Is there really any point in reviewing 'The Silence of the Lambs?' By now, the film is canon, not just for the horror genre but modern cinema. It terrified audiences to the tune of over $100 million domestically, was championed by critics the world over, and embraced by the Academy in a way no other horror film ever had been before (snagging a bucket full of Oscars including the top five prizes -- Screenplay, Director, Actor, Actress and Picture). But more than just a commercial, critical, and artistic success (as if that wasn't enough), 'The Silence of the Lambs' has fully entrenched itself in our shared pop culture consciousness -- it's story, characters, dialogue and imagery are simply a part of the lexicon. Even if you you've never seen 'The Silence of the Lambs,' it doesn't really matter, because you probably know everything about it just by osmosis.
The story doesn't need a recap. Based on the second in Thomas Harris' series of novels about the legendary Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), this time he's called into service when the FBI sends in their ambitious young Agent Starling (Jodie Foster) to manipulate the imprisoned Lecter into helping them catch a serial killer, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Slowly being drawn into Lecter's mind, Clarice must tread into dangerous psychological territory if she is to catch Buffalo Bill before he claims yet another victim.
There are many things to laud in 'The Silence of the Lambs.' Forget this being a horror film -- it's just great artistry. The story, writing, performances, production design, score and direction are first-rate. This is just one of the movies for me that, like 'ALIENS' or 'Blade Runner' or 'The Graduate,' draws me in no matter how many times I've seen it. It works in the way that all great movies work -- it seems organic and effortless. All the thematic and stylistic elements click together, with every scene seeming to flow naturally into the next, with every character moment and plot development believable and genuine. 'The Silence of the Lambs' is, like all terrific films, akin to an experience -- we're fully absorbed into the drama, and some scenes are so nail-bitingly tense that we literally don't realize we've just gnawed into our fingertips as if they were popcorn.
What I enjoy the most about 'The Silence of the Lambs' is that Harris' story is so thematically rich. The developing relationship between Clarice and Lecter is electrifying, fascinating and, at times, even erotic. To catch her killer, she must give up the one thing she fears the most -- control. Letting Lecter into her mind, watching him unravel her deepest secrets is emotionally engaging and resonant. Of course, it is impossible to praise 'The Silence of the Lambs' without praising the performances. Hopkins simply is Hannibal Lecter -- I cannot picture the character, or even hear the name, without thinking of the many, many classic moments the actor manages in 'Lambs.' Foster is his equal -- her determination, innate intelligence and fierce nobility is absolutely perfect for the role. And as expertly directed by Demme (his use of extreme close-ups is highly effective), you'd be hard-pressed to find better performances in American cinema over the past couple of decades.
If I can criticize 'Silence of the Lambs,' it may be for trafficking in typical slasher film cliches while appearing to be above them. Demme stages many sequences ripped straight out of the Horror 101 playbook that, if it wasn't for the glossy production values and superior acting, could be seen as glorifying Hannibal (how common in slasher films to see the villain become the hero). Take the sequence where Lecter escapes his makeshift prison cell -- the film enjoys the Grand Guignol aspect of his "face-sharing" gag to a degree where it's impossible not to be entertained by something that should be repulsive. Same goes for the highly-suspenseful climax, which certainly milks (and manipulates) our emotions like any other drive-in grindhouse flick. Not that I'm complaining -- I love horror -- but I'd challenge those critics who claim that "Silence of the Lambs' completely elevates itself above genre conventions, or is somehow morally and ethically superior to them.
None of this really matters, however, when you have a story this good, and characters as compelling as those in 'Lambs.' The film is a part of the cultural vernacular, and deservedly so. I cannot imagine the cinematic world without Hannibal Lecter in it, nor Hopkins' iconic portrayal, and the character of Starling is completely owned by Foster, no matter who else may try to play her. Add to that the passionate and humane direction by Demme and an airtight script, and you have what is resolutely a great film. 'The Silence of the Lambs' is a modern classic.
'The Silence of the Lambs' is one of those films that has been released so many damn times on VHS, LaserDisc and DVD that it's problematic to try and make a Blu-ray comparison. Which best represents the director's vision? Which is the "right" version? I've long since given up, but I can say that this new 1080p/MPEG-2 encode from MGM is the most natural and warm of any of the versions I've seen -- and for my money, the best.
That's not to say 'The Silence of the Lambs' looks spectacular. This Blu-ray definitely improves upon the latest DVD versions from MGM, as well as the previous Criterion release. Detail is superior, with the image enjoying more depth and a slight improvement in sharpness. The movie still looks somewhat flat, and the print is not perfect -- there is a speckle of dirt here or there, and some slight fluctuations in blacks and contrast.
The biggest difference with this new Blu-ray is the color palette. I found the Criterion and earliest DVD from MGM to appear greenish. A later special edition DVD from MGM lessened this somewhat, but still looked rather muddy. Colors on the Blu-ray boast better (or at least more natural) fleshtones, and more obvious skew towards red. Personally, I found this change more pleasing. Finally, this is a decent encode for MPEG-2, though there is some noise in solid patches of the picture, if no horribly obvious artifacts.
MGM gives 'The Silence of the Lambs' it's first-ever high-res audio presentation. This DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit) didn't really wow me, however -- I really couldn't detect much improvement over the previous MGM DVD.
'The Silence of the Lambs' doesn't really immerse us. Surrounds are sporadic, with a few discrete effects but little that stands out. Atmospherics are actually better, with a few nicely sustained moments in the rears, and decent score bleed. Dynamic range is healthy if not expansive -- the source is clean enough, though I never felt the high-end sing or truly impactful low bass coming out of my subwoofer. Dialogue is still the most prominent aspect of the mix, and is generally well-balanced, though some lower speech still sounds flat. 'The Silence of the Lambs' sounds fine, but nothing more.
'The Silence of the Lambs' has hit LaserDisc and DVD a number of times, with many diverse features. Though the previous MGM special editions probably trump the Criterion LD and DVD efforts in terms of sheer volume, the old Criterion had an audio commentary (with Jonathan Demme, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins) that was stellar. It's not included here, though the breadth of documentaries and featurettes remains pretty substantial. Video material is presented in 480i/MPEG-2 only.
'The Silence of the Lambs' is a true modern classic. It transcended the horror film tag with its critical acclaim, terrific performances, artful direction and boatload of Oscar wins. Though it sometimes traffics in slasher film cliches, it's intelligent, scary and sometimes quite emotionally resonant. This Blu-ray is fine -- good video and audio, and healthy supplements. I'm not sure this is the definitive version -- the tech specs could probably be improved, and I long for some of the extras found on the old Criterion DVD edition -- but for fans of the film (which is most of us) it's still worth a look.