With TV’s Hannibal hitting its stride, there’s no better time to revisit the Lecter movies

With TV’s Hannibal hitting its stride, there’s no better time to revisit the Lecter movies

With Run The Series, A.A. Dowd examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment. Fair warning: Spoilers are inevitable.

There are plenty of fine reasons to catch up with NBC’s serialized serial-killer drama Hannibal, which just passed the midway mark of its second season. No, the show isn’t flawless: At times, its episodic plotting veers a little too close to a killer-of-the-week formula, suggesting a reality in which history’s most vicious, meticulous psychopaths are all operating within a few miles and months of each other. Yet Hannibal is one of television’s most visually arresting programs, boldly expressing the headspace of its haunted hero. And showrunner Bryan Fuller has done a daring job of toying with the mythology of his source material, essentially creating an alternate reality in which no character—no matter how long he or she survived in the original novels—is safe.

Still, to borrow the fishing metaphor the series has so regularly employed this season, Hannibal’s real hook is its fresh take on the title character. Mads Mikkelsen, the stern, Danish movie star, has radically defamiliarized one of the most familiar of modern monsters. His Hannibal Lecter is a creature of deceptive calm and civility, masking his dark curiosities and perverse appetites behind what Gillian Anderson’s fellow therapist calls “a well-tailored person suit.” The result is a new shade of evil; against all odds, Mikkelsen has made Lecter—the mad psychiatrist, the mass murderer in high-society drag—truly scary again. No less impressively, he’s also managed to make fans accept someone new in a role that has basically belonged, for more than 20 years now, to the actor who won an Oscar tackling it.

For many, Hannibal Lecter is Anthony Hopkins. Though introduced between the covers of Thomas Harris’ 1981 page-turner, Red Dragon, Lecter didn’t fully seize the public imagination until a decade later, when director Jonathan Demme cast the British star in his adaptation of the sequel, The Silence Of The Lambs. Hopkins wasn’t the first man to play Lecter on screen; that honor belongs to Brian Cox, providing Michael Mann’s Manhunter—the first of two movies made from Red Dragon—with an angrier, less flamboyant maniac. But it was Hopkins who, for better or worse, transformed the cannibalistic doctor into a household name, the erudite answer to Freddy Krueger or Alex DeLarge. He then reprised the role a decade later, and again a year after that, his iconic interpretation calcifying into shtick.

There’s an argument to be made that Manhunter is the best of the Lecter movies, for reasons that have little to do with the character (who barely appears) and everything to do with Mann’s usual command of color, mood, and emotion. But the film isn’t really an installment in the series that followed it; like the new TV show, it exists outside of the cinematic universe Hopkins’ Lecter occupies—a distinction producers firmly drew by casting the star in a second Red Dragon adaptation in 2002. For the purposes of this piece, the Hannibal movie franchise officially begins with The Silence Of The Lambs, the 1991 critical and commercial smash. And had Harris not ended his own silence, returning with another Lecter novel in 1999, there’s a good chance that it would have ended there. Based on the films that followed, each a step down from the one before it, maybe it should have.

With Lecter, less has always been more. Harris seemed to understand that at the start; both Dragon and Lambs cast him as the supporting bogeyman—a monster relegated to captivity and the margins of the narrative, popping up periodically to assist an FBI agent in the hunt for another killer. (He’s the bad that helps the good take down the ugly.) In Lambs, Hopkins appears on-screen for only about 16 minutes, making his performance one of the shortest to ever garner an Academy Award for Best Actor. The movie withholds him, like the shark from Jaws; every visit to his cell is an event, and he seems to loom in the periphery, even when he’s not on camera.

Some of Hannibal’s fearsomeness stems from the way Demme builds him up, allowing the character’s reputation to precede him. Early on, FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) shows up at the Baltimore insane asylum to meet Lecter, and the staff seems to fall over itself issuing warnings. Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), Lecter’s doctor/warden/tormenter, regales her with the story of how his most infamous patient attacked a nurse; Demme never cuts to the grisly photograph he shows her, lingering instead on Foster’s faintly alarmed face as she studies it and allowing our imaginations to do the heavy lifting. Subsequently, the walk to his maximum-security cell plays like a descent through the circles of hell, the camera mimicking Starling’s drifting POV, before finally turning a corner to offer the film’s first glimpse of Lecter. He stands at attention, waiting for her, his gaze locked on the glass that seems an insufficient, fragile barrier between them.

His moon face unobstructed by a thin layer of slicked-back hair, his piercing stare uninterrupted by eyelids that never flutter, Hopkins is at once reptilian and theatrically mannered—an unblinking alien whose “classiness” plays like a deliberate, grotesque parody of the social elite to which he once belonged. Hopkins, who has cited the regal enunciation of Katharine Hepburn as a vocal model, isn’t exactly subtle, but neither is the character he’s playing. Asked about the inspiration for Hannibal, Harris has cited numerous murderers, convicts, and other unsavory types, perpetually reaching for a different comparison. This compounds the impression that he is not one serial killer, but all of them, a fascinating amalgam of headline atrocities and a mirror that reflects our collective fascination with human monsters. As Chilton puts it in the books, Lecter fits no psychological profile. He is criminal insanity personified.

He’s also a charismatic figure, what Stephen King has described as “Count Dracula for the computer-and-cell-phone age.” Every Lecter story—even Hannibal, which makes him both protagonist and antagonist—makes sure to somehow position the flesh-eating fiend as the lesser of two (or more) evils. In Dragon and Lambs, that means not only putting him nominally on the side of the law, but also presenting him as an almost rational, adjusted alternative: Unlike Francis “The Tooth Fairy” Dolarhyde or Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, he has no physical debilitations, no identity crises, no deep sexual insecurities. Whereas those men are coded as society’s ultimate freaks, Lecter is almost persuasive in his madness. He murders with a twisted sense of purpose, consuming the dull and rude, acting as a kind of Darwinian force of social justice. There is a dark comic righteousness to his barbarity.

What really makes Lecter more than a villain, though, and something much closer to an antihero, is the complicated, quasi-romantic relationship he develops with Starling. She is a worthy adversary; her integrity and courage acts like a shield, deflecting his malicious intentions. He is attracted to her, but also fascinated, disarmed, maybe even humbled by her. Foster also won an Oscar for her performance, and it’s as nuanced as her co-star’s is outsized. Her Starling is vulnerable but never weak, expressing a very human, relatable fear of the twin forces of destruction she faces, while never shrinking from them. That she can convey a faint kinship with her uneasy ally, without seeming to fall under his diabolical sway—even when revealing to him personal trauma, the lambs of the title—is a testament to the agency Foster provides her.

Lambs is easily the best of the Hannibal franchise, largely because it creates an equilibrium between its “partners,” and in the process moves beyond abnormal pathology to much more pervasive societal dysfunctions—namely, widespread sexism, institutional and otherwise. For all the fascination he inspires, Lecter is almost a subplot; for most of its running time, Demme’s magnificent procedural focuses instead on a strong woman navigating a world of predatory and dismissive men. Just about every male character she encounters doubts her or leers at her, offers unwanted advances, or attempts to patronizingly shelter her from harsh truths. Even Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), her supposed mentor, manipulates her to get what he wants. Beneath the surface of the film’s traditional, crackerjack genre thrills is a story of gender conflict that would make Jane Campion proud.

And then there’s the killer, Ted Levine’s terrifyingly insane Buffalo Bill, a man who tortures and skins women in a nightmarish attempt to craft a suit from their skin. Some viewers charged, and not entirely unfairly, that the character demonizes those with gender dysphoria. But Bill is no symbol of the trans community, implicit or explicit. His desire for transformation is an extension of the film’s hostile masculinity; his misogyny is so deep that it manifests as an attempt to extinguish and literally replace women. That’s what makes the film’s rescue-operation climax so cathartic: Starling is avenging this great violence against women, her victory both actual and metaphoric.

Given how Demme paints the FBI and law-enforcement as oppressive boys clubs, it’s no wonder that Foster’s heroine connects with Lecter on some level. He’s the only man in the movie that treats her with much respect. What’s more, her colleagues look at her with a curiosity that aligns the two characters; in their eyes, neither Starling nor Lecter belong. (Years later, Christopher Nolan would borrow and tweak the dynamic in The Dark Knight; it’s easy to retroactively imagine Lecter proclaiming that Starling “completes him.”)

The only horror movie to win the Best Picture Oscar—and one of just three movies to ever win Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay (for Ted Tally’s faithful, intelligent adaptation)—The Silence Of The Lambs had an almost immeasurable impact on the thrillers that came after it. But it’s not just serial killer movies like Seven and Copycat that drew inspiration from Demme’s achievement; the television procedural was reshaped by it too. Despite its focus on the supernatural, The X-Files may be Lambs’ purest descendant: Everything from its rural American backdrops to its vision of FBI politics to the presence of the Lone Gunmen—whose nerdish utility can be traced back to the helpful entomologists Starling consults—seem borrowed from the hit movie. Hell, one of the greatest of X-Files episodes, the season-one highlight “Beyond The Sea,” is essentially an unofficial homage to Lambs, complete with a very Lecterish death-row convict played by Brad Dourif.

For a film about cheeky cannibals and their skin-peeling counterparts, The Silence Of The Lambs is surprisingly restrained, even elegant. The same cannot be said for its sequel, which opened almost exactly 10 years later. As proudly tasteless as its predecessor is tasteful, Ridley Scott’s Hannibal piles on the mayhem with ludicrous abandon. There are hangings, disembowelments, slashed throats, shoot-outs, goons fed to ravenous boars, faces sliced off and fed to ravenous dogs, and—in the coup de grâce—a man feasting on his own sautéed brains. Foster, approached about reprising the role of Clarice Starling, is said to have turned down the offer because of discomfort with the violence. It’s hard to blame her.

Truthfully, screenwriters David Mamet and Steven Zaillian actually toned down the lunacy of Harris’ novel. No longer is the tale’s villain, disfigured pedophile Mason Verger (an unrecognizable Gary Oldman), sodomized with a cattle prod by his lesbian body-builder sister (a character completely written out). Nor is he eaten from the inside out by his pet eel. Gone, too, is the book’s controversial ending, in which Starling and Lecter become lovers and abscond together after sharing a gruesome meal. Thank goodness for small favors.

Yet, even with its edges sanded down, Hannibal is still completely bananas—largely, it would seem, as a reflection of the mad world in which it’s set. When Lecter finally cuts loose in Lambs, tearing through a couple guards to earn his freedom, the sequence is disturbing not just for the bloodshed it depicts, but also for the realization that an irrational force has been released back into the wild. Set several years later, Hannibal suggests that the character’s influence on the planet has been a fundamentally destabilizing one. This is a film that begins with Starling (now played by Julianne Moore) gunning down a meth-dealing, AIDS-infected mother cradling her child. The world, once “normal” when compared to Lecter, has caught up with his craziness. In Scott’s version, Hannibal hasn’t even undergone the plastic surgery Harris used to explain his multi-year avoidance of capture. He simply blends in now, hiding in plain sight. No camouflage required.

In a post-Lambs world, the FBI has certainly become a crueler, less caring institution. Hannibal finds no place for anyone as sympathetic or sympathizing as Jack Crawford; even more so than she was in the last film, Starling is on her own. But it’s not just the bureau that fails her; it’s the film’s story too: Whereas Lambs offered its heroine a degree of triumph, the sequel spends most of its running time hanging her out to dry. Forced to pursue Lecter to save her career, Starling chases leads, eventually becomes the inadvertent bait in Verger’s trap, and ends up at the mercy of her quarry. There’s a moral logic to her saving Hannibal from the hogs, but also consequences that make the decision seem misguided: Thanks to her intervention, at least four other men die, and she only lives because Lecter—plainly, not implicitly, smitten this time—chooses to spare her life. The film is cyclical, ending essentially where it started, with Starling in hot professional water and Lecter back on the run. If Mamet and Zaillian were going to rewrite the ending, why couldn’t they have gone further and come up with one that let Clarice regain the balance of power?

Hopkins, meanwhile, seems to have misplaced the recipe for Lecter, sometimes summoning that old caged-animal menace, but other times slipping into self-parody.  (“Good evening,” he purrs at one victim, as though auditioning for the role he’d later get in Hitchcock.) On the other hand, it may just be that Hannibal is more frightening when locked up than when free to roam. Watching Lambs, it’s easy to imagine, with a shudder, the damage he could wreak on the outside. Here, that hypothetical becomes a narrative reality, and Lecter ends up looking like some aging Jack The Ripper copycat—a blade-wielding psycho much less intimidating than the one who bragged of eating a Census Taker’s liver with fava beans and a nice chianti. The psychological threat, a fear that this mad genius could get inside your mind, goes missing.

Still, for all its problems, Hannibal is never less than compulsively watchable—not with Scott deftly navigating its wild shifts in tone. The film starts as a visceral action movie; evolves into a policier not totally unlike its predecessor; takes a fantastic, Hitchcockian detour to Florence, where a local detective (Giancarlo Giannini) makes an ill-fated attempt to collect the bounty on the doctor’s head; becomes an ultra-violent revenge picture back at Verger’s estate; and finally ends on a note of what might best be described as gross-out comedy. (The brain-munching climax is so disgusting, it’s hilarious.) If there’s a single moment that encapsulates the film’s bugfuck appeal, it’s the scene of Lecter pushing one of his pursuers out the window, bowels released to the wind. The response from the spectators in the street—initial laughter, followed by a scream of belated understanding—aptly summarizes the range of reactions the movie elicits scene to scene.

To those who value personality over consistency, the gonzo unevenness of Scott’s movie will look much more appetizing than the by-the-numbers thrills of Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, released just a year and a half after Hannibal proved a box-office success. For Manhunter fans, the very existence of this movie seems to cause Lecter-like flares of homicidal indignance. And, indeed, while more faithful to the novel than Mann’s movie was, the remake seems to exist for no other purpose than to get Hopkins’ face back on a poster. The film ends with a direct, winking tie to Lambs; were it released today, instead of in 2002, that final beat would have been inserted into the end credits as a Marvel-style button.

At least the movie starts strong, rewinding to roughly the same timeframe as the NBC series. Lecter, having just served a subpar musician to a table of unsuspecting dinner guests, is paid a visit from Will Graham (Edward Norton), who’s come to announce how close he’s coming to catching the killer the two men have been ostensibly hunting. Hannibal, of course, is that killer, and what’s nifty about this prologue is the opportunity it affords Hopkins: For the first time, he gets to display his own version of the “well-tailored person suit,” concealing the crazy beneath a veneer of unsuspicious politeness. It makes one wonder if Mikkelsen will ever get to do the opposite, and what his behind-bars, unmasked Lecter would look like.

There are a handful of other fine scenes, too. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as tabloid hack Freddy Lounds, quakes with very believable terror when confronted by the deranged Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes, probably securing Voldemort here). And the final confrontation, a scene from the book that Mann neglected to include in his version, is appropriately harrowing, with Graham playing on the trauma of his enemy to save his own son. The casting, too, is fairly inspired, though Norton’s take on Graham lacks both the intensity of Manhunter’s William Petersen and the sharp eccentricity of the show’s Hugh Dancy.

Red Dragon isn’t a bad movie, just a perfunctory one—a kind of blander, squarer Manhunter, reshaped to also resemble The Silence Of The Lambs. Ratner supplies no authorial imprint, so the movie has to get by on its recycled material. The structural similarity to Lambs—an FBI agent consults with an imprisoned Lecter to stop a less seductive, more loathsome criminal—makes the film feel more like a sequel than a prequel, as though producers had simply cooked up a carbon copy of the earlier hit instead of going back to Harris’ first novel. The major void is the Lecter/Graham relationship, which Red Dragon completely fails to dramatize. While the opening scene provides context, there’s no shared history expressed between Norton and Hopkins—no sense of the betrayal both men feel, no indication that these are people who used to be friends and confidants. Hopkins, again, can’t seem to breathe new life into the character he once made his own. Never mind that he looks 10 years older than he did in Lambs. He also seems older, or at least more bored.

The returns diminish further, to a point of no return, with the laughably un-suspenseful, uninspired Hannibal Rising. Like all of the Lecter movies, this one is based on a Thomas Harris novel, though just barely: The author is said to have been uninterested in revisiting the character, but was told by Dino De Laurentiis, the producer of the Hannibal movies, that another film would be made with or without his involvement. To protect his beloved creation from the mistakes of a different writer, Harris knocked out both a new novel and the screenplay for its adaptation; the book and the movie were released simultaneously. Watching the latter, it’s hard to fathom how someone else could have done a greater injustice to Lecter than inserting him into a hokey origin/revenge story, in which a twentysomething Hannibal hunts down the Nazi deserters who forced him, as a young boy, to dine on his own little sister. Wouldn’t choking down such a traumatic meal kind of kill any preference for that acquired taste? Not according to this deeply reductive prequel.

Initially unfolding like some stodgy European war drama, Hannibal Rising begins in WWII-era Lithuania, where lil’ orphan Hanny attempts to protect himself and his sister after the two lose their parents and the family castle. Cue the formative cannibalism, and suddenly the boy Lecter is a teenage sociopath (Gaspard Ulliel, from A Very Long Engagement) crisscrossing the continent in search of surviving family. In France, he finds his uncle’s Japanese widow, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li, way too good for the movie), who trains him to use a samurai sword, in a scene that reveals Rising as a clear, absurd attempt to give Lecter the Batman Begins treatment. Later, he briefly dons an ancient samurai mask, for no discernible reason other than the fact that it vaguely resembles the muzzle his character will one day be forced to wear.

As unremarkable as Hopkins later became in the role, he’s infinitely preferable to Ulliel, who turns Lecter into a sneering, dime-store psychopath. It’s an awful performance; there’s never any sense that the actor is capable of shouldering the drama of his character’s ordeal, nor does he make young Hannibal remotely frightening. The villains, meanwhile, are straight out of a bad historical action movie, and there’s no terror—or even righteous rush—in seeing them get what’s coming to them.

Hannibal Rising is dreary, dull, and psychologically primitive. Lecter himself, a man of good taste, would correctly peg it as the cinematic equivalent of fast food. Among the film’s many failings, its most severe are fundamental. Hannibal shouldn’t be reduced to a force of vengeance, because that supplies a generic motive to a monster who’s much more disturbing without one. Actually, the very idea of granting the character an origin story is misguided; his evil should remain irrational. Even a more complicated, less banal explanation would still be an explanation, and hence counterproductive to his mysterious malevolence.

Therein lies the triumph, again, of what Mikkelsen is doing each week on Hannibal. After four novels, five movies, countless knockoffs, and just as many parodies, the actor has made Lecter unpredictable and unknowable again. There’s a certain irony in seeing this character revitalized through a tenure on TV, his appearances as regular as a weekly therapy session. After all, isn’t it overexposure that’s reduced Lecter to a shadow of his former self, a punchline, just another quotable slasher mascot to which audiences became gradually inoculated? But Hannibal proves that no monster is dead if there’s a way to send a few jolts of new energy through its corpse—or, perhaps more apropos of this monster, to shroud an old evil in a brand new coat of flesh.

Watch: The Silence Of The Lambs; Hannibal; Red Dragon

Skip: Hannibal Rising

Outside canon: From Harris’ novels to the superb Manhunter to NBC’s ongoing series, those looking for more Lecter should have no trouble quelling that hunger. Chicago’s Defiant Theatre mounted a stage production of Red Dragon in 1996, though it likely hasn’t been performed since. There’s also an award-winning stage parody called Silence! The Musical and a non-award-winning cinematic spoof called The Silence Of The Hams, starring Dom DeLuise as (wait for it) Dr. Animal Cannibal Pizza. Fire up that Netflix queue, completists.

Next up: American Pie

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