Month of Horror 2017: Dealer’s Choice – Hannibal Lecter: Hannibal Rising

10/14/2017 – Hannibal Lecter: Hannibal Rising (2007)
Directed by Peter Webber

While Thomas Harris is also responsible for Black Sunday, a 1975 book made two years later into a film by John Frankenheimer, he will always be associated with one book series. In 1981, he published Red Dragon about FBI profiler Will Graham who comes out of early retirement to help track down a serial killer known as “The Tooth Fairy”. It was a supporting character though that would define him. A brilliant former psychiatrist and serial killer until he was captured by Will Graham and the man responsible for his retirement. Hannibal Lecter, often reduced in the popular mind to his fondness for the eating of human flesh, became one of the most fictional serial killers of all time and by the third of four books in the series, had become the focus of it.

In 1986, Michael Mann directed an adaptation of Red Dragon entitled Manhunter. Starring William Petersen as Graham, Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde (The Tooth Fairy), and Brian Cox as Lecter (sorry Lektor), and it was fine. A mediocre adaptation of the only book at the time that bombed at the box office and in most cases, this would be the end of the story. The film has gotten defenders over the years for some reason but frankly there is nothing to the supposed style of it, Cox is unimpressive, and it’s memorable only because of its place in history.

Two years after that failed film adaptation, Harris published a second novel in the series. Focusing on an FBI trainee, Clarice Starling, and her attempts to catch the serial killer “Buffalo Bill” at the behest of Jack Crawford, Silence of the Lambs would serve as the inspiration for one of my favorite movies of all time. The book and film once again cast Lecter as the imprisoned man who is sought after for his help in tracking down a serial killer and is once again a supporting role. The film version was helmed by Jonathan Demme who at the time was known for forgettable comedies and the Talking Heads film Stop Making Senseand thankfully chose to have 0 connection to the previous film. Released in 1991, it starred a post-The Accused and now established actor as an adult Jodie Foster as Starling, esteemed character actor Scott Glenn as Crawford, Ted Levine (later of Monk), and of course Anthony Hopkins as Lecter. It is one of only three horror films to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and the only one to win. It was also the third (after It Happened One NightOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and most recent film to win Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best (Adapted) Screenplay as well as the last Best Picture winner to deserve the honor. Hopkins is magnetic and in his comparably short screen time created one of the best and most famous movie monsters in all his sophistication, brilliance, keen sense of humor, and brutality.

After the huge critical and financial success of that film, it was only natural that it would become a series but it took a decade before the next film was released. Harris published the third book, Hannibal in 1999 and two years later the king of unpredictability (in quality and genre) Ridley Scott helmed an adaptation. Even with a script by David Mamet and Steven Zaillian and a cast including Julianne Moore (replacing Jodie Foster who wanted no part) and the always amazing Gary Oldman complete with Hans Zimmer score it still managed to suck. What Harris and others failed to realized is that Hannibal works best on the outskirts of a work. When he’s the main focus he loses a lot of his appeal and uniqueness.

Still, the film made a ton of money and so the following year another adaptation of Red Dragon followed. This time is focused more on Lecter and retained the book’s name and well it still managed to stink. While that is hardly shocking considering the quality of the last film and the fact that is was helmed by The Rat (Brett Ratner) is was a slight improvement in quality. It also had a stacked cast including Edward Norton as Graham, Ralph Fiennes as a far more memorable Dollarhyde, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Harvey Keitel replacing Scott Glenn as Jack Crawford with score by Danny Elfman. It made a lot of money again but lacking another book to adapt, the series thankfully died right there (or so it seemed). In 2006 though, Harris wrote a fourth book, this time a prequel, and a film adaptation sprung up from an eager Hollywood the next year. I’ll get into it below but the film was a disappointment at the box office and hated by just about everyone who’s seen it.

This left the series in limbo as it was clear both the critical and cultural success of The Silence of the Lambs had finally lost its ability to sell a film on Hannibal’s name alone. But Hannibal Lecter was too big a name to let die and in 2013 it was revived as a TV series on NBC. Considering the reputation of the franchise at the time and the fact that I still loved The Silence of the Lambs, I was not excited at all and watched merely out of a personal sense of duty. Even the fact that it was created by Bryan Fuller of one of my favorite shows (Pushing Daisies) and Wonderfalls did little to get me excited. When the fourth episode was delayed (and later released online) due to the Sandy Hook shooting, I took the opportunity to leave the series (since I don’t like watching things out of order and was probably looking for an excuse) and did not plan to ever go back.

But it turns out, the series became incredibly critically acclaimed and I can’t tell you exactly when I marathoned the first season (pretty sure it was before but might have been during the second season) but it managed to become the second-best adaptation of Harris’ works (and I’m sure many of you will be willing to argue it’s the best). The first season was slow to start and a bit too procedural but it kept improving as it continued, become more and more out there before NBC cancelled the show for the minor fact that it was watched by basically no one and had only survived as long as it had by being a Canadian co-production. Serving as a prequel (and later adaptation of Red Dragon), the film cast Hugh Dancy as the best Graham to date, Mads Mikkelsen as a different but just about equally great to Hopkins’ Hannibal, Laurence Fishburne as Crawford, as well as Caroline Dhavenas, Gillian Anderson, and Scott Thompson. It also had a killer supporting cast including Raúl Esparza, Kacey Rohl, Katharine Isabelle, Eddie Izzard, Gina Torres, Anna Chlumsky, and Michael Pitt (for once actually good at something). It was beautiful, unique, and far more graphic and at times unsettling (tries not to think too hard about the human color palette) than they should have been able to get away with on TV. Instead of relying on Lecter to carry the show, it leaned into the relationship between Lecter and Graham and how they brought out certain sides to the other and as the series went on, the increasing homoeroticism of the series SPOILERS (look no further than the Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls conclusion to the series that made a certain section of the Internet very happy). END OF SPOILERS

As I said before, Hannibal Rising is adaptation of Thomas Harris’ fourth Lecter book and it starts off with a premise that has no need to exist. Hannibal the series works as a prequel to Red Dragon because it expands upon a portion of the canon (the capture of Lecter by Graham and their relationship) which was already there, just not the primary focus of the book. What wasn’t needed was a look at how Hannibal grew up and there is NO reason we need to “get inside” Hannibal Lecter’s head. It’s just going to inevitably descend into some stupid Freudian shit and it sure does.

Hannibal is now the guy from A Very Long Engagement (Gaspard Ulliel) albeit not right away since apparently, we learned nothing from A Phantom Menace. The film opens on the Nazis bombing and eight-year-old Hannibal and his family as they are forced to flee. Later his parents are killed by an explosion as the Soviets invade leaving him to take care of his sister and hole up with a bunch of others. Only then they are menaced by Lithuanian collaborators who are unable to find food and… well guess how Hannibal got the idea of eating people? They kill and eat a number of them SPOILERS including his sister (and Hannibal ate her too apparently which either he blocked out or was really stupid not to know where that meat came from but the movie doesn’t say). END OF SPOILERS

The film jumps ahead again to a teenage Hannibal living in an orphanage inside his family’s castle. Why they felt his family had to grow up in a castle is never explained, nor is it anything more than tangentially related to the story. It’s just a strange bit of detail. It’s there that he gets called out for hurting bullies, and not because hurting people is bad, but apparently you aren’t supposed to hurt bullies which, what the fuck? If someone is always hurting bullies, how are they truly the lower rank in the social hierarchy or whatever nonsense this film is trying to claim? It’s like the film is trying desperately to give every Hannibal trait a backstory and when he runs away right after, it had me feeling like the film was more of a glorified Wikipedia page as it rushes from plot point to plot point with nothing else on that skeleton.

He goes and lives with his aunt the Lady Murasaki (who of course lost everyone in Hiroshima because that is the only historical point I guess Harris has) in Paris who trains him to fight since that is always what Asian people do for white people in movies, especially apparently obnoxious teens with stupid hair. He claims his first when he murders a butcher for being a dick, getting away with it by a combination of being a sociopath and the lucky intervention of his aunt which gives us an introduction to Javert McNulty with a silly accent as a detective who is far less of a dick this time around. He also learns cooking manners and procedures because we need to see him learn every single thing he does later on or our fragile brains would be forced to imagine some of it.

After he becomes the youngest medical student ever in France, he comes across a flashback drug SPOILERS (which lets him identify his sister’s killers thanks to convenient generic flashback vision) and he decide to get his revenge. END OF SPOILERS So now the film becomes a revenge film and pseudo-slasher as he traces down and kills all the people involved with at least two involved in the sex trade because they really want to make Lecter the hero. Considering it has finally slowed down like an hour in, it’s clear this is the focus of the film but it takes so long to get there that it is almost like an it was just a really long prologue.

Even just judging this part as a separate film though, it just doesn’t stack up. The kills are tiresome and tedious as he goes through the same basic beats each time. McNulty occasionally pops in as the sort of dogged pursuer but I’ve never seen Dominic West less enthusiastic or intense. The relationship that develops with his (non-biological) aunt grows sort of romantic as she helps him (not that she seems like she does much actual work towards this) but they have all the chemistry of two noble gases and that is before SPOILERS Hannibal just becomes completely emotionally cold and ruins the whole thing (despite the fact that she had seen him long before basically worshiping a murdered and severed head). END OF SPOILERS It’s just all so tired and predictable with a cast full of unlikable characters and a listless McNulty.

Basically, they just tried to make Batman Begins if Bruce wanted to sleep with a figure who is an amalgamation of Alfred, Ra’s, and Rachel and who ate people. He’s even got the same stupid floppy hair when he’s training and I really can’t understate how stupid it looks especially combined with that stupid, smug smile that is oh so punchable. When he slicks his hair back in that signature Lecter style, he just winds up looking like a member of the SS which is unfortunate considering the circumstances of his youth. Poor Gong Li gets a shit script to work with but I’d hardly call her performance as rising above the role. Rhys Ifans plays his role as a bargain rate Peter Stormare who the film never tries for more than the lowest hanging evil fruit. McNulty is Detective Gordon and the attempts to try to humanize him and compare their backstories but it just feels forced. SPOILERS Lecter fakes his death and then changes his name, whoops forgot to do that because then we couldn’t have spent the whole movie saying the name everyone knows even if it makes the plot look even dumber. END OF SPOILERS

I can’t speak for how much of this is to blame on the poorly regarded book and how much is to blame on studio decisions since both feel reflective of the trend of the series at the time as it moves towards more and more Hannibal and tries to explain him more and more. It didn’t work with Michael Myers when Rob Zombie tried it, it doesn’t work period. Hannibal Rising is bad but not in a fun way. It is the way that is simultaneously tedious and anger inducing. I can give the film one positive, this is the kind of bad that is so easy to write for.

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Bonus Episode #9 – United Kingdom: The Snake Woman (1961)
Directed by Sidney J. Furie

The designations for these bonus films are admittedly arbitrary but there’s a reason I picked the UK over any other designation. For one, it feels like a black and white Hammer knock off which considering its release in 1961, it probably was. It’s got the same rural English setting complete with mystical gobbledygook and a simple on the surface premise. There’s admittedly not much to the film, but at just over an hour, I’m all for that.

Set in Northumberland, a pregnant woman is injected with snake venom by her husband to cure her mind and to prove his theories. Unsurprisingly for a ill pregnant woman injected with snake venom the mom nearly dies in childbirth SPOILERS (before dying when she casts eye on her child) END OF SPOILERS while the kid is born cold, cold-blooded that is (the film really doesn’t seem to understand how being cold blooded works) and unable to close her eyes. The midwife starts speaking some nonsense about the child being evil and tries to kill the baby. When she fails, she gets a mob going but sadly they can only afford one torch which is enough SPOILERS to burn down her house and kill her father (who honestly believes millions of serpent children are born alive) inside, the doctor escaping with her and giving her to someone else nearby to raise up. END OF SPOILERS The way everyone responded to that call to arms just made me think that she could have said anything and they would have got a mob going and didn’t really care that she sounded ridiculous or looked like a crank.

Flash forward to years later and a snake mysteriously kills a man in town. Turns out that has been happening for years which sadly the film does not take in a natural horror direction, more supernatural. A boy is also killed in the middle of the street by a different snake than the last one which I don’t really believe is something you should be able to be tell the exact species from just looking at the bites. An inspector is sent out and he stumbles upon a mysterious woman SPOILERS (well mysterious if you haven’t ever seen a film of this type or read the title) END OF SPOILERS who is seemingly able to appear and disappear at will and is eager to defend the right of snakes to exist. I can’t really blame her for defending blameless wildlife (okay maybe wildlife suspected in countless murders but it was just chilling) but the film is not even trying to go for subtle here. He also gets to meet up with the midwife from before as she reveals herself to be psychic and the only one who knows how to defeat the woman.

SPOILERS Turns out that the awful, hateful, superstitious, backwards woman and any viewer with half a brain is right, the woman who responds to snake charmer music, seems to be able to control the snakes, and is so defensive of them is behind the killings. Also, she is able to shed her skin in human form which is weird as hell. She can magically (don’t even pretend this is about science movie, it’s fucking magic) turn into a form of a snake, a form she is killed in when she is shot three times with a revolver imbued with some mystical garbage. Honestly though, she was just a snake, one shot should have done it and hitting all three shots on a moderately distant snake as it is standing up is impressive as hell. The only thing I can say I appreciate about the movie is the contempt the detective has for the supernatural even as he is shooting to death a shape-shifting woman. END OF SPOILERS

Generic, bad 60s horror. Nothing to see here and yet not really a waste of time to nutters like me

Next up: Because I can’t let myself have nice things and want an easy to talk about subject, it’s time to look at the deservedly maligned Platinum Dunes and one of their remakes, The Amityville Horror.

2017 Partial Schedule