AFI Top 100: The Silence of the Lambs

Each week, this column will cover one film on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, covering my general thoughts on the film and whether or not I think it belongs on the list. You can also see my personal ranking here. Throughout the month of October, I’ll be covering the four horror films on the list. This week is #74: The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Some people argue that The Silence of the Lambs isn’t a horror film. Of course, genre classifications are somewhat subjective, and the line between horror and psychological thriller is especially translucent, but even setting aside the grizzly content, evaluating Demme’s distinct formalism leaves little doubt. The film’s most chilling shot isn’t of a mutilated body, but our introduction to Doctor Lecter in Demme’s signature head-on shot, where Hopkins stares directly into the camera, as if peering into the audience’s soul. This convergence of the film’s two biggest strengths—Hopkins’ iconic performance and Tak Fujimoto’s expressionist cinematography—in a single bone-chilling moment outweighs even the more gruesome sequences later on.

What makes The Silence of the Lambs so singular is that it’s many things: a horror film about a brilliant—seemingly supernatural—cannibal looking to escape imprisonment, a police procedural about an FBI trainee attempting to prove herself, and a (somewhat problematic) thriller about the psychology of a serial killer in the process of claiming his next victim. Demme does a great job balancing the narrative between Clarice, Lecter, and Buffalo Bill, even if I always find Clarice’s meandering search for clues less engaging than the more meatier scenes with the film’s two ostensible monsters. My more major reservation, though, is with some of the character motivations—specifically Lecter’s continued interest in Clarice’s background and his immediate willingness to help her only after she’s assaulted by another prisoner—but even still, The Silence of the Lambs remains one of the most effective thrillers and, yes, horror films of the late 20th century.

Does It Belong on the List?

The list already has a shortage of horror films—next week, I’ll list some personal choices I would add—so it’s painful to take one off, but I would gladly trade The Silence of the Lambs for another strong police procedural that straddles the line between psychological thriller and horror: Seven.

Next Week: The Sixth Sense

AFI Top 100

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