Earlier this week Silence of the Lambs celebrated its 25th anniversary and so it seemed like the perfect excuse to revisit the campaign for what has gone on to become a classic thriller that has not only launched a number of sequels and other adaptations but also been cemented as one of the best movies of the late 20th Century.
Is there a point to recapping the story? As has been noted in countless other places the movie was not the big-screen introduction to Hannibal Lecktor, that happened five years earlier in Michael Mann’s adaptation of Manhunter, another Thomas Harris novel featuring Lecktor, who in that movie was played by Brian Cox. But it was the introduction of Anthony Hopkins to U.S. audiences. Hopkins played Lecktor as a sophisticated psychopath, chewing into each line of dialogue with a relish that made the character, his performance and the film in general immediately memorable. While that’s all great, it would be nothing without an equally elevated performance by Jodie Foster as F.B.I. rookie profiler Clarice Starling, who goes toe-to-toe with Lecktor in order to gain his insights into a current case being investigated. And neither of those performances, or the look and feel of the movie in general, would be possible without the tight, atmospheric direction of Jonathan Demme. All of that came together into something that resonated in a big way with 1991 audiences and continues to make an impact today.
The film’s theatrical poster is now seen as modern classic of the key art format. We see a grainy black-and-white photo of Foster’s face, her eyes a pop of red against the monochromatic setting. But her mouth is covered by a death’s head moth, the skull on its back slightly exaggerated from what you’d actually find in nature. The cast list appears above the title treatment, which is followed by the copy “From the terrifying best seller.”
A few things occur to me looking at the poster: First, the connection to the source novel isn’t made at all in the trailer, so it’s appearance here makes me wonder what that decision-making process was. Why was it so important to hit that point here but to ignore it in other elements of the campaign? Second, the moth is a plot element that similarly isn’t included in the trailer. Indeed it’s completely out of context, through it’s a plot point that will of course come up in the movie itself. What it does, though, is make the poster that much creepier because it makes the audience (at least those not familiar with the story already) wonder what the heck that disgusting insect is doing on her mouth? What is going on here? You’re immediately intrigued by this.
Also notable is the absence of Hopkins’ Lecktor from the one-sheet. Aside from his name he’s nowhere, which is surprising considering considering what a big part of the trailer he is. That may have been partly because it’s actually Starling’s story we’re following and so she was in the spotlight. It may also have been that Foster was a star at the time whereas Hopkins wasn’t known to U.S. audiences in 1990/91 and so would not have been that much of a draw. It’s also a marked contrast to today’s posters which will sacrifice tone and design considerations in favor of cramming the faces of actors together as artlessly as possible. Whatever the case, this is an enormously effective poster that, as I mentioned, has gone on to become an immediately-recognizable classic.
The trailer starts out by introducing us to Agent Starling, who’s tasked with finding someone who’s been killing and skinning women. In short order we meet Lecktor, who is being used for insights into the killer. The trailer tells us repeatedly how dangerous Lecktor is, that he’s a raging psychopath and how Starling is in danger by letting him into her head. The trailer teases that at some point Lecktor escapes but that’s about it, actually.
There’s very little about the Buffalo Bill case that Starling is actually investigating, just a few mentions and a couple shots. So audiences would have been completely taken aback by how much of the movie is actually focused on that in addition to the graphic nature of that part of the story. Instead it understandably focuses on the psychological cat-and-mouse game between Starling and Lecktor. The studio obviously knew this would be the draw and that they needed to highlight the performances by Hopkins and Foster.
What’s also remarkable to me is just how well the trailer holds up. Usually as you watch these older trailers they come off as stilted, with a style that might have worked at the time but which now seems stiff and with a tempo that seems odd and unfamiliar. But this one might still work in 2016. It’s easy to see where today’s tendency to explain every single plot line would change things a bit, especially in how it would absolutely share more of the Buffalo Bill story, but otherwise this holds up pretty well, which may be a testament to the movie as a whole.