work also eventually revolved around women and law enforcement … and features a cameo from none other than Corman, playing the director of the FBI. With the help of author Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs was a breakthrough for both Demme’s personal fortunes and the idea that a horror film could transcend genre into the realm of “prestige” thriller/drama, ultimately taking home five Academy Awards (including Best Picture) in the process. The fact that some film writers still refuse to label The Silence of the Lambs as a horror movie speaks to the lingering bias that exists against the genre, and the idea that it shouldn’t ever produce awards contenders—a bit of cognitive dissonance where those who dislike these films struggle with the fact that this particular film is an undeniable masterpiece, despite clearly being one. For those who profess to hate horror, there’s a need to label The Silence of the Lambs as something else.

One runs the risk, with this movie, of reducing discussion of the film to rote impressions of its characters, and Hannibal Lecter in particular. Few horror films have ever inspired such vigorous caricature in the media at the time of their release and in the decades since, and the root cause lies in the striking qualities of the film’s instantly iconic characters, and the performances that bring them to life. If effective imitation relies upon having a distinct portrayal to emulate, then the likes of Hannibal Lecter are an impressionist’s dream. Performers salivate over the chance to take on this kind of role.

Of course, as has also been observed so many times, Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Lecter is all the more impressive for the fact that he’s so infrequently actually on screen. It’s one of the things that preserves Lecter’s aura of command—he sends Starling out on these little quests, seemingly deliberately wasting her time in digging up clues in the Buffalo Bill case, not because he particularly wants to put away a killer of women but because he’s curious what the quest to do so will awaken within the woman he seems to see as both protege and romantic interest. From the first, he senses quite a bit of potential in Starling—even when he’s belittling her and using his supernatural psychological intuition to pry at her insecurities. He seems to know she’s capable of great things, especially if she’ll be able to overcome the distractions of personal pride and ambition, which she uses as a shield against a system that is deeply misogynist.

There’s still no shortage of debate over whether the film’s depiction of that misogynist society and the structures of power within it make for a truly great work of feminist art, but there’s no denying that The Silence of the Lambs forces its audience to both consider and endure the daily subjugation Starling feels in her field. Every man in the film, to differing degrees, looks her up and down and considers her gender before making opening overtures. Some, like the insect researchers who reveal the existence of the “deaths head” moth, hit on Starling in an overt, clumsy way that she seems to regard as simply a mild annoyance. Others, like FBI profiler Jack Crawford, compound matters by using Starling’s sex as a means to an end, taking advantage of society’s reactions to her in a way that he believes is ameliorated by the fact that he actually respects Starling—something with which she strongly disagrees. The mere fact that he harbors no particular bias toward Starling does not excuse him taking advantage of the prejudices others might feel toward her for his own ends—it simply perpetuates the broken world as it is. As she says to him herself, “Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.” And it does.

Eventually, of course, there is no shortage of grand guignol to the film as well, especially in the operatic staging with which Lecter disposes of the guards in his eventual escape from confinement, into the nightmares of the theater audience. At no point is it particularly believable that the diminutive, bookish-looking Lecter, as played by Hopkins, would be capable of overcoming much larger, stronger men, or such feats as suspending one of them from his cell like a tattered Christmas angel, but such practical considerations hardly matter when the inherent menace of a character has been established with such an icily cerebral performance. Thanks to Hopkins, the viewer simply accepts that, like the devil incarnate, there is no feat beyond his cunning. You simply pray to be beneath his notice.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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