Eric’s Guide to Watching the “Hannibal” Series
I think I said this in an earlier article, but Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees were never really MY horror icons.
I’m not much of a slasher fan. The horror series that I was really into and in fact helped get me more into the genre were the Alien series and Hannibal Lecter films. So once again let me guide you through another series and let you know which you should see and which you should avoid to help enhance your viewing pleasure. Word of warning, I’ll be discussing some of these movies in great detail so here’s a *Spoiler Warning*.
Silence of the Lambs
What can I say about this film at this point? Well here’s one opinion I’ve never heard anyone else say, I think this is the best movie title ever. First it’s just cool sounding and has a nice air of mystery. However, when you watch it you realize it ties so perfectly into the themes and what the story is truly about. That’s what great titles should do. Odd thing to make mention of, but I just felt like someone should say it. The story is that a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill is kidnapping overweight women, killing them, skinning parts of flesh off and then dumping them in the wilderness for no discernible reason. In order to find him they enlist the help of former psychiatrist turned serial killer Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, who’s currently in prison. To do this they use Clarice Starling a young FBI trainee to interview him. Luckily Hannibal is intrigued by her and agrees to help if she gives him certain information about herself. Will they find the latest woman taken hostage in time? Will Clarice fall into the darkness with Lecter? I wouldn’t dare spoil it for you, at least not without a warning.
Again, what can I say about the performances that haven’t already been said? Jodie Foster (Clarice) and Anthony Hopkins (Lecter) give probably the best performances of both their entire storied careers. To me the best example of this is where Clarice is explaining an event from her childhood to Lecter and it’s all played on her face. They actually had shot some flashback scenes to play during that speech, but felt her performance was powerful enough. Let me tell you they sure didn’t need them. Heck, you don’t even notice they’re not there. Picking a best moment for Anthony Hopkins would be practically impossible, the entire performance is his best moment. I could go on and on about this film and why it deserved to win all its awards. The only flaw I have with the film is a continuity issue with the overall series. One victim’s name is changed to Benjamin Raspail and in “Silence” it is an important plot point that Hannibal DIDN’T kill him. But in other films (and the books) he is listed as a victim of Lecter and we even get to see the before and after of his demise at Lecter’s hands in “Red Dragon”.
Lastly two controversial points, first was this film homophobic? Not to get into the identity of Buffalo Bill, but many things he does and his ultimate goal made some viewers think this film was another evil gay/transsexual killer in films which was much more common back then. The complaints got so bad the director went on to make “Philadelphia” to address them. I think anyone who complains about that with this film clearly did not hear an important line of dialog “Billy is not a real transsexual, but he thinks he is. He tries to be. He’s tried to be a lot of things, I expect.” And second, is this film a horror film or a psychological thriller? Last year when I did my “Exorcist” guide Linda Blair herself retweeted it which was awesome. Though she did take issue with my calling it a horror film. Likewise many of the filmmakers and audience members take issue with that here as well. So much so that there’s a backlash in the opposite direction. (Spoiler Warning) There’s a famous stand up bit that sums up a lot of people’s feelings that basically goes “it’s a movie about a man trying to make a woman suit out of real women, IT’S A !$%!%! HORROR FLICK!”
Honestly I get where both sides are coming from, though I think it’s a bit of a meaningless distinction. Horror is a genre that is often looked down upon. The way I always described the genre is that when it is done well they can be some of the most effective type of films you’ll ever see. But the problem is that there is so much crap in that genre that you sometimes really have to scythe through tons of awful stuff to get to the good ones. The horror genre is a VERY broad one. Although I feel like this film is more trying to thrill you more than anything. At the same time its drama is better done than some actual drama films so I often feel like it’s both. For simplicity sake I often call this and “The Exorcist” horror, but I think there’s plenty of room for both terms and that label shouldn’t turn you away from seeing either.
Eric’s Advice: If you haven’t already of course see it, duh!
So here’s how I learned about this, I own a book called “A Field Guide to Monsters.” Like the name suggests it’s a spoof field guide for movie monsters. I still love it as it’s a great conversation starter. Anyway in the section about Hannibal Lecter (under the Human Monsters chapter) in the stats section it listed his first appearance as “Manhunter.” As a kid who didn’t know any better I assumed this must be some bizarre typo. So I took out my Videohound Golden Movie Retriever (1996) book (yes this is what we had to use before the internet and IMDb kids) and looked it up. To my shock it was a movie with Hannibal Lecter and predated “Silence of the Lambs.” It even had a different actor playing Lecter (or Lecktor as it’s spelled here) and it was also well-rated. So I searched for a copy at my video stores and eventually found it. I wasn’t that into it at first. The style was so radically different and the story seemed a little harder to follow. Despite this I couldn’t stop watching it and each time I did, I enjoyed it more and more. Now it’s a film that I REALLY like and a lot of those issues I had with it earlier are now things I really like about it.
Story-wise this is basically the same as “Silence of the Lambs” just with different characters. Here, we have the Tooth Fairy killer murdering entire families and retired FBI profiler Will Graham is called upon to find and re-capture him. The catch, while he is a great FBI profiler who can get into the killer’s mind, that talent comes at a cost for his psyche. He must visit/interview Lecter in prison in order to help him find the identity of the killer. William Petersen’s portrayal as Will Graham is as perfect for that character as Anthony Hopkins was for Lecter himself. Speaking of Lecter for his first appearance on film we have Brian Cox, (William Stryker from “X2: X-men United”) a great actor himself but I just don’t find his performance to be as engaging. He has way less scenes which is book accurate, but I feel like we were just one scene too short for him to make a real impact. Tom Noonan is just so creepy as the Tooth Fairy Killer and with so much of his backstory taken out, it leaves even more mystery. However, if you know the backstory then you can see Noonan is definitely using that information in his portrayal which is fascinating.
For me a good way to describe why I like this version more than “Red Dragon” is take the scene where Will figures out how to find the Tooth Fairy Killer’s identity. Quite simply, they make this moment important in this film. We see Will go through the entire thought process and slowly figuring it out as the music builds and builds. It’s like Will is getting his redemption and basically more emotional than the actual climax. Most of the “faults” with this film would be it not lining up with “Silence of the Lambs,” but it came out before and I don’t feel that would be fair to this film.
Eric’s Advice: See it, but keep in mind it’s going to be different.
It’s funny how things change. I remember when this came out when I was about 10. Most of what I heard was good, but now if it comes up in conversation you tend to only get people who really hate the film. Well I like it. Obviously not as much as “Silence of the Lambs” or “Manhunter,” but as its own thing I still enjoy it. Now I’ve actually read the book of this one and I can honestly say the film improves on it more by fixing some issues or cutting out some of the bad ideas from the book. Still it’s mostly a fairly accurate adaption until the very end. It’s years after the events of “Silence” and Clarice Starling’s FBI career has not been going well. To regain some favor with her bosses she reopens the Lecter case to talk with Mason Verger. Verger is the one living victim of Lecter’s. All the others died or committed suicide afterwards. However, Mason lives on for revenge despite being horribly scarred and crippled by the attack. After an Italian detective discovers Lecter to be living in Florence he tries to capture him for Mason’s reward. But instead ends up getting killed by Lecter before returning to America to see Clarice one more time and give her a “present.” While there, he’s caught by Verger’s men and it’s up to Starling to find/save him and bring him to justice.
Julianne Moore takes over for Jodie Foster and is a fine actress herself, but Foster’s shadow hangs over the film and you can’t help but wish she was back in the role. Hopkins is again very good as Lecter though missing the voice he used to play him in the last film, which is a bit odd. It’s a shame not to see Scott Glenn back as Jack Crawford even though he is in the book. Mason Verger is played by Gary Oldman and is the most interesting new character. The design of his face is great; never overtly monstrous but somehow very cunning and almost sad. Although I do miss the detail in the book about how since one of his eyelids had been ripped off he has to wear a water filled monocle to prevent his eye from drying out. About feeling sad for him, that’s a good segue to a major difference between the book and movie.
In the movie when his assistant throws him into the pit of boars to kill him I feel a little sorry for him. He’s a pathetic crippled man consumed by revenge in the film, not so much in the book. Mason Verger is a child molester in the book, (that’s why he was seeing Dr Lecter in sessions) and even after he’s been mutilated and is essentially dead down there he’s still doing it! He has a daycare in his mansion and has the children sit on his lap as he whispers horribly emotionally destroying things to them. He’s also essentially holding his sister Margot hostage. She’s a lesbian who was kicked out of the family’s estate. She just wants a sperm donation to start her own family with her partner and he constantly strings her along. So when she kills him by shoving his beloved pet moray eel down his throat, I felt NO SYMPATHY for him when he died. I can’t say cutting that stuff out of the movie makes him more interesting, but it does make it easier to watch.
I like that the first half of the film is spending a bunch of day in the life of Hannibal the Cannibal in Florence (seeing how he stalks and kills people and avoids detection) before the actual story gets started. The film is a different animal to the other movies and I enjoy that about it. Also, the ending is FAR better than the book. In the book Lecter using some drug and hypnosis therapy allows Clarice to talk to her dead father. He tells her that he’s proud of her and what she’s accomplished (actually a pretty good scene) and then goes on the run with Lecter. I hated that ending and felt like it was a betrayal of the characters, so I actually thought the film’s ending was much better and even kind of sophisticated after a fashion. Mind you this all comes after the infamous dinner scene with Paul Krendler. I know some people have a major problem feeling it was too over-the-top, silly, or disgusting. I felt appropriately disgusted by the scene, but I’ll admit it walks a tightrope. Also in this film Krendler is recast with Ray Liotta who does seem like a better fit for the character. He was only a background character in “Silence” but the actor who played him in that, Ron Vawter, was a strong actor and had he not died of AIDS before this film, I’d be interested in seeing his take on the character. Overall I still think this film is pretty good and still enjoy it. Ridley Scott creates some memorable images throughout. Even the iconic mask somehow looks better with his direction.
Eric’s Advice: If you’re in the mood for something quite different and darker then give this a try.