The tongue clucks in “Hereditary.” Ju-on’s death rattle. The Babadook’s vocal fry. There are some uncanny sounds in horror movies that invade more nightmares than any spoken line. One such sound was ad-libbed by a knighted Oscar-winning Welshman on the set of a movie directed by a Roger Corman protege. Any guesses? The answer is Sir Anthony Hopkins, whose portrayal of imprisoned flesh-eating psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Dr. Lecktor, if you’re nasty) in Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” creeped out generations of moviegoers with a simple, slithered slip of the tongue.
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In Demme’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel, young FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) Clarice Starling is tasked to aid in the hunt for a serial killer, Jame Gumb, known to the law and the press as “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), a Bundy-Gein mimic who lures, kills, and skins his women victims for leisure wear around the house. In her pursuit, Starling taps into the warped mind of Dr. Lecter, currently imprisoned for a killing spree committed a couple of decades prior (with at least nine victims, plus three attempted murders). Hopkins’ steely-eyed turn as the cannibal doc is filled with great lines — a personal favorite has Lecter viciously reading Starling right down to her “good bag and cheap shoes” with all of the venom that Miranda Priestly would later dispense over a cerulean sweater 15 years later in “The Devil Wears Prada.” But one quick anecdote was leavened above the rest with an unscripted bit of flair.
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“Lambs” is technically a crime thriller, though many consider it to be horror — the only horror film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, in fact. As such, the subject matter is not for the faint of heart. In addition to Buffalo Bill’s scalp chapeau and Dr. Lecter’s artisanal corpse-staging, “Hannibal the Cannibal” relates a story to the steadfast Agent Starling, as the two go toe-to-toe in a power struggle to gain the upper hand. Through a trademark Demme close-up, the doctor breaks the fourth wall and makes literally everyone uncomfortable with a quirky little story, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” What follows can best be described as a hiss, and Starling’s aghast face underlines how much more disturbing the line would have been without the chaser.
Hopkins’ slurping hiss was not in Ted Tally’s adapted screenplay; it turns out, the actor had been making the noise at random on the set and decided to throw it into one of his takes for a little spice. Would the film have been the same without the hiss? It would have still been a five-star banger, for sure, but no one recites the line without that sound, not one soul. The improvised line stayed in the picture, Hopkins earned an Academy Award for Best Actor, and everyone else lost their appetite and gained a horror icon.