There is no denying that THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a cinematic triumph. It is still the only horror film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and it continues to terrify. Though it balances psychological horror with body horror against the backdrop of a police procedural, there is something extra- something sinister—which makes the film stand out. For me, it is the unsettling intimacy of the film’s two monsters and their victims.
While it can be problematic referring to people as “monsters,” in horror criticism the label serves a purpose. In Robin Wood’s seminal text on horror film theory, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, he laid out the perfectly simple pattern that all horror films share. Each horror film has a monster, a version of normalcy, and the relationship between the two. In film with fantastical elements (DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, POLTERGEIST) the monster may not be human. In films without fantastical elements (PSYCHO, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, SCREAM) we are forced to confront the fact that humanity can be monstrous.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS relies on not one but two monsters to get under the skin of the audience: Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill (Anthony Hopkins and Ted Levine). Both are killers, with little regard for humanity or their victims. Each see other humans as minor road blocks, or means to help them achieve their own personal goals, though to differing degrees. Despite this emotional disconnect, each kills and utilizes their victims in an incredibly personal way.
Lecter is referred to as “Hannibal the Cannibal,” and rightly so: he eats his victims. But merely saying that he eats them somehow denies his utter delight in the act of consumption. He does not do this merely for sustenance or as a symbol of dominance, he savors his victim. He thinks about side dishes and wine pairings. Lecter is not above the utilitarian act of doing a quickie-murder and merely ending a life, but he far prefers relishing in death.
(via This Must Be the Place)
Bill, on the other hand, does not seem especially happy to kill. He clearly does not mind it too much, but he sees it as a way to get what he wants. In dealing with his final victim, Catherine (Brooke Smith), Bill is seen clearly annoyed and pushed to his limits in dealing with the young woman. He does not want to have to tell her instructions twice or deal with her trying to argue her way out of the pit. Bill would rather not have to deal with a person at all. It is difficult to imagine Bill wanting to stuff his face with his victim’s flesh, though he too has something disturbing up his sleeve.
Bill instead uses his victims as fabric. He chooses a bigger woman, starves her for a bit, and then skins her to use her flesh to make himself a suit. This skin suit is a way for him to deal with being rejected from sexual reassignment surgery. He sees it as a way to finally become the woman he knows he is inside him. Wearing the flesh of his victims is inhabiting their flesh, and specifically in Bill’s case, their womanhood. He is stealing not only their lives, but he needs to also steal their gender expression so that he can effectively address his own gender misalignment. But even with this intimate relationship Bill is forming with his victims, the quilting of multiple victims and his general disdain for people give him slightly more emotional distance from his victims than Lecter. Bill does not really care who his victim is, or treat any of them (with the exception of his very first victim) any differently than the next one.
Lecter remembers everything. Partially due to his staggering intelligent, Lecter remembers all of victims. He not only remember the census taker he ate, but he remembers the fava beans and Chianti he paired with that poor man’s liver. These memories do not haunt him, he loves that he can recall the ecstasy of each meal at any moment. While incarcerated these cannibalistic memories are all that his has from his days of freedom to remind him of how sweet life used to be.
Though it is not for us to say which is worse, this contrast of relationships between monster and prey does beg the question: who is more monstrous? Is it Lecter? The man who revels in the consumption of lesser men, and revels in every bite of their flesh. Or is it Bill? The man who wears he skin of his victims in order to feel some small space of peace in his chaotic world? Both have a close physical relationship with their kills. Both treat human flesh in wildly different ways than the majority of the civilized world. Perhaps the intended judgement is in the ending of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. As Bill is dead from Clarice Starling’s gun, surrounded by the evidence against him, Lecter is sauntering down a tropical isle, about to have a meal that is equal parts decadence and revenge. Though the film never tells us who the bigger monster is, it does let the more compelling monster win. Bon appetite!