Horror films are chock-full of familiar faces, themes, monsters, murderers, locations, directors, effects designers and the like, many of which reappear multiple times across cinema history. By approaching these figures and topics from a different angle, curious viewers can break the occasionally stale boundaries of a single genre to uncover new, unexpected fringes of horror. Pay attention, class — this is Macabre 101.
By Phil Lindeman
Subject: Hannibal Lecter (Part 1 of 2, covering Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs. Read Part 2.)
“Is it true what they’re saying? That he’s some kind of vampire?”
“They don’t have a name for what he is.”
– Clarice Starling, describing Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs
Horror films regularly latch onto the concept of a “serial killer,” from iconic figures like Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees to newer, more inventive maniacs like Jigsaw in the Saw series. More often than not, though, the term is used rather loosely, and mentioned only in passing to remind the audience of a sequel-spanning body count or offer some half-baked reason for ceaseless killing.
But Hannibal Lecter is something different. Created by author Thomas Harris for the 1981 novel Red Dragon, America’s favorite cannibalistic psychiatrist isn’t far from a modern-day vampire: He’s mannered, eerily charming and wildly intelligent, all for the purposes of disarming and later destroying his victims. Thanks to Anthony Hopkins’ frightening and unmistakable portrayal of the good doctor, Lecter regularly tops “best of” character lists by Empire magazine, Entertainment Weekly and the American Film Institute.
Despite Harris’ Pynchonian anxiety about fame – he hasn’t given an interview in nearly 35 years – the influence of his novels on Lecter’s film legacy can’t be overlooked. As a New York City crime reporter for The Associated Press in the early ‘70s, he was exposed to all sorts of sadistic criminals, and Lecter was likely inspired by cases Harris covered. In the years leading to Red Dragon, he also witnessed a paradigm shift within law enforcement, when up-and-coming FBI agents like Howard Teten and John Douglas began analyzing serial murderers through a behavioral psychology lens. It changed how investigators approached nuanced, deeply-disturbing crimes with multiple victims, and essentially invented the field of offender profiling.
This dedication to realism allows Lecter to linger in the collective horror unconscious: If a character like Michael Myers is the distillation of pure evil, then Hannibal Lecter is a more human monster, with weakness and ambiguity to spare. Even when he wears a leather mask – the calling card of cinematic serial killers – audiences sense truth in his menace. He’s further humanized by the psychopaths around him; In nearly every instance, his crimes are distant and offset by far more immediate threats, making him nearly likeable, or at least preferable to the alternative.
Like the messiness of a criminal case, the novels and films are also elegantly multifaceted. With the exception of Hannibal Rising (and to some extent Hannibal), Lecter plays endless games of verbal cat-and-mouse with the FBI agents who reluctantly turn to him for help, creating layers of deception and second-guessing. It’s key to his appeal: A caged animal is often more terrifying than a wild one, but what happens when the bars break?
As a horror movie fixture, Lecter’s legacy is as bewildering as his character. He has been played by three different actors in five wildly different films by five distinct directors. (A TV series, simply titled Hannibal, is set to premiere on NBC in 2013.) The chronology of the “franchise,” if it can be called that, further complicates any straightforward comparisons. Harris intended for his novels to be part of a larger world, but each filmmaker had a different take on how the stories and characters should interact. It’s a constant problem with any lucrative adaptation – create an icon, and continuity goes out the window.
Yet Hopkins’ portrayal of Lecter, with caged menace juxtaposed against slithery dialogue, is the most consistent and recognizable, and for good reason. In a 2008 feature on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” criminal psychologist Helen Morrison found disturbing similarities between the character and real-life serial killers.
“Hopkins has the capacity to just draw you in,” said Morrison, who has interviewed Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Wayne Williams. “Which is a little similar to what a serial killer can do. They draw you in, and then it’s like being in a Venus flytrap – it’s over.”
More than 30 years after Harris wrote Red Dragon, pop culture has blunted some of Lecter’s mesmerizing appeal – like many iconic baddies, he makes for easy comedic fodder – and serial killers are now a cinematic trope on par with sex-starved teenagers. But the best of his films still showcase a masterful melding of dramatic tension and unbridled fear, while the worst make case studies on an interesting premise gone awry. For better or worse, though, all aim higher than the average horror film. Macabre 101 takes a look at the many faces of Hannibal Lecter.
A final thought: In the NPR article, Morrison claims Lecter has a major personality “flaw” that separates him from real serial killers: empathy. She believes it’s highly unlikely Bundy or any other flesh-and-blood monster would assist in a criminal investigation, let alone fall in love with an authority figure. Lecter truly is one of a kind.
Disclaimer: This article skirts most of the major spoilers in each film, but it’s best to watch them first to have some idea of what the hell I’m talking about.
The Michael Mann-directed 1986 film, Manhunter, is a relatively faithful adaptation of Harris’ Red Dragon. It marks Lecter’s first screen appearance – albeit with the spelling “Lektor” – as played by prolific Scottish actor Brian Cox. Like the novel, the film takes place shortly after the doctor’s cannibalism is discovered by brilliant FBI profiler Will Graham (CSI vet and Mann favorite William Peterson), leading to a near-death encounter that ends Graham’s career and sends Lektor to jail. After Graham moves his family to Florida, he’s tapped by the FBI to catch a brutal and seemingly random serial killer named Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), dubbed “Tooth Fairy” by the press for bite marks left on his female victims. He’s a muscular, slightly deformed product of childhood abuse, obsessed with the Romantic poet William Blake and a shy coworker, Reba McClane (Joan Allen). Graham reluctantly turns to Lektor for insight on the quiet killer, reopening old wounds and potentially putting his family in danger.
When it was released, Manhunter drew ho-hum reviews and audience apathy, but it’s hardly a dismal film. Mann is known for a kinetic, visually-engaging style, and it wonderfully dramatizes the procedural aspects of Graham’s hunt for Dollarhyde. The frenetic cuts and color palette clashed with viewer expectations at the time, but the same stylistic choices turned Mann’s most famous film, Heat, into a bonafide hit in 1995. The director also worked with a cast of competent yet relatively unknown actors, many of whom found fame soon after thanks to Mann’s clout.
On some levels, Manhunter was ahead of its time – look at Mann’s influence on popular shows like CSI for proof – and critics such as Salon’s Allen Barra have recently called it the best of the Lecter films. But that implies it’s a misunderstood masterpiece – a rash and weighty claim, particularly when placed alongside Silence of the Lambs. For a horror film, Manhunter’s weaknesses are inherent to the story: Lecter (or Lektor, whatever) needs a psychological foil to blossom as a villain, and as the protagonist, Graham is too familiar with Lektor’s mind games. Cox’s Lektor is just as intelligent and devious as expected, but his performance suffers from unfair comparisons today, and it’s admittedly strange to see the character without Hopkins’ iconic gravitas and quiet menace. By keeping Lektor on the fringes and focusing on Graham, Manhunter highlights the doctor’s skewed genius, but through a detached lens that downplays his terrifying potential.
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Like the films they inspired, Harris’ novels were written at erratic intervals, with nowhere near the clockwork release schedule of most modern book series. But it’s clear the author intended to build multiple novels around Hannibal Lector, and by the time Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs was released in 1991, the novel was three years old and set a distinct path for the final installment, 1999’s Hannibal. (Hannibal Rising is a bastard child in every sense of the term, but more on that in Part 2.)
No matter Harris’ overarching plans for his trademark villain, Demme’s masterpiece of psychological horror was – and still is – a standalone film. It creates a vivid, believable, frightening world, filled with countless memorable characters and filmed with the kind of unassuming confidence Demme hasn’t replicated since (with the exception of his Neil Young documentaries). Where Manhunter is an engaging yet routine romp through criminal profiling, Silence of the Lambs is a deftly constructed force of nature, and the differences explain why film buffs are obsessed with Lecter, not Lektor. A stellar track record also helps: It became only the third film in history to sweep the five most prestigious categories at the Academy Awards, winning Best Actor (Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), Best Director (Demme), Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally, who returned to the franchise for Red Dragon) and the big daddy of them all, Best Picture.
In terms of plotting, Silence of the Lambs almost exactly replicates Red Dragon/Manhunter. The film opens with the FBI stumped by yet another adorably named serial killer, “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), who again seems to choose his victims at random. His methods are morbidly precise: He kidnaps overweight girls, skins them, then dumps their bodies in rural waterways with moth cocoons lodged in their throats. Facing few other options, FBI Director Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) sends a young and promising Quantico recruit, Clarice Starling, to seek out Lecter’s help before the next kidnapping. Lecter slowly helps Starling build a profile of Buffalo Bill in return for information on her haunted past (“Quid pro quo, Clarice…”), all while she butts heads with Lecter’s keeper at a Baltimore institution, the boorish egomaniac Dr. Frederick Chilton. When the daughter of a U.S. Senator is nabbed in the style of Buffalo Bill, Starling takes increasingly risky measures to prevent the girl’s death until she’s forced to face Lecter, her personal demons and a serial killer she barely understands.
Only truly groundbreaking films hold up under modern scrutiny, particularly in the horror genre – pre-war classics like Nosferatu and Frankenstein come to mind, along with more recent offerings like Dawn of the Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Shining. Two decades after it’s release, though, Silence of the Lambs still feels fresh and terrifying. The conclusion is inevitable, but the journey is so wrenching, viewers forget nearly everything about crime and horror film conventions. We know Starling will come out on top, but damn if she doesn’t scare us shitless in the process.
Although Silence of the Lambs is an exacting portrait of many different horrors, its most enduring legacy is Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal Lecter. It turned Lecter into a timeless villain, and despite subsequent performances that have skirted dangerously close to self-parody, Hopkins lives comfortably in the role. But his acting gleans extra depth from cinematography by Tak Fujimoto, the incredibly talented image-maker behind Terrence Malick’s Badlands and most of M. Night Shyamalan’s oeuvre. Throughout the film, Fujimoto places Lecter and other characters precisely in the middle of the screen, then has them stare directly at the camera in tight, eerily intimate close ups. It’s a deceptively simple but rarely used tactic, and it works in skin-crawling concert with Hopkins’ tempered, fine-tuned performance. We feel Lecter’s eyes burrowing into us, and it’s suddenly very easy to see how Starling could nearly be hypnotized by the doctor, even as her rational mind knows he’s a monster. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, we ID with her – we fucking ID.
Often lost in the shadow of Hopkins’ bravura performance is Jodie Foster’s turn as Starling, the agent-in-training who unknowingly woos and is wooed by Lecter. But Starling is vital to the success of the narrative, acting as both an audience surrogate and a rich, fully-realized character in her own right. To capture this dynamic, Foster riffs subtly off her star-making role as a child prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. She implies how Starling’s hard-won toughness is at constant odds with the intelligent yet fragile woman beneath, showing how emotional scars and unrelenting sexual objectification make her a fractured yet determined whole. Unlike Graham in Manhunter, she has oodles of room for growth, and her personal journey is only heightened by Lecter’s chilling attempts to intellectually seduce her.
Starling also carries most of the symbolic weight. She embodies Silence of the Lambs’ themes – isolation, transformation, sexual and emotional vulnerability – while simultaneously drawing the audience into the nightmare of meeting a boogeyman. Again, the cinematography plays a crucial role: When she first walks down the dungeon-like hallway to interview Lecter, the camera cuts from point-of-view shots to close-ups of her face, crafting a walk into hell where safety is slowly receding and she’s surrounded on all sides by misogynistic deviants.
Although Lecter steals that first scene – what good villain doesn’t? – their subsequent one-on-one meetings are equal parts interrogation, therapy session and coming-of-age narrative. Each of those encounters prepares her (and the audience) for a taut, harrowing showdown with Buffalo Bill. The ending feels remarkably earned, and it makes a believable segue to the jaded and damaged Clarice Starling we meet in Hannibal.