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

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…

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