On The Horror and Allure of Hannibal Lecter

mads_mikkelsen

Pic: Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter (C) NBC publicity.

I’ll never forget when my older sister came home distraught and shaken.  My parents asked her what was wrong and she broke down into tears and admitted she was horrified from having just seen The Silence of the Lambs.  Since then I always wanted to see it.  I was 4 at the time.  It wouldn’t be until years later that I saw the film.  It became my favorite movie at the time and Hannibal my favorite character in fiction.  He was just so classy and in charge.  Since then the Hannibal Lecter franchise has seen plenty more literary and cinematic incarnations, most of them lame, with Silence arguably standing as the unmatched artistic achievement.  That was the status quo of the Lecterverse until NBC released the television show Hannibal last year.

Over the last few months I watched and re-watched Hannibal.  I don’t watch TV, but being a sometimes very disappointed fan of the Hannibal franchise, I gave it a shot.  I remembered seeing adverts on New York City buses of a non-Hopkins mouth posing as a posh Lecter and thought that it couldn’t possibly be worth anyone’s time.  Just another money grab.  I consider myself a very jaded viewer of entertainment media.  This is likely because I’m a filmmaker, actor, editor, writer, and composer who was raised with the media-bashing antics of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew.  This means I’m not easy to please when it comes to entertainment media (I always see the strings, the plot chasms, the ham-fisted expositional dialog) and I’m far more likely to amuse myself by riffing a show or movie to death than I am to sink into the world that it’s trying to make me care about.  This is not my fault.  If you can’t rope in someone then your work needs work.  The bar is set even higher given we’re all more-or-less filmmakers, producers, and celebrities now.

Hannibal however left my jaw open, drooling, looking around my room as if more Hannibal could be found in the corners or under the furniture–and I wasn’t alone.  Hannibal became one of the most popular and hilarious fandoms online.  These fandoms include your typical memes but even dip into photo-realistic sketches, incredibly deathy renderings, and even yaoi (Japanese-style homoerotic drawings–excellent).  Fannibals and Hannigrams they’re called and Tumblr and DeviantArt is saturated with them.  The sheer volume of material this relatively obscure show generated is staggering, addictive, and certainly worth your time.  Most of this work came into being long after the season finished airing.  Very few people, including myself, watched the show while it aired.  If it wasn’t for this fandom explosion there was a very strong chance that it wasn’t going to air again.

Hannibal was nearly cancelled entirely after the first 12 episode season.  It was banned outright in Salt Lake City for its extreme violence and themes; but it’s probably the darkly nuanced hyper-intelligent psychoanalytic humor that disturbed so many viewers. This combination builds into a raunchy exploration of human darkness with unlikely mirth in a way that often leads other writers, filmmakers, and television producers astray into the limp and cartoonish.  Thankfully, Hannibal, though often impossible in its ultraviolence and pulp logic, is carried by a cast (including the X-Files’s Gillian Anderson and The Kids in the Hall’s Scott Thompson–that’s right, Agent Scully and Buddy Guy are in it) that are all scarily lovable despite their tragic psychoses.  These characters are presented in gorgeous and visceral nightmare-scapes that I haven’t seen as well imagined or realized since the 2000 film The Cell. Everything visual in the show is superb. From the impossible hell of psychopathic crime scenes, to Hannibal’s library office, to Will Graham’s lecture hall and fever dreams. Even the transitional and establishing shots are art. Though it’s the infatuation with the characters and their diving into the psychoanalytic self with bone shaving humor and tragedy that has made it my favorite media monster in a very long time.

The show deserves special accolades to Mads Mikkelsen, who has done the impossible by creating a new vision of Dr. Lecter that matches and in some cases eclipses Hopkins’s iconic role.  The Lecter in Silence is probably the best in the cinematic franchise, but Mikkelsen approaches Lecter with a new script and completely new method.  In a way Mikkelsen lucked out, as his Lecter has yet to be found out as a cannibalistic serial killer.  This Lecter is not the over-the-top creep that Hopkins is rightfully loved for.  Instead this Lecter is a valued member of society and a sought after psychiatrist with a devastating (and often hilariously joked about) secret agenda.  Mikkelsen’s reading of Lecter is an entrancing one:

“Hannibal Lecter is as close as you can come to the devil, to Satan. He’s the fallen angel. His motives are not banal reasons, like childhood abuse or junkie parents. It’s in his genes. He finds life is most beautiful on the threshold to death, and that is something that is much closer to the fallen angel than it is to a psychopath. He’s much more than a psychopath, and there is a fascination for us. We can’t understand it, but we want to understand it.”

Like Mikklesen’s Lecter, Hugh Dancy’s playing of reluctant profiler Will Graham is widely more interesting than the everyman hero Edward Norton played in Red Dragon.  Dancy’s Graham is so empathic to the killers he pursues that he can not separate himself from them.  This turns Dancy’s Graham into a hallucinating nigh manic-depressive with crippling social phobia.  This dynamic between Graham and Lecter is far more fascinating to watch than anything that has happened in the Lecterverse since the Starling-Lecter dynamic over 20 years ago.  Since Lecter in the series has no empathy at all, yet feigns it frequently, and is secretly committing murders while his comrade Graham is shot through with empathy to the point where he is psychologically disturbed by the violence inherent in his profession, a teasing cat-and-mouse game is created between the two of them that remains wonderful long after the first viewing.  This is probably why all the other incarnations have fallen so flat since silence.  Horror often fails because the characters suck.  We don’t really care if they live or die.  In fact we want them all to die. The sooner the better.  They were written to die.  Then we want the crew, the producers, the writer, and then whoever gave the project the greenlight to die too–on screen and awfully.  It was overlooked that Silence was secretly a character-driven movie with a ticking clock in modern gothic.  That’s why the lead actors won Oscars.  The most moving sequences in Silence centers around the dialog between the characters.  Demme’s characters talk straight into the camera, making it a film about people and the thoughts, feelings, and motives behind their eyes.  This is what Hannibal the TV show retrieves that everyone else lost along the moneyed way.  Characters you care about with a dash of surreal violence and a little genius-level dark psychological humor.  In Hannibal, you don’t want anyone to die.  Everyone is too enjoyable to be sacrificed, but you know that they must.

So without spoilers, the first season closed with the most satisfying moment in the long shaky history of the franchise probably since “I’m having an old friend for dinner” in 1991.  It was well worth the wait.  There is finally a genuine successor to Silence.  Hannibal is more than dark, moody, bloody (you will not be prepared for how bloody it is), and funny.  It’s good art.  Indeed it is the best thing since Silence.

This is definitely not for everyone, but for those who it is for, this is what you’ve been waiting for.  You early have no idea what you’re missing.  Goody-goody.

Hannibal airs this Friday at 10pm est.

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  • echar

    Hannibal and True Detective are currently the two best shows with a dark stain. IMO, without the artistic displays of murder, the later episodes would suffer. The frequent occurrence of violent psychopaths seems a bit too much. Good thing I am forgiving with these details. I attest, at least once this show gave me the willies after watching late into the night. Something that happens rarely. This is an achievement.

  • Juan

    Way back in the day, I used to subscribe to Pope Bob’s magazine, Trajectories.
    I remember, that he did an excellent review of the first “Silence of the lambs” movie.
    Here is the link.
    http://www.rawilsonfans.com/articles/Trajectories12.pdf

    Scroll down to page 15 of 22. It’s on a PDF file.
    The name of the piece is titled Fearful Symmetry: Reflections on the Silence of the Lambs.

  • kowalityjesus

    As I am sure you can postulate, the book was superb as well.

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