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An old friend for dinner ... why we’re not scared of Hannibal Lecter any more

Is that the best you can do? Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter.
Is that the best you can do? Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. Photograph: Allstar/ORION PICTURES

Twenty-six years ago, The Silence of the Lambs was scaring people silly at the cinema. It gave one couple the heebie-jeebies so badly that they refused to budge unless the manager escorted them to the car park. Cinemagoers were reported to be puking in the aisles. In New York, a psychologist claimed that a third of her patients wanted to talk about Hannibal Lecter. Two years later, ITV’s decision to broadcast a watered-down version – minus the gory bits – caused such a flutter of moral panic that it generated newspaper headlines.

The Silence of the Lambs shocked and thrilled audiences in 1991, but, for its rerelease in UK cinemas next month, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has downgraded its rating from 18 to 15. As yet, no one has turned up to man the moral barricades. Why? The film is the same. Still Jodie Foster playing Clarice Starling, the gutsy and resourceful rookie FBI agent sent in to winkle out clues about psychopath Buffalo Bill from that connoisseur of evil, Dr Lecter. Is it we who have changed? Have we become desensitised to serial killers chewing off the faces of their victims? Has a diet of blood and gore over the past 26 years girded up our loins to face the likes of Hannibal the Cannibal?

“Oh, my gosh. Yes! Of course we have become more desensitised,” says Ed Saxon, one of the producers who worked on The Silence of the Lambs. “In the silent-movie era, when The Great Train Robbery came out, people would duck when they saw the train coming. Since then, we have become consistently less sensitised, generation by generation.” Back in 1991, Saxon would sneak into cinemas in Los Angeles to watch audiences’ reactions. He is convinced the film has lost its power to shock. “It’s a pretty effective picture, so it still rocks people some. But not to the same extent.”

Killing has always packed in a crowd. Romans piled into the Colosseum to watch gladiators fight to the death. During the Victorian era, travel agents laid on day trips to public hangings. And in 1991, people queued around the block to watch Lecter play psychological chess with Clarice Starling. The Silence of the Lambs broke box office records and scooped five Oscars. Jonathan Demme’s thriller brought multiple murder into the movie mainstream.

Before Lambs, films portraying psychopathic killers tended to be cheap and nasty. You crept into a sticky-floored cinema after midnight to watch gore-fests such as Friday the 13th, Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with other people who shared your sickness. Or, if you preferred the arthouse to the grindhouse, you might have braved John McNaughton’s relentlessly realistic underground cult movie Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Michael Powell virtually ended his own distinguished career in 1960 with Peeping Tom, featuring a serial killer who films his victims’ death throes. Perhaps the closest the movies had come before to The Silence of the Lambs was Pyscho – Norman Bates in mother’s high heels is surely a distant cousin to Buffalo Bill, tucking up his bits and parading around in a silk kimono.

And Lecter was the thinking person’s Freddy Krueger. Until Lecter came along, pairing fine wines with human body parts, serial killers had mostly been a gaggle of claw-handed bogeymen with melty faces and rubber masks. By contrast, Lecter was highly intelligent with impeccable manners (whenever feasible he preferred to eat the rude, author Thomas Harris wrote in his novel, Hannibal). He was the serial killer next door. What’s more, he was played by Anthony Hopkins, an actor with impeccable credentials.

Back in 1991, a commentator at the Daily Telegraph voiced his concern at the “growing aura of middle-class respectability” surrounding the popularity of serial killers. Hopkins even seemed to spook himself with his performance. The Daily Mail reported that at one point he turned down $8m to appear in a sequel – “he fears the original movie may have encouraged people to commit violent acts”. Today, the shock of the new has faded. Now you can buy a Silence of the Lambs inspired wine – the Cannibal Chianti.

The truth is that Hannibal Lecter in 2017 is a far less disturbing prospect than Hannibal Lecter in 1991. Why? Have we developed stronger stomachs for homicidal psychopaths? The BBFC’s Craig Lapper is not convinced. “It’s not necessarily that people have become desensitised,” he reasons. “They’ve just become more used to that idea of a serial killer as a dramatic trope. People are also more used to seeing procedural crime dramas with gory images. You could make the argument that The Silence of the Lambs kicked off a certain amount of interest in that.”

The Silence of the Lambs spawned hundreds of imitators (including its own TV spin-off, Hannibal). After it, came film-makers such as David Fincher – with Zodiac and Seven – riling audiences with stomach-churners in which twisted cerebral killers committed gruesomely clever murders in an atmosphere of rot and depravity. (Think of the poor guy force-fed to death with spaghetti in Seven.) The tide is never-ending: Fincher is back on the serial killer trail with Mindhunter, starting on Netflix this week, while the Scandi variant on the genre is back in cinemas with an adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s thriller The Snowman, with Michael Fassbender as a cop hunting down a multiple murderer whose signature – because if we have learned one thing from the movies, it’s that every killer needs a calling card – is decorating a snowman with bits of his victim.

Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that we are far more accepting of screen violence now than we were even 10 years ago. And research, he says, shows that the reason may be the quantity we are consuming. Romer was involved in a study in which parents were shown clips from violent movies. “We found that if you showed them brief scenes in succession and asked them how acceptable it would be for one of their kids to watch, the more they watched, the more accepting they became.”

“What we have learned is that movie-going adults certainly – and probably their kids – are becoming more used to seeing this kind of thing in the movies. A 15-year-old can probably watch The Silence of the Lambs and not get too upset.” Is that a good or a bad thing? “I don’t think we know the answer to that.”

The Silence of the Lambs is in UK cinemas from 3 November.

Janet Leigh in Psycho.
Janet Leigh in Psycho. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext

Four classic serial killer films

Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock bought up all the copies of Robert Bloch’s novel in 1959 to keep Norman Bates’ twisted secrets under wraps. The book had been inspired by the real-life murderer Ed Gein, who decorated his house with furniture made from body parts.

Peeping Tom

“Perverted nonsense.” “I’m sickened!” In 1960, critics savaged Michael Powell’s film about a young cameraman-murderer who films his victims in their dying moments. The hue and cry of moral panic sank the film – and Powell’s career – until Martin Scorsese showed up and declared the film a masterpiece.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

John McNaughton’s fly-on-the-wall view of a serial killer on the rampage sat on the shelf for four years after censors in the US gave it an X rating – the cinematic kiss of death. “They said they wouldn’t know where to begin cutting,” McNaughton recalled later.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

This is Scandi-noir zero, the original thriller with a bleak story, depressive hero and sinister secrets. Take your pick from the Hollywood remake with Rooney Mara or Noomi Rapace in the original as the angry punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander.

This article titled "An old friend for dinner ... why we’re not scared of Hannibal Lecter any more" was written by Cath Clarke, for The Guardian on Friday 13 October 2017 05.00am

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