Based on Thomas Harris' wildly popular novel of the same name -- which turns 30 this year, incidentally -- the late, great Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs (1991) remains one of the most iconic and beloved crime dramas in film history. Meticulous in detail and rich in emotional layers, The Silence of the Lambs leads us on an irresistibly dark journey with Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a gifted young college graduate who's yet to earn her wings at the FBI. Clarice stands out from the crowd with her West Virginian accent, fiery red hair, and small stature...but it's her impeccable work that has attracted the attention of Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), head of Quantico's Behavioral Science Unit.
Crawford and his team have their sights set on "Buffalo Bill" (Ted Levine), a serial killer who kidnaps overweight women and skins them for reasons yet unknown. To help get inside the mind of Buffalo Bill, Crawford sends Starling to interview convicted serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who's believed to have history with the murderer-at-large. When Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith, Bates Motel), daughter of a U.S. Senator, is kidnapped -- presumably by Bill -- the stakes are raised even higher. In order for Lecter to help Starling, however, she's forced to let the former psychiatrist get inside her own head...and clever enough not to try and outsmart him at every possible turn.
Without question, The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most influential films of the last three decades. Often imitated but never duplicated, this psychological thriller -- and book that inspired it, as well as Harris' own Red Dragon and Manhunter, years before -- unquestionably set the stage for popular TV shows like Chris Carter's The X-Files and equally dark films like David Fincher's Se7en. Some have come awfully close to matching the pitch-perfect tension and atmosphere created by The Silence of the Lambs, but this five-time Oscar winner broke the mold in 1991 and helped cement the careers of its two lead actors in the process. It's managed to hold up remarkably well since then, even with the distraction of three progressively disappointing follow-ups (Hannibal, the second film adaptation of Red Dragon, and Hannibal Rising) and a short-lived but enthralling TV series that borrowed from different points in Harris' expanding universe.
It's been called to attention many times before, but Hopkins may hold the record for the shortest "Best Actor" screen time. He's barely seen for more than 15 minutes total, yet Lecter's spirit looms over the entire film: like Akira Kurosawa's title character in Red Beard, a potent mythology is crafted before he appears on-screen. (It's amplified by Hopkins' striking performance, not to mention the strength and depth of the author's original character.) This holds true for Starling and most of the supporting players as well: their interaction with one another is the glue that holds The Silence of the Lambs together, while a number of clever twists, turns, and revelations create plenty of additional interest. And I'd be lying if I said the "location swap" twist near the film's climax still didn't fool me every so often -- I've seen The Silence of the Lambs dozens of times on multiple formats, and it's still capable of subtle misdirection in all the right ways.
Carefully chosen and crafted, The Silence of the Lambs' soundtrack and score also help to maintain its strong atmosphere. Just try and imagine several key scenes with any other music attached: whether it's Howard Shore's haunting score, Q. Lazzarus' "Goodbye Horses" (used earlier in Demme's own Married to the Mob), or Tom Petty's "American Girl", everything fits like a glove. The set design also deserves special mention, from the hellish catacombs of Baltimore State Hospital...to the hellish catacombs of Buffalo Bill's humble abode, apparently based on Harris' own blueprints.
Unnerving, unsettling, but ultimately uplifting, The Silence of the Lambs remains a richly detailed and original film that we should all be familiar with. Not surprisingly, this critical and commercial smash hit has received no shortage of home video releases over the years: from multiple laserdisc, VHS, and DVD editions -- including two by Criterion, the latter of which was one of my first introductions to the studio -- to a disappointing 2009 Blu-ray from MGM, you're sure to have owned at least one copy since the early 1990s. Fortunately enough, The Silence of the Lambs rightfully returns to Criterion this year (keeping pace with the film's Valentine's Day 1991 release date, which is an especially nice touch), and I'll be damned if this isn't one of the best home video packages of the decade: featuring a brand-new 4K-sourced transfer and no shortage of old and new bonus features, it's an absolute must-own for casual and die-hard fans alike.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Criterion's outstanding 1080p transfer of The Silence of the Lambs was sourced from a new 4K digital restoration approved by director of photography Tak Fujimoto. In my opinion, this marks the film's actual debut in high definition: the 2009 Blu-ray was rightly seen as a disappointment and barely improved upon its DVD counterpart, but it looks stunning here with a substantially higher degree of detail, crispness, and clarity. Although The Silence of the Lambs has a somewhat soft and hazy appearance by design, it's balanced nicely with strong textures, deep black levels, and an extremely stable and film-like appearance with a pleasing amount of natural grain. It's also very clean with no obvious signs of dirt, debris, or wear, and the total lack of digital imperfections -- excessive noise reduction, compression artifacts, etc. -- is another huge plus. Colors are nicely rendered, with only the slightest leaning towards a cyan/green tint, although we've become so used to the frequent red/yellow push of DVD masters that it's hard to gauge what's truly "accurate" anymore. Either way, this is unquestionably a five-star effort all the way around, both for its high level of care and the obvious improvements over previous home video editions.
DISCLAIMER: The still images and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.
Not to be outdone is the audio presentation, which includes two lossless DTS-HD Master Audio options: the familiar 5.1 remix featured on most mainstream home video editions of the film, as well as the original 2.0 surround theatrical mix that has only been featured on previous Criterion editions. Both tracks are superb with strong clarity, extremely crisp dialogue, and a hefty presence during the film's most suspenseful themes -- largely due to the quality of Howard Shore's original score, as well as the excellent pop song cuts. I'll admit that the 5.1 remix has a lot of charm and truly puts the film's atmosphere over the top: The Silence of the Lambs is such an enveloping film at times that the extra channels and stronger LFE add a substantial amount to its already-rich atmosphere. Yet the inclusion of its original 2.0 mix -- hardly a slouch in its own right, and perfect if you're limited to just two channels -- is a thoughtful one, and leaves absolutely no room for improvement. Optional English subtitles are included during the main feature only.
Unlike most earlier releases, Criterion's Blu-ray of The Silence of the Lambs doesn't utilize some variant of the original poster artwork (above right), but a newly-illustrated design by Sean Freeman and Eve Steben; the deluxe digipak case opens to reveal similar design elements and overlapping disc hubs for both Blu-rays. Menus are smooth and sleek as usual, with an appropriately spooky atmosphere...and with the same background music and sound effects as their old DVD, which is great attention to detail. The square-bound Booklet features a new introduction by Foster, a new essay by critic Amy Taubin, two pieces by author Thomas Harris on the origins of the character Hannibal Lecter, and a 1991 interview with Demme. Quite a stunning package, though I still prefer the iconic poster.
Plenty of great material to dig through here -- and though most of it is recycled from earlier releases, it's been done in a very thoughtful and efficient manner. Two new supplements are here, though: the first is a 2017 Interview with film critic Maitland McDonagh (18 minutes), who serves up more of an in-depth character analysis of Lecter in comparison to other serial killers portrayed on film and their real-life counterparts. Maitland also touches upon other entries in the franchise and their portrayal of Lecter including Manhunter, Red Dragon, and the Hannibal TV series.
Also "new" is a massive collection of Deleted Scenes (38 minutes) -- almost twice as much content as previous editions, which typically included the same 7 deleted or extended scenes that ran between 1 and 8 minutes apiece. The remaining material -- taken from various sources, which vary quite a bit in quality -- includes alternate takes and trimmed moments from Clarice and Hannibal's various meetings, her training at the FBI, searching the storage unit, the first autopsy, Crawford's hospital visit, Clarice's plea for a second chance, escaping in the ambulance, the epilogue, and more. There are about two dozen clips in all, though some are quite short. I'll be honest and say that a good deal of this material is nothing special -- it's either poorly acted, inconsequential to the story, or both -- but there are a few gems here, and everything's in chronological order so it's almost like an abridged alternate movie. As an added bonus, the last three minutes include a blooper reel and Hopkins' in-character phone message -- both are from earlier home video editions.
Everything else included here -- and divided between both discs, thankfully -- has appeared in one form or another on previous laserdiscs, DVDs, and/or Blu-rays. These recycled extras include a feature-length Audio Commentary from 1994 (featuring Jonathan Demme, Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, screenwriter Ted Tally, and former FBI agent John Douglas), a collection of Interviews from 2004-05 featuring Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster (53 minutes) and composer Howard Shore ("Scoring the Silence", 16 minutes), the in-depth 2001 Behind-the-Scenes Documentary "Inside the Labyrinth" (66 minutes), an episode of the Bravo Network show Page to Screen (42 minutes) that explores the book adaptation, a series of FBI Agent Interviews from 2008 ("Understanding the Madness", 20 minutes), an EPK-style Featurette from 1991 (8 minutes), a collection of Storyboards, and the film's newly-restored Theatrical Trailer (2 minutes).
It's an exhaustive collection of supplements, to be sure, although a few items are missing in action from previous releases. These include a picture-in-picture "commentary" from the MGM Blu-ray (which to be honest, is not only redundant but has a lot of dead air), a few TV spots, and text bios of noted serial killers. Although having everything in one place would've been ideal, Criterion's is an extremely comprehensive package that won't be exceeded for quite some time.
The Silence of the Lambs was a landmark American film upon its release in 1991, standing tall as both an exceptional -- and highly influential -- thriller with strong performances, outstanding music, a massive atmosphere, and no shortage of twists that still have the ability to surprise new viewers. It's long been a personal favorite and a film I've bought many times on multiple formats -- I think the only version I never owned was Criterion's laserdisc. Not that it matters anymore, of course: the studio improves upon every prior release with their new two-disc Blu-ray package, which offers a top-tier A/V presentation and an exhaustive collection of new and vintage bonus features. The beautiful packaging is just icing on the cake. I've reviewed here for almost 15 years, but this is the first time I've ever given out perfect fives all the way around -- and it couldn't have happened to a more deserving film. DVD Talk Collector's Series.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.