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 2 of 2, covering Hannibal, Red Dragon and Hannibal Rising. Read Part 1.)
Disclaimer: As with the first installment, I try my hardest to avoid major spoilers, but try to watch the films first. Even basic background knowledge makes all the rambling seem coherent.
In some circles, Hannibal (in film or novel form) is held in contempt for defanging Lecter, turning a once iconic villain into a campy and laughable parody. Call it the Yoda effect: Die-hard fans latch onto the quirks of a highly original character – a rhythm of speech, a style of wit – and when it’s time for a sequel, those expectations put the creator under enormous pressure to deliver. Almost inevitably, this tug-of-war turns beloved or harrowing characteristics into full-blown embarrassments. With Yoda, we get a self-serious clown that speaks indecipherable jargon. With Lecter, we get close to the same.
To be honest, any attempts to compare Hannibal to Manhunter/Red Dragon or Silence of the Lambs are incredibly unfair. For one, novelist Thomas Harris threw nearly all the conventions of a “Lecter story” out the window when he published Hannibal in 1999: No more profiling, no more serial killers, no more Lecter behind reinforced glass. By setting the doctor free, the author took an enormous risk, but he didn’t stop there. The most daring move was to turn his signature brand of cat-and-mouse into a twisted love story between Lecter and Starling, like stalker-level infatuation taken to the most terrifying extreme. The move required cajones from hell – such big cajones, in fact, that the film version ends entirely different from the novel. But more on that to come.
Hannibal begins with Starling (now played by Julianne Moore) as she’s nearly a decade into a vaunted but troubled career with the FBI. Thanks to her formative encounters with Lecter and Buffalo Bill, clear-eyed optimism has given way to world-weary professionalism – she holds the Guinness record for most suspects shot and killed by a female field agent. Following a deadly encounter with a D.C.-area drug dealer, her career hangs on a precipice when Lecter sends Starling a condolence letter from Italy, a brash move that reignites the bloodthirst of Lecter’s only living victim, the wealthy pedophile Mason Verger (an unrecognizable and uncredited Gary Oldman). Starling’s version of the leering Dr. Chilton, Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), pushes to reassign her to the Lecter case in an effort to oust the cannibal. In Italy, another disgraced lawman, Rinaldo Pazzi, hears of Verger’s hefty bounty and attempts to trap Lecter. This disrupts Lecter’s hibernation, so to speak, pulling Starling, Pazzi, Verger and Krendler into the doctor’s globetrotting web.
If the plot sounds convoluted, whelp, it kind of is, and Ridley Scott’s 2001 take on Hannibal is the lengthiest Lecter film of the bunch at 131 minutes. Scott’s track record has been hit-or-miss recently, with films such as Matchstick Men, Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood departing wildly from the terse, visually inventive aesthetic of Alien and The Duellists. But at the time, the massive success of 2000’s Gladiator hadn’t yet disrupted the director’s style, and the film’s Best Picture Oscar was a promising indication of his ability to handle sweeping pictures with a masterful touch. It’s hard to not blame Gladiator for shifting Scott’s attention from low-key genre affairs to jumbled and bloated faux-epics.
But it’s not as if Hannibal was a complete dud – the film set box-office records across the world, raking in nearly $351.6 million on a budget of $87 million (good luck doing that nowadays). Several high-profile critics also found redeeming aspects, including David Thomson of the prestigious British Film Institute magazine Sight & Sound, who wrote, “It works. It’s smart, good-looking, sexy, fun…dirty, naughty and knowing.” In a roundabout way, he also praised the inevitable campiness many found distracting: “It is, literally, that Hannibal Lecter has become such a household joke that he can’t be dreadful again. It seems clear that Anthony Hopkins and Scott saw that, and planned accordingly. That’s how the movie was saved.”
With the exception of a few kind words, Hannibal remains a joke with a lame punchline for many. But how did the film go awry? It boasts a hell of a pedigree, with Scott directing at the height of his game, Hopkins reprising his legendary role, Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet writing the screenplay, and Harris himself giving the whole shebang his blessing.
The film’s fatal flaw is giving Lecter room to roam – like Manhunter, its downfall is inherent to the story. Ironically, Lecter seems far less dangerous while hunting down the “free-range rude,” to quote the doctor’s longtime caretaker, Barney, who appears briefly as a link to the events in Silence of the Lambs. As with many villains, it’s disappointing but expected that he alone can’t bear the weight of a narrative. (To use another Star Wars metaphor, imagine an alternate universe where A New Hope only follows Darth Vader. Think about it.) After an hour or so, the plot also begins to show creaky inner workings, as if Scott and Mamet are simply connecting the dots to an inevitable meeting between Lecter and Starling. The procedural intrigue that drove Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs occasionally shines through – Pazzi’s plot to capture Lecter, Starling’s efforts to track down a peculiar hand cream – but it lacks urgency without the outside threat of a Tooth Fairy or Buffalo Bill. Even Lecter’s endless mind games seem trite and baseless, calling into question his previously frightening intelligence. Once he leaves Italy, the wheels nearly fall off, resulting in a never-ending chase through D.C.’s Union Station and the much-derided scene where the doctor finally indulges his cannibalistic urges.
All this makes it seem as if Hannibal is an unwatchable slog, and rightly deserves massive amounts of shit talking. But there’s plenty to like and, from a horror standpoint, even love. True to form, Scott delivers with visceral and stunning set pieces: A quietly disturbing encounter at the Florentine opera; Verger’s grotesquely deformed face and herd of man-eating boars; Pazzi’s disembowelment from a library steeple; a flashback showing dogs eating bits of flesh from a man’s face. Performance-wise, Hopkins steps comfortably back into Lecter’s shoes, and even if the narrative works against his character, he seems content with the room to breathe. Given the integral role of Foster’s nuanced turn in Silence of the Lambs, it’s a bit jarring to see Starling played by the red-headed Moore. But as an actress, she’s mature and unassumingly beautiful enough to embody a jaded Starling – someone who just might fall in love with her nemesis.
And, after all, isn’t love what this film is all about, plus or minus some cannibalism? One of the most tense and disturbing moments in Silence of the Lambs comes when Lecter gently brushes Starling’s finger mere hours before his escape, and that sexual tension hangs heavy over Hannibal. Even if the journey gets tiresome, it needs to end with a final confrontation between the two leads. Although each of the film adaptations remain more-or-less faithful to Harris’ novels, Hannibal makes a wild deviation in the final scene. The film ends with Lecter escaping from Starling, while the novel ends with the two disappearing together.
Did Mamet get cold feet, or is love for a serial killer asking too much of an audience, even in a film with graphic brain eating? There’s no clear-cut answer, and even if both versions lead to wildly different conclusions, neither one is rewarding. Why should Lecter avoid the fate of so many other serial killers, particularly those he helped catch? It makes him seem nearly immortal, and this makes him no more believable than Michael Myers. But would it be more satisfying if he died? Probably not – after all, he’s still Hannibal fucking Lecter.
But pondering alternate endings is a waste, especially when Hannibal is such a glorious mess throughout. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I have a huge bias: I’m a sucker for Scott and his attempt to tell Lecter’s most unwieldy story. I return to this film more often than the others for its daring scope, lush visuals and mind-boggling flaws. My dorkier tendencies have even led to a thesis: For Scott, Hannibal is the equivalent of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a Vietnam film based on Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness.” Both films are horrific, sprawling, deeply disturbing flights into madness, with obsessive anti-heroes facing off against seductive, mythical figures – Lecter and Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz are black holes at the center of each narrative. Both remain thematically true to their respective source material until the end, when changes in the climactic moments have sweeping implications. Both are immediate follow-ups to each director’s most lauded masterpiece (The Godfather Part II was released in 1974, five years before Apocalypse Now). And both mark clear turning points in two distinguished careers, with Hannibal leading to a lengthy string of missteps for Scott and Apocalypse Now sparking nearly three decades of flops for Coppola (Jack, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Godfather Part III).
Unfortunately, Coppola never quite recovered from the devastating mind-fuck of Apocalypse Now. Scott still seeks out blockbuster material, but with American Gangster in 2007 and this year’s Prometheus, he seems to have found his voice again, or at least is trying. Hannibal’s legacy, though, is in more than a fascinatingly flawed film: Along with Hopkins, Scott reignited interest in Lecter and made it nearly impossible for subsequent adaptations to be anything less than star-studded affairs.
Yet another interesting side note: Hannibal makes a strange counterpoint to Scott’s other 2001 release, Black Hawk Down, a film that forgoes near-mythic scope for brutal realism. While both showcase extremely visceral violence (an early shoot-out in Hannibal has shades of Mogadishu), Black Hawk Down is dirty, grimy and overwhelming in a markedly different way. It could also be compared to Apocalypse Now, although only in form and not polarizing reputation. Shit to ponder.
Red Dragon (2002)
For all the bitching and moaning about Hannibal, it made enough of an impact to reignite the Lecter franchise, at least as far as studio accountants were concerned. But there’s something a bit more intriguing at play with Brett Ratner’s version of Red Dragon, released only a year after Ridley Scott’s flawed epic. Why the sudden interest in revisiting the good doctor nearly a decade after Silence of the Lambs, which was both a financial and critical hit? Why didn’t money-hungry studio execs pounce on this cannibalistic goldmine when it was still terrifying and fresh, as opposed to mangled and borderline cheesy?
I’m sure there are myriad factors, but two stand head and shoulders above the rest: star power and the Lecter legacy. Although Red Dragon faithfully follows Harris’ first novel (doing away with Clarice Starling and imprisoning Lecter in the process), it’s greatly informed by the success of Silence of the Lambs and critical failure of Hannibal. Dino De Lorentiis, the old-school producer who owned the film rights to the Lecter franchise, knew he couldn’t leave such a delicious villain on a sour note. With a producing resume spanning some 160 titles, he had the clout to pool the industry’s best talent: Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Seymour Hoffman and, of course, Anthony Hopkins. Gone were the competent but unknown actors from Michael Mann’s Manhunter, replaced by A-listers and Ratner, a director known for crowd-pleasing diversions like Rush Hour. Ratner was a safe bet, and with earnings from the controversial Hannibal, De Lorentiis bankrolled a film that boasted a script from Lambs scribe Ted Tally.
With all this in mind, Red Dragon poses an interesting question already asked (and supposedly answered) by the Lecter films: Can a production this calculated succeed on star power alone? You’d think De Lorentiis had learned his lesson with Hannibal, the high-profile clusterfuck . But from a narrative standpoint, Red Dragon returned to the tried-and-true procedural format, sending Lecter back to the fringes where he’s the most chilling – and familiar.
And things get a bit twistier: De Lorentiis was an uncredited producer on Manhunter, which makes his zeal to retell Red Dragon all the more interesting. Of course, it gives Hopkins a chance to tackle each of the original Harris novels, and that sort of completist mindset is satisfying for even casual Lecter fans. Again, it seems to be less about producing a memorable, ambitious film, and more about salvaging the franchise legacy.
Truth be told, though, the film is hardly as calculated as other cash-ins, particularly the dismal remakes of most horror films (Rob Zombie’s Halloween excepted). In many ways, it speaks to the respect even Hollywood producers have for the Lecter name, a rare need to keep one of cinema’s finest villains classy and disturbing. Ratner’s stark, desaturated imagining of Will Graham’s haunted return to criminal profiling took few of the artistic risks Mann did with Manhunter, but it maintains a wonderfully eerie tone throughout. Again, the procedural aspects really make an impact: Graham’s midnight visit to the home of a Tooth Fairy victim; a pulse-pounding attempt to sack Lecter’s cell, then return it to normal without him noticing; and, of course, the chilling interplay between Hopkins and Norton, the latter of whom plays Graham as a weary, haunted man with centuries of pain hid behind a deceptively youthful facade. I’m a sucker for Norton, but it’s hard to argue with a resume that includes 25th Hour, American History X, Leaves of Grass and The Illusionist. The dude has incredible range – he definitely needs to start making more horror films.
Norton’s stellar performance is matched only by Fiennes as the Tooth Fairy/Francis Dollarhyde, and the two actors make a case for building a film around top-notch talent, however shrewd and calculating it might be. (Hopkins actually stumbles in several scenes, but more on that in a moment.) Fiennes’ version of the Tooth Fairy is absolutely frightening, played with a coldly quiet demeanor that suggests ferocious intelligence or borderline retardation, often simultaneously. It makes his idolization of Lecter completely believable. After all, they share many of the same qualities, least of which is utter insanity. In the Tooth Fairy’s case, this is manifested as a body-length tattoo of poet William Blake’s “The Great Red Dragon” paintings and rants about transformation through human sacrifice. For Lecter, it’s a remarkable ability to verbally manipulate nearly everyone around him and completely rationalize his cannibalistic leanings. In one of the film’s best scenes, Lecter tries to intimidate Graham during an interrogation, asking his former prodigy how he was able to capture Lecter but not the Tooth Fairy.
“You had certain…disadvantages,” Graham says about the harrowing night he and Lecter nearly killed each other.
“Such as?” Lecter asks.
“You’re insane,” Graham says quietly, and Lecter looks momentarily stunned. His sudden quietness implies that he never once considered himself crazy, and it’s one of the great reaction shots in the entire film. For once, someone sees through the doctor’s bullshit. It’s a win for Graham and, in many ways, an audience used to Lecter’s frustratingly infallible wit.
Paradoxically, these standout performances result in a film that’s entertaining on the surface yet hollow at its core. Despite Ratner’s surprisingly sparse and foreboding tone – which is miles apart from Rush Hour – he still plays it completely safe. For all the distracting freneticness of Manhunter, at least Mann took the source material and made it his own. The same can be said of Demme’s cinematography and Scott’s audacious scope. But Ratner’s vision has little of the depth imparted by his more artistic peers, and this even-handed approach is the equivalent of reading a “modern” translation of Shakespeare.
Now, I’m not saying that Red Dragon – or any Lecter film, for that matter – needs to be pulsating with meaning, but the series has always aimed higher than standard serial killer fare. For as long as Hopkins has played the doctor, his performances have been key to this sense of intelligence and originality. Red Dragon,though, is almost hampered by the venerable actor. It traces back to the aforementioned Yoda effect: years of playing the same character can lead to camp, simply because lines, mannerisms and presence are filtered through what
an audience expects. Hopkins plays Lecter as we want him to be, not how he should be or even would be in a true-to-life setting. At several points in the film, he employs a strange, child-like accent to deliver lines that are admittedly cheesy to begin with. Even Silence of the Lambs writer Tally – the man responsible for an inexplicably frightening line about human liver and fava beans – couldn’t inject Red Dragon’s faux-whitty gibberish with sincerity. He falls prey to the Yoda effect as well. (Who knows how much of this was affected by Mamet’s Hannibal script, which had its own share of cringe-inducing zingers.)
When Hopkins’ occasional silliness is juxtaposed with Ratner’s intensely serious filming, it can be distracting at best and jarring at worst. This Lecter not only looks older when he should be younger – a natural and unavoidable downfall of filming a prequel 10 years after the sequel – he’s simply in the wrong film. Something like Hannibal is much more suited to this kind of overblown and misinformed performance, even though Scott’s film proved that the doctor couldn’t carry a story on his own. Purists may remove my face for this one, but it’s a blessing that Hopkins stays on the sidelines and lets Norton, Fiennes and an appropriately hammy Hoffman take most of the screen time. (As an aside, Hoffman’s turn as a low-life gossip journalist leads to some very disturbing wish fulfillment, at least from an audience perspective. Who hasn’t wanted to see muckraking types get their comeuppance?) These pitch-perfect characters turn Red Dragon into a marginally memorable – if not entirely necessary – diversion, one hampered only by the effects of time and far more interesting predecessors. It satisfies, but you can tell it was built to satisfy. If only Rush Hour 2 were the same way.
Hannibal Rising (2007)
The less said about 2007’s dismal miscalculation Hannibal Rising, the better, but I’ll appease completists with the basics. (You’re welcome, bitches.) At the behest of De Lorentiis, Harris penned a prequel to Red Dragon, set nearly 40 years before his first novel. The circumstances are contested, but the apparently senile De Lorentiis wanted another Lecter film, and if Harris didn’t agree to write a new screenplay, the producer would’ve found some other poor schlub who would. Apparently, when you own the rights to a character and franchise, you do whatever the hell you want. Strong-arming Harris was just another day on the job, as was hiring the largely unknown U.K. director Peter Webber, who made a strange but equally malleable counterpart to Ratner.
Anyway, the plot – which is hinted at in each of Harris’ novels, but not the films – covers Lecter’s experience as a young child in war-torn Europe, then as a budding medical student in post-war Paris, with each act filling equal portions of the two-hour run time. To give an idea of how syrupy the narrative gets, a slightly edited synopsis from IMDb reads: “Mischa (Helena-Lia Tachovská) and Hannibal (Aaran Thomas), baby brother and sister, are inseparable; it is their love for each other that ties their bond. Their companionship is forever binding until, while hiding from the Nazi war machine with their family, a twisted set of circumstance sets the pace for a most vicious attack, and Hannibal Lecter swears vengeance for the brutal killing of his baby sister. Years later, we find Hannibal, the teenager (Gaspard Ulliel), setting up in Paris and living with his aunt, Lady Murasaki Shikibu (Li Gong), while studying at medical school. He is still searching for his sister’s murderers, still bitter and still ever-hopeful of satisfying his desire for retribution. This chance arrives, and we soon learn that for a pound of flesh lost, a pound of flesh must be repaid. This is the horrific tale of justice and honor, a young man’s growing pains that will have the guilty paying with more than just flesh and bone.” Of course, the synopsis is written by a site contributor, but Nazis, benevolent aunts and a dead sister are a little rote for such a mythological maniac.
What Harris gives audiences is a Hannibal Lecter origin story – again with that audience pleasing – which turns the once-feared villain into a caricature worthy of pulpy comic books. Strangely enough, trying to humanize Lecter by fleshing out his backstory only serves to undermine the work done by previous directors (yes, even Ratner). It hardly answers the most pressing questions about the doctor – What turned him into a master manipulator? How could he infiltrate the highest levels of society? Did anyone ever put Lecter on a psychiatric couch? – and gives only the most obvious explanation of his cannibalism. For a series with impeccable understanding of the human psyche, the Lecter of Hannibal Rising is far less interesting than his reputation suggests. He’s reduced to a vengeful child, driven by needs that seem too human for the Lecter we know. It takes his empathic qualities in a familiar and melodramatic direction, and in the process, upends everything that made him special and dangerous.
If Red Dragon was about salvaging the Lecter franchise, Hannibal Rising is about marring it in the most ridiculous, contrived and boring way imaginable. There is no Hopkins, no crime solving, no narrative intrigue and no serial-killer counterpoint. It’s as if the least successful parts of every previous Lecter film were patched together in the hopes that maybe – just maybe – these imbedded negatives would cancel each other out. Who knows what was going through De Lorentiis’ mind, but the aging producer who demanded Hannibal Rising was far removed from the shrewd businessman behind Red Dragon. Ratner’s film was opportunistic, but Webber’s does little more than go through the motions.
For all its downfalls, Hannibal Rising is more of a true horror film than any of its predecessors. It shows elements of haunted house films, slasher films, survival films, revenge films. But Lecter was never strictly a “horror” villain – his menace and madness came directly from a well-rounded character, one who was more dangerous because he had so little explanation and fit easily into several genres. Hannibal Rising is all mood and shadows, with none of the lingering psychological aftertaste of watching a truly disturbed mind at work. In some ways, it’s a geek show, blindly showing atrocities that were better left to the imagination.
What’s more, Hannibal Rising even fails as a horror film. Beyond the gut-punch effect of watching cannibalism and gruesome murders, the film never builds any tension or sense of real danger. Even the snow-covered forests and dreary medical labs – a quick way to imply internal bleakness and strife – are let-downs when compared to Buffalo Bill’s madhouse basement or the echoing, wood-lined halls of the Dollarhyde nursing home. Hannibal Rising is more of a music video than a fully formed film, with intriguing images linked by little or no narrative. It’s lacking bite, substance, intrigue and, most troublesome of all, continuity. Like Hopkins’ performance in Red Dragon, the Lecter of Hannibal Rising belongs to an entirely different (and less complex) world.
Fortunately, very few people were exposed to this jumbled, confused film. Webber has yet to direct another high-profile feature, and the young Hopkins impersonator Ulliel failed to secure a career. Hannibal Rising earned $82.1 million – the worst showing for any Lecter film since Manhunter – and was almost unanimously panned by critics. By nearly all accounts, it was a failure, made even sadder by De Laurentiis’ passing just three years later. For fans of the franchise (myself included), it was an unfortunate but easily overlooked footnote. Despite all attempts to kill Lecter – both fictional and literal – the good doctor lives on. To paraphrase slightly, the world is a more interesting place with him in it.