Hannibal Rising (2007)

I went into Hannibal Rising with pretty low expectations. Not only was it the most critically reviled of the film adaptations of Thomas Harris’s novels, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 16%, but it was also the only one of them to feature no actors from previous versions, as it is a prequel set during our favorite cannibal’s childhood and early adulthood. Hannibal Lecter himself is the only character we have met before who appears here. Still, I thought that it might be one of those instances in which there was a worthwhile film in all of this that was merely “bad” in comparison to the rest of the franchise. Unfortunately, despite a couple of strong performances and some great European shooting locations, Rising is still a miss. 

The film opens in the surprisingly happy Lecter household in Lithuania during WWII in 1941. The Lecters are apparently aristocrats, as we see they live in a fairly large castle, which they depart in order to move further from the advancing German lines and take up residency in the family’s hunting lodge. The 1944 Soviet Baltic Offensive pushed the Germans back, although a German plane destroys a tank near the Lecter’s lodge on its way out, killing everyone but an elementary aged Hannibal and his sister, Mischa. Shortly thereafter, the lodge is discovered by six deserters, including their leader, a Nazi collaborator named Vladis Grutas (Rhys Ifans) who convinced the others to join him, although their defection proved to be in vain as the war started to turn. Once supplies dwindle down to nothing, the six men kill and eat little Mischa, justifying their decision by claiming that she was sick and malnourished and would soon be dead anyway. When Hannibal tries to stop them, one of the men breaks his arm and the boy blacks out; when he regains consciousness, he is discovered by a group of Soviets, who find him wearing the shackles of his captors and mute from the trauma. 

Eight years later, Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is once again living in his childhood home, although Lithuania had come under Soviet occupation (as it would remain until 1990) and Lecter Castle had since been turned into an orphanage. Despite his muteness, he cries out at night for Mischa in his dreams, which makes him a target for bullying by an older boy who holds some authority in the group home. When the boy attempts to strike Hannibal, he simply raises a fork, which lodges in his bully’s fist. As punishment, Hannibal is locked in the castle’s dungeon, but he gets out through a secret passage that is unknown to the others, sneaks into what was once his mother’s bedroom and gathers some family documents, and escapes across the Soviet border into unoccupied lands, making his way to the home of his late father’s brother in France. He arrives too late to reunite with his uncle, who has recently passed away, but is taken in by his widowed aunt, known only as Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). She shows Hannibal the first kindness he has experienced in a long time, which helps to rehabilitate him somewhat and even results in him once again regaining the will and ability to speak. She also shows him her family shrine, which includes a katana and her ancestor’s armor, and teaches him to swordfight. 

When Murasaki experiences racist harassment at the hands of a local butcher, Hannibal fights the man and is arrested, but is released to his aunt’s custody, as the man was a known Nazi collaborator and has few friends among the locals. Hannibal later tracks down and kills the man with the Murasaki family sword, decapitating him and presenting the head to Murasaki just as her ancestor had decapitated his enemies in the scrolls she shared with him. This, Hannibal’s first murder, is investigated by French Inspector Pascal Popil (Dominic West), who was made famous for his testimony about Nazi war crimes at Nuremberg. Although there’s little to exonerate Hannibal, when the butcher’s head is placed on a pike near the police station with a swastika carved into it while Hannibal is being interrogated, he is released. 

Eventually, Hannibal becomes the youngest student admitted to medical school in France, where he gets a student job preparing cadavers. Murasaki also moves to Paris, as the Lecter family estate is taken by the state due to arrears. At his Parisian school, Hannibal once again meets Popil, who is interrogating a war criminal using sodium thiopental; under the influence of the drug, the man seems to recall repressed memories. Seizing upon the opportunity to unlock his own forgotten memories of the men who killed Mischa, Hannibal drugs himself and recalls more of the events of his last days at the Lecter family hunting lodge and that he was saved by one of the men (Goran Kostić) who was killed by falling debris. Hannibal sneaks back into the country and returns to the lodge, pursued by Dortlich (Richard Brake), another of his former captors who has since become a border guard and recognized the Lecter name on the boy’s visa. Hannibal finds the entire group of deserters’ service tags in the lodge and, after capturing and torturing Dortlich into giving up information about the remaining four, kills him. 

Now armed with the names of his sister’s killers, Hannibal learns that one of them, Kolnas (Kevin McKidd) is living in Fontainebleau, part of the Parisian metropolitan area. Lecter finds the restaurant that the man now owns, accompanied by Lady Murasaki, and confirms the man’s identity; he now has his own family, which includes a young daughter who wears a bracelet that was once Mischa’s. The death of Dortlich has put the three deserters still living in Europe on alert, and Grutas, now a human trafficker, dispatches Milko (Stephen Walters) to kill Hannibal, but the latter kills the former by drowning him in embalming fluid. Popil also becomes invested in these killings and is suspicious of Hannibal, but after Murasaki is kidnapped and Hannibal kills Kolnas in his pursuit of Grutas, the boy apparently dies in either an explosion or the ensuing fire aboard Grutas’s boat as Popil and Murasaki watch. In reality, Hannibal had managed to slip away, making his way west to take his final revenge on the last living deserter (Ivan Marevich) in Canada before heading south to the United States, where he will eventually become the Chesapeake Ripper and, well, you know the rest. 

We don’t need a prequel explaining how Hannibal the Cannibal came to be the way that he is. I have a reputation, at least among my fellow contributors here, as the person who most wants an explanation or a resolution in my media, and I think that’s a fair assessment. I’m very much a systems thinker in a lot of ways, and that’s probably one of the reasons that I get trapped in the event horizon of Thomas Harris’s stories; despite being works that are just serial killer crime stories, they are nonetheless exquisitely crafted with great care, creating a lore that’s not “missing” from something like a Lincoln Rhyme novel, but is absent from them. On the other hand, I’ve long gone on record about my feelings that horror is best left unexplained. Terror that is inexplicable is terror that is its own exponential, and although I understand audience demand for more detail and backstory, as I often want the same when it comes to other genres, that doesn’t apply to someone like Hannibal Lecter. He’s just a well-educated serial killer with a talent for reading people very well, and that’s all that he needs to be. Although the NBC Hannibal series is also a prequel, as it explores the entwined personal and professional relationships between Lecter and Will Graham that are all prologue to the first appearance of Lecter on page or screen in Red Dragon, that’s not an “origin story” like this is, and our impressions of the Lecter character are harmed by this story, not enhanced by it. Even the revelation that Hannibal himself had eaten of the broth made from Mischa (and that he may unconsciously be seeking to kill all those who know the truth rather than truly seeking revenge for her) lands with a dull thud, as we in the audience have already assumed that Hannibal had done so, either unknowingly and learning the truth later or being too consumed by hunger to care in the moment, hence the repressed memories. 

A Hannibal Lecter who is just a brilliant European psychologist who uses his sophistication as a shield against scrutiny into his depraved cannibalistic urges, a Hannibal Lecter who effortlessly diverts any attempts to see past this shield by deflecting his interrogators’ questions and seeing through them to their deepest fears and insecurities; those are much more interesting characters than a Jokeresque Eurotwink strip-mall samurai seeking revenge. As ridiculous as that combination of words sounds all together, it’s still too grounded, in the sense that Hannibal should be a human so corrupted and warped by his desires that we can barely recognize his way of thinking as being like our own, who just happens to exist in a very down-to-earth, grounded FBI procedural. That’s the common element of all of the killers in this franchise, and that’s what makes it work. The Chesapeake Ripper, the Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon, Buffalo Bill: their compulsions and dark desires make them otherworldly, and even though we also know them as Lecter, Francis Dolarhyde, and Jame Gumb, that doesn’t make the fact that they could exist in our world any less scary. This Hannibal we can understand and even sympathize with. It just doesn’t work. 

Even taken on its own and out of the context of the larger franchise, the film fails as a simple vengeance period piece. The best sequence, in which Hannibal escapes over the Soviet line into unoccupied territory, occurs very early on in the run time; nothing that comes after it matches it for suspense and thrill, and that’s long before Hannibal’s first kill. Hannibal’s slayings are gruesome and joyless, but not scary, because Hannibal never kills anyone with whom the audience can sympathize or like. The “least” deserving of his victims is “only” a Nazi collaborator who slings crass, racially charged sexual epithets at Murasaki; everyone else he kills was complicit in the murder and consumption of a child… on top of being Nazi collaborators. The Hannibal of this movie is basically post-war Dexter (disclosure: I have never seen Dexter), a serial killer who only kills Nazis, cannibals, and human traffickers, which means he’d be the problematic hero of any other story instead of the villain protagonist we have here. That has the potential to be an interesting story, but Rising is not that narrative. 

Gong Li’s Lady Murasaki is the most out of place element here while also being the best. While Hannibal is static–violent, sadistic, clever, and remorseless–throughout, Murasaki is one of the only characters with an arc. She genuinely did love Hannibal’s uncle, and the loss of his estate weighs heavily on her, especially as she comes to realize that the young man she took into her home as the last living connection to her husband has put her in a precarious position. She still genuinely loves Hannibal as well, in spite of his violent tendencies, but as much as she wants to be the chain that binds him to a kind of morality, bearing witness to his viciousness forces her to realize that she can’t change him into something that he’s not. Gong’s performance is nuanced, thoughtful, and subtle, and I wish we saw more of her in other films. Gaspard Ulliel was widely praised when the film was released; any review that is positive specifically cites his performance, but I wasn’t enamored. Ulliel is a good actor, but here he’s all sneer and no substance. This isn’t just in comparison to the other versions of Lecter that we’ve seen; although Rising predates X-Men: First Class by four years, the latter film has a spiritual similarity in the way that Magneto tracks down several Nazis who escaped justice and kills them. In that film, our vengeful killer is unrelenting in his pursuit of his goals, as is Hannibal here, but Michael Fassbender brings an undercurrent of ambiguity to Magneto that is not just absent in Ulliel’s Lecter, but missing. I do think that Ulliel would probably make a fantastic Joker, though, if any filmmaker were brave enough to take that chance. 

This was a fairly difficult movie to track down, although if you can trick Netflix into thinking you’re in Germany (wink wink), you can find it on their service in that country. It’s not really worth the trouble, though. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Red Dragon (2002)

As I wrote in my Manhunter review, that film was only the first of three different adaptations of Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon. Although Manhunter spent a long time as a semi-forgotten also-ran, I’m guessing that producer Dino De Laurentiis knew that he had failed to strike while the iron was hot by letting ten years pass between the releases of Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, and he knew he needed to get Red Dragon into theaters before said metaphorical iron was ice cold. Coming out a mere 20 months after Hannibal, Red Dragon opens with the scene we only heard described in Manhunter: Will Graham (here played by Ed Norton), after seeking help from notable psychologist Hannibal Lecter (still Anthony Hopkins) in finding the so-called Chesapeake Ripper, suddenly realizes that the serial killer whom he is pursuing isn’t keeping trophies like most, he’s eating them. Graham has his revelation that Lecter is the Ripper while sitting in the older man’s home, and, drugged, manages to survive his altercation with Lecter, who is taken into custody. From there, we learn via opening credits newspaper montage that Graham spent a fairly lengthy period recovering from being stabbed by Lecter, followed by a not-insubstantial period of time in a mental facility as a result of his pronounced and unusual talent for empathy with those he profiles, which is plot relevant here as it was in Manhunter

Several years later, Will is now married to Molly (Mary-Louise Parker) and living with her and his stepson Josh in Marathon, Florida, when Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) appears to ask him to help with the profile of an emerging serial killer menace, nicknamed The Tooth Fairy. Hitting a roadblock, Graham must consult with his previous partner/prey to once more access the mind of the killer. Elsewhere, Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes) is a man struggling with severe mental problems resulting from a lifetime of horrific abuse and violence at the hands of his grandmother, who was his guardian. As a result of a childhood cleft palate issue that has long since been addressed with reconstructive surgery, Dolarhyde perceives himself as horribly ugly, but he also constantly works out to deal with the aggressive nature of his flashbacks to his childhood traumas, acquiring a physique that all of his so-inclined coworkers find pretty attractive. We also learn that Dolarhyde and Lecter have managed to strike up a correspondence through personal ads in the National Tattler, the tabloid that employs Freddie Lounds (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a sleazy reporter against whom Graham has a personal grudge due to Lounds’s invasion of Graham’s hospital room following his altercation with Lecter, photographing and publishing the profiler’s wound. 

This film follows almost all of the stations of the Red Dragon canon. Lecter manages to get information about where Graham lives, and he passes this off to Dolarhyde.  Dolarhyde is revealed to hate the name “Tooth Fairy,” considering it derogative and an insult to the great Red Dragon (of William Blake’s poems and paintings) that he is becoming through the “changing” of his victims. Graham attempts to bait Dolarhyde by planting false information in the news via leaking “embarrassing” fabricated details from the FBI profile to Lounds, but instead of going after Graham as intended, Dolarhyde kidnaps Lounds instead and uses his burning body to send a message to Graham and Crawford. Molly and her son are whisked away to a safe location after the FBI realizes that Lecter’s latest personal ad/message to Dolarhyde included information about how to find Graham. The Red Dragon personality starts to lose its power over Dolarhyde when he meets and strikes up an odd relationship with blind photodeveloper Reba (Emily Watson), although when he misinterprets an innocent, friendly interaction between Reba and another colleague, the Dragon begins to reassert itself. Just as in the previous adaptation, Graham deduces that the Tooth Fairy gained intimate details about the families he killed (like being able to identify the family pet or knowing to bring a pair of bolt-cutters for a padlocked door) through both surveillance and access to their home movies via his job at a company that develops, processes, and edits film. 

The film doesn’t diverge from the plot of Manhunter until Act III, when the FBI prepare to raid Dolarhyde’s home and find the place ablaze with Reba trapped inside. She relates that Dolarhyde shot himself in the face, as she heard the shot and accidentally touched his skull (etc.) in the aftermath. There’s no fire in Manhunter, and in that film Dolarhyde’s reign of terror ends with Graham defeating him in his home and returning from the episode at Dolarhyde’s to a happy family reunion at the beach. Here, Graham, Molly, and Josh are reunited, yes, but it turns out that Dolarhyde had staged his death using Reba as his unwitting accomplice through corroboration of his death, and he takes Josh hostage. Through berating the boy using the same language that was used to abuse Dolarhyde for so many years, Graham is able to force Dolarhyde to empathize with the boy and release him, and Dolarhyde is ultimately killed by Molly. And they lived happily ever after, as long as you ignore the canon from the books, and also that we know Hannibal’s imprisonment isn’t forever. 

What Red Dragon does have going for it is the best version of both Molly and Dolarhyde. Tom Noonan’s performance as Dolaryhyde in Manhunter is nothing to scoff at, but that film brought Dolarhyde into the narrative very late in the runtime; not only is our time with him and his relationship with Reba rushed, but Manhunter also opts to cut the Dolarhyde death fake-out completely and instead end the film with the FBI raid on Dolarhyde’s home, meaning that we don’t get the scene in which Dolarhyde confronts Graham and his family in Florida. That also means that Molly has almost nothing to do in Manhunter, although one of the few good Molly scenes in the 1986 film is missing here: there’s a great atmospheric scene in Manhunter after we have just learned that Lecter has managed to get Graham’s address and send it to Dolarhyde, when Molly and Kevin (not Josh) are in the Graham home and there’s some misdirection that implies that they’re in immediate danger, before it turns out to be the FBI, come to spirit them away to a safe house. By that point in the narrative in this film, the audience has already seen Dolarhyde and knows what he looks like, and it wouldn’t make narrative sense for that film to appear here. Instead, Molly gets to have her big scenes in the finale, which I like. 

It had been nearly ten years since I saw Red Dragon, and having now seen so many different versions of Jack Crawford, I wasn’t sure I would be able to accept Harvey Keitel as the stern but affable FBI director, but that wasn’t the case here. You think of Keitel and you think about Reservoir Dogs, Taxi Driver, and Bad Lieutenant, of characters that err towards aggressive, corrupt, and sleazy. He’s actually rather good playing against type here, and although he’s still the worst version of Jack Crawford, it’s only because the other versions of him are done with so much more aplomb. The weak link in the cast is Norton, whose Graham isn’t vulnerable so much as he is pathetic. When he’s arguing his case to Molly that Crawford needs him to stop the next of the Tooth Fairy’s killings, he doesn’t sound like he believes himself so much as he is simply doing as he’s told by whoever got in the last word by the sole virtue of being the last person to speak. Although this Lecter is once again different from his foppishly eccentric characterization in Hannibal and his brief-but-resounding reptilian inhumanity in Silence, I like him here. The opening scene shows us Lecter in his element as a member of elite society, making puns about symphony and haute cuisine and holding court over all of his social peers while also secretly feeding them a musician who failed to meet his standards. Given that they center around a character called “Hannibal the Cannibal” there’s very little actual cannibalism in any of these films, with only a little Paul Krendler brain saute at the end of Hannibal, so it’s also nice to see him doing his thing here; the NBC Hannibal series would manage to (ahem) make a meal out of scenes like this every week, and it’s delightful. 

This is the last we’ve seen of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal to date. He’s presumably still out there in this continuity, albeit he’d be extremely aged (Hannibal Rising presents him as a child of nine or so during the end of WWII, so he’d conservatively be 83 at this point). Although the Hannibal TV series has already given us an unforgettable modernization of this story, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be first in line for a present day feature in which an older Will Graham, now long retired, is approached by Director Starling and asked to work one last profile, and finally bring Hannibal Lecter back to justice once and for all. I’d prefer it if Graham were played by William Petersen and Starling was Jodie Foster, but I’ll take what I can get, even if it’s just a fanfiction out there (please note: I will not be reading any fanfiction). Don’t bother with this one unless you’re a completist; just watch Manhunter instead. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Hannibal (2001)

Of course, I couldn’t just leave it at finally watching Silence of the Lambs or rewatching Manhunter. I cannot explain it, but every time I get within a mile of the, for lack of a better term, Thomas Harris serial killer lore, I get completely sucked in. It’s not even about Hannibal Lecter for me; he clearly became the most popular character, as the post-Silence novels and their film adaptations bear his name—not Will Graham’s or Clarice Starling’s—in their titles, and the NBC show was titled Hannibal for a reason (the current, brand new Clarice series on CBS aside). For me, Hannibal himself is such a small part of a larger interconnected web of behavioral analysts, hospital staff, reporters, forensic scientists, and associated spouses, friends, and victims. Although he’s the thing that sticks out and looms large in the public consciousness of this series, the Chesapeake Ripper is still only a part of what makes for an incredibly engaging whole. 

Ridley Scott‘s 2001 film Hannibal, based on Harris’s 1999 novel of the same name, is generally pretty poorly regarded. Although Rotten Tomatoes is obviously a dubious metric, it’s the second lowest ranked of all of the Harris film adaptations there at a “rotten” score of 40%, beating only 2007’s Hannibal Rising‘s meager 16%; it’s easily surpassed by the certified fresh 93% and 96% respective scores for Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs as well as as adequate and accurate 68% summation for the tepid Red Dragon (2002). It had been a very long time since I saw Hannibal, and even that viewing had been on television (with its already bloated 132 minute runtime further expanded to accommodate commercials), so my recollections of it were both fuzzy and not very fond, so down the rabbit hole I went. 

After (spoiler alert for a 30 year old movie that’s arguably one of the five most iconic films of the first half of the nineties) Hannibal’s escape from custody in Memphis and his flight from the country at the end of Silence, Dr. Hannibal Lecter has essentially settled in Florence and taken on the identity of one Dr. Fell, curator and caretaker of a breathtakingly beautiful old school library, with the implication that Lecter killed the man who had the position before his arrival. The detective overseeing the investigation into the disappearance of the previous caretaker, Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), suspects Lecter, but has no proof. Stateside, it’s been ten years since Clarice Starling (now played by Julianne Moore, taking over for Jodie Foster) captured Jame Gumb, aka “Buffalo Bill,” and despite her obvious talent and a career-making rescue of a senator’s daughter, she’s still being held back by sexism within the FBI, both overtly and subtly. While overseeing a drug bust, she spies that one of their suspects has a baby in a child carrier and calls off the raid, but her orders are ignored by a local dick-swinging detective who previously gave her some light misogynistic backtalk, committing the whole squad to a deadly shootout that endangers an infant. 

Elsewhere, paralyzed and disfigured child molester Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), attended by his put-upon personal physician Cordell (Željko Ivanek), is scheming. Verger is one of that exceptionally rare breed: a victim of Lecter’s who was left alive, although his condition is a result of Lecter’s questionable psychological ministrations. The details are rather lurid, but essentially, Verger’s dogs ate his face … after he carved it off while under the influence of drugs. Verger is ludicrously wealthy; in fact, he’s rich enough to have henchmen in different hemispheres, some of whom are solely devoted to training boars to devour a human being in preparation for his vengeance on Lecter. Back in Langley, Assistant Director Noonan (Francis Guinan) pulls Starling from field duty following the incident while her professional nemesis, a Justice Department official named Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), hectors her during the entire dressing down. Verger, who understands Lecter’s motivations better than most, learns of this and pulls a few strings to get Starling reassigned to the pursuit of Lecter, correctly surmising that the cannibal psychologist’s fascination with the agent will prompt him to reach out to her; this also gives the FBI a chance to work on the optics of Starling’s recent failure and how it reflects on the organization, both by playing to her strengths and invoking the ghost of past success. 

Hannibal sends Clarice a taunting letter, on which he deliberately leaves a faint remnant of a bespoke hand cream, which allows Clarice to snag a few threads and track him down to Florence, but Verger’s gambit is also working almost too well. Inspector Pazzi is looking to land a huge payday to appease the expensive tastes of his younger wife, and against Clarice’s direct recommendation, he passes on the opportunity to arrest Lecter outright, instead gambling that he can turn the man over to Verger for the $3M reward. His greed proves to be his undoing, as Lecter kills him gruesomely and evades Verger’s men. Verger pays Krendel to plant evidence that Clarice is deliberately hindering her own investigation in order to raise suspicion of her motives, and Lecter returns to the states and toys with Clarice a bit before Verger’s stateside goons capture him. Clarice, ignored by her superiors, breaks into the Verger estate to arrest Lecter, but is shot before her rescue/apprehend plan succeeds. Verger’s boars find them, but they ignore Lecter, presumably smelling no fear on him, and instead attack an injured guard. Lecter suggests Cordell simply push Verger into the boar pit and blame it on Lecter himself, which the physician does, and Lecter escapes with Clarice back to her home, where she awakens to find her bullet wound tended and herself dressed for dinner. Downstairs, Lecter has since apprehended Krendler and, as a drugged and captive Clarice watches in horror, removes part of the dolt’s brains, gives it a little fry, and feeds it to him. Lecter, fascinated with what he sees of himself in Clarice, asks her to join him on the Dark Side, but she refuses and fights back, albeit with mixed success in her drugged state. Lecter once again escapes to dine another day, not that we ever see it, given that this is the last chronological appearance of the character in the film series. 

One would think that the film’s biggest stumbling block would be in the recasting of Starling, but that’s not really so. Foster’s performance as Clarice is absolutely legendary, but if one had to recast the character, I doubt that there was a better choice than Moore. Although there are moments where her affectation of the Clarice accent verges on overkill and calls to mind Moore’s 30 Rock character Nancy Donovan in its general broadness, she delivers a reliably solid performance that grounds Clarice as she navigates the shark-infested waters of institutional sexism and the equally turbulent plain of her own troubled conscience. The problems here aren’t with her performance, or Hopkins’s either. After a long time away, he plays Lecter a little less broadly here than in Silence, as while the character was certainly menacing there, it strained the credibility of the narrative that that Lecter could have ever pretended to be a normal person at all. With Lecter now living more understatedly in Florence, he can play off some of his more quirkier mannerisms as merely foreign behavior, and he’s believable as someone who is eccentric but doesn’t immediately set off “serial killer” alarm bells. This Lecter seems completely in his element, effortlessly preparing for every potential wrinkle in his grand design, but the irony is that this almost makes him seem less scary. In Silence, Lecter is literally imprisoned but he never seems cornered, he’s just biding his time. Here, it seems like Lecter could have stayed hidden for quite some time if he hadn’t decided to contact Clarice and leave his breadcrumb trail, but instead of living his life in freedom, he comes back around to taunt Clarice because he loves the drama, which could arguably be considered more fun, but that doesn’t inherently make it more interesting. 

Still, Foster’s absence looms large here, as does that of Jonathan Demme, who was invested in the idea of doing a sequel for a long time. Also gone is Ted Tally, who wrote the Silence screenplay. With Scott at the helm and an initial first draft of the screenplay written by David Mamet(!), one would think that the film was tee’d up for success, but not really. Even a mediocre sequel would have been a guaranteed success in, say, 1995, but by 2001 Lecter’s legacy had grown too expansive, like a cloud that has expanded and expanded but essentially become immaterial. You’d have been hard pressed to find anyone over the age of ten who couldn’t at least mangle the line about Lecter’s famous liver and fava bean dinner or do that little hiss thing, but that made him less menacing. From all reports, Harris took the whole thing in a bizarre direction in the book, wherein Clarice (albeit under the influence of drugs) accepts Hannibal’s invitation to let her hate flow through her, etc., and runs off with him in the end. Demme admitted that he simply couldn’t get his head around this idea, and Tally politely referred to both this plot development and the generally gorier nature of the Hannibal novel as “excesses.” I’d bet that also put Foster off of the project, although she’s always played it off that she was too busy working on Flora Plum, which you may have never heard of, since it’s still only a dream, and Foster has all but admitted that this was a convenient excuse. I imagine that if the film had followed that plot more, the reception would likely have been even worse, but no one gets to know what could have been. Then again, the best parts of the film are those that follow Lecter’s cat and mouse games with Piazza in Florence, as Scott makes great use of the city’s historic buildings and architecture to craft some beautiful shots, and Piazza’s increasingly risky attempts to get some evidence of Lecter’s identity are met with Lecter’s casually effortless countermoves. It’s genuinely fun, and it’s completely separate from just about everything having to do with Clarice; in the year of our lord 2021, post-Harry Potter, they’d probably split the book into two films, and the one about Lecter and Piazza would be the more compelling one. 

Personally, I wasn’t happy about the news media being villainized for how they portray the botched drug raid that’s pinned on Starling. The audience is supposed to cringe in sympathy with Clarice when a news anchor smarmily waxes on about the FBI’s tendency to use excessive force, because we in the audience know that it’s not her fault. In the real world, however, it’s been a decade since Silence, which was released mere weeks before the LAPD brutally beat Rodney King, marking one of the major turning points in the greater American discourse about police brutality. Even in Silence, when Clarice first enters Jack Crawford’s office, he notes that he picked her for the Buffalo Bill assignment because, during a lecture of his, she “grilled” him about the bureau’s well-known issues with civil rights issues. That blind disregard for the reality of law enforcement’s problems in our world lends the whole thing a lack of specificity; it doesn’t feel moored (no pun intended) to reality in the same way that Silence did. Also contributing to this general ambiguous vibe is the very pre-9/11 nature of its storytelling. I’m not just talking about how easy it is for Hannibal Lecter to trot the globe while also being on the FBI’s Most Wanted list (alongside Osama bin Laden, no less) and how he travels with a bottle of wine without the TSA taking that from him, I’m talking about the clumsy attempts at addressing the glass ceiling that Clarice is up against. Within a few months, the treatment of the FBI in our media was about to become extremely jingoistic for quite a while, and we’re still living in the narrative fallout. Consider, for instance, how Fringe differed from its spiritual predecessor The X-Files, which was itself partially inspired by Silence of the Lambs, in its treatment of the Bureau; in the former, the FBI is mostly a force for good, while in the latter, Mulder and Scully’s larger organization is riddled with obstruction and maliciousness at every turn. It would be a long time before we would see any nuance in stories about the FBI again, and now it’s handled with a more surgical approach (while also still mostly being uninspected in its uncritical treatment of law enforcement, which is bad), but it makes any interaction between Clarice and her colleagues with whom she has conflict feel blunt and careless. 

Ultimately, Hannibal is fine. It’s overstuffed, but the entire entertainment commentary industry is abuzz with talk about a superhero movie that clocks in at a solid 4 hours, so if anything, the world is more ready for this film now than it was twenty years ago. It’s been thirty years since we last (and first) saw Jodie Foster play Clarice Starling, not just ten, so it’s also easier to accept Moore in that role. The most surprising thing about it is that the Florence plot in this one may actually be better than the version in NBC’s Hannibal, at least in the sense that I could follow what was happening; Hannibal in Florence was that show at its most hallucinogenic, baroque, and convoluted, to its detriment, in my opinion. I’d still recommend it over this one as a whole, though. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 30: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] The secret of The Silence of the Lambs is buried so deeply that you  might have to give this some thought, but its secret is that Hannibal Lecter is a Good Person. He is the helpless victim of his unspeakable depravities, yes, but to the limited degree that he can act independently of them, he tries to do the right thing.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “If the movie were not so well made, indeed, it would be ludicrous. Material like this invites filmmakers to take chances and punishes them mercilessly when they fail. That’s especially true when the movie is based on best-selling material a lot of people are familiar with. (The Silence of the Lambs was preceded by another Thomas Harris book about Hannibal Lecter, which was made into the film Manhunter.) The director, Jonathan Demme, is no doubt aware of the hazards but does not hesitate to take chances. His first scene with Hopkins could have gone over the top, and in the hands of a lesser actor almost certainly would have.” -from his 1991 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“One key to the film’s appeal is that audiences like Hannibal Lecter. That’s partly because he likes Starling, and we sense he would not hurt her. It’s also because he is helping her search for Buffalo Bill, and save the imprisoned girl. But it may also be because Hopkins, in a still, sly way, brings such wit and style to the character. He may be a cannibal, but as a dinner party guest he would give value for money (if he didn’t eat you). He does not bore, he likes to amuse, he has his standards, and he is the smartest person in the movie.” -from his 2001 review for his Great Movies series

There’s something about Jonathan Demme’s modern classic The Silence of the Lambs that lends itself well to those unsure about horror as a respectable film genre. I found the film endlessly rewatchable as a child (anytime I could sneak away with the family’s not-so-heavily guarded VHS, at least), despite it scaring me shitless. Academy voters in 1992 saw enough of a dramatic thriller in its bones to award it that year’s Oscar for Best Picture, a distinction that’s become increasingly rare for genre films, especially horror. Folks who like to split hairs over categorization would likely not care to hear it described as a horror at all, despite that genre’s drastic overlap with thrillers and this particular film’s violent, disturbing serial killer plot. When Demme recently passed away, many critics’ obituaries made a point to emphasize how much of a humanist filmmaker he was, how much attention he paid to making every character in his films feel like a real human being worthy of the audience’s empathy. You can feel that empathy in a wide range of characters in The Silence of the Lambs, from the in-over-her-head FBI recruit protagonist to her deranged sophisticate cannibal collaborator to the vicious serial killer they hunt down together to his latest victim, a mostly average American teenager. It’d be tempting to attribute all of the film’s cultural respectability to that characters-first/genre-concerns-second ethos, but I think that’s only half the story. The same way that Demme elevated the concert film as a medium in Stop Making Sense, there are formalist qualities to the picture that somewhat successfully distract audiences from the fact that they’re watching a sleazy horror film in the first place.

Jodie Foster stars as a soon-to-be FBI agent who jumps rank just a tad to single-handedly identify, locate, and take down the most wanted serial killer in America. Her unlikely accomplice in this mission is an imprisoned cannibal ex-psychiatrist played by Anthony Hopkins, who hints that he knows the identity of the killer, an ex-patient, but will only drop clues for Foster’s character to discover him for herself. The clock is ticking to bring the investigation to a close, as the killer has recently kidnapped his latest victim, the daughter of a politician, and she only has a few days to live before he skins her body. This plot is just as well-known by by now as the names of the characters who populate it: Agent Sterling, Buffalo Bill, Hannibal Lecter, etc. What’s lost in the remembrance of the murder mystery machinations, however, is just how much care goes into constructing each character, no matter how dangerous, as a recognizable human being. Hopkins plays Dr. Lecter as an ice cold intellectual creep who intentionally cultivates fear for ways he might act out, but still feels compelled to help Agent Sterling in her investigation out of some long-suppressed goodness in what’s left of his heart. Sterling herself commands much of the audience’s sympathies, of course, as she navigates the sexist skepticism of her colleagues in multiple branches of law enforcement who don’t take her seriously. Even the film’s horrific killer, Buffalo Bill, is explained to be a survivor of childhood abuse who’s confused by, but cannot control his own violent tendencies. Although it does so by including some dated psychobabble about trans women being “passive” by nature, the movie even distinguishes Bill’s obsession with wearing women’s skin and presenting female as something entirely separate from transgenderism, avoiding unnecessary transmisogynistic demonization. He’s a hurt, violent killer who the movie affords more sympathy than he probably deserves, considering the brutality of his crimes. It also affords Bill’s latest victim a moment or two of humanizing characterization on her own before she’s abducted, allowing her to be established as a real person and not just a nameless teen girl horror victim. It’s in Demme’s nature to give her that.

Demme’s avoidance of horror’s typical, inhuman sleaze isn’t entirely restricted to his sense of humanist characterization, though. You can feel it in the cinematography by Tak Fujimoto or the costuming by Colleen Atwood, two industry mainstays who elevate the genre proceedings with a sense of class. What really classes up the joint, however, is the orchestral score by Howard Shore, who’s a lot more at home providing sweeping soundtracks for huge productions like The Lord of the Rings or The Aviator than he is conducting a horror film soundtrack. It shows in his choices here, too. Shore’s The Silence of the Lambs score can be effectively tense in moments when Jodie Foster’s protagonist is in immediate danger, but overall feels way too light & classy in its strings arrangements to match its subject. It’s as if Demme employed Shore specifically to make his film sound like an Oscar-worthy drama instead of a sleazy police procedural about a woman-skinning serial killer. One of the most consistent pleasures of The Silence of the Lambs for me is in watching Jodie Foster & Anthony Hopkins try to out over-act each other. Foster’s thick Southern accent & Hopkins’s *tsk tsk* brand of mannered scenery chewing have always been a neck & neck race for most heightened/ridiculous for me, but this most recent rewatch has presented a third competitor in this struggle: Shore. The composer’s string arrangements actively attempt to match the soaring stage play line deliveries from Foster & Hopkins, who similarly seem to be playing for the back row. The rabid horror fan in me wishes that the score would ease up and leave a more sparse atmosphere for the movie’s genre film sleaze to fully seep into, but the more I think about it, the more Shore’s music feels symbiotic with the lofty Greek tragedy tones of Demme’s performers. I’m still a little conflicted about it even as I write this.

All of the orchestral arrangements & cautiously humanist character work in the world can’t save this film from its horror genre tendencies, though. The morbid true crime fascination with the story of real life woman-skinner Ed Gein automatically drags the film down into a kind of lurid horror film sleaze. Buffalo Bill’s fictional lair where he recreates Grin’s crimes is a feat of of horror genre production design, complete with creepy exotic bugs (Death’s Head moths) & mannequins with blank expressions. In two separate scenes, one on an airplane and one outside Lector’s cell, Demme & Fujimoto (both vets of the Roger Corman film school) utilize a harshly contrasted blue & red lighting dynamic closely associated with the horror genre because of hallmarks like giallo & Creepshow. The film’s climax, in which he Buffalo Bill hunts Agent Sterling in the darkness of his own basement with the help of night vision goggles, is so iconic to the horror genre that it was aped in two releases just last year: Lights Out & Don’t Breathe. Demme even makes room for a cameo from legendary horror film producer Roger Corman (who gave the director his start on the women in prison exploitation pic Caged Heat) as the head of the FBI. Of course, the most obvious horror element of all is Anthony Hopkins’s over-the-top, but chilling performance as man-eater Hannibal Lector, whose visage in a straight jacket & muzzle is just as iconic in the horror villain pantheon as Jason Voorhees’s hockey mask or Freddy Krueger’s fedora & striped sweater. Perhaps The Silence of the Lambs is a little too dramatic & not nearly cruel enough to be strictly considered an exploitative genre film, but I still smell horror’s sleazy stink all over its basic DNA. I also love the genre too much to have its only Best Picture Oscar taken away from it based on Demme’s empathy or Shore’s music alone.

It’s difficult to look back to The Silence of the Lambs for new insights this many years after its release, since it feels like it’s always been a part of my life. Even the film’s insular FBI politics, hyper-nerd experts, and onscreen text feel highly influential in the basic aesthetic of The X-Files, a show that had a huge influence on my pop media tastes as a young’n. I can look back to Demme’s film now for moments of Agent Sterling navigating shady sex politics that wouldn’t have meant much to me as a kid: suffering flirtations from superiors, attempting to remain stoic while prisoners harass her, boarding an elevator full of her towering meatheads of fellow recruits. That’s not really what surprised me on this revisit, though. Mostly, I was taken aback by how well the film masks it sleazy horror genre traits. It used to feel like such an anomaly to me that such a grotesque & terrifying film had won a major award usually reserved for heartfelt dramas about real life historical figures or the tragically disadvantaged. I fully understand how it got past the Oscars’ usual genre bias now. Not only does the film look and sound more like the films the Academy usually falls in love with, but Demme brings the same empathetically tragic, true to life drama to his characters that typifies Oscar winners. Whether they’re too young to be watching the film on a smuggled VHS or too old & stuffy to typically engage with its serial killer subject matter, the film has a way of easing audiences into a kind of horror film sleaze that’s usually reserved for exploitation genre hounds. It’s a horrific and often over-acted picture that shouldn’t feel nearly as prestigious or as classy as it does, but Demme somehow packaged The Silence of the Lambs as something enduringly endearing. More unlikely yet, I find it oddly comforting, like meeting up with an old friend in desperate need of intensive therapy.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4.5/5, 90%)

Next Lesson: Goodfellas (1990)

-Brandon Ledet