Retro Review: Hannibal Lecter Series

Insert your own slurping noise.

Retro Review:  The Hannibal Lecter Series

This is the big week, Turkey Day, where we celebrate our fortune in food-stuffs by preparing exquisite meals for each other and then absent-mindedly grazing our way to a coma while watching football.  By the way, NFL, thanks for the third game this year, I was afraid I might actually have to engage in conversation.  Problem solved!

Hannibal Lecter series retro review
I said pass the goddamn sweet potatoes!
Hannibal Lecter series retro review
It’s like Hollywood Squares…if they all wanted to eat you.

Only one series of Cannibal movies can possibly match the importance of Thanksgiving and properly reflect the bounteous blessings of the season:  The Hannibal Lecter series based on the novels of Thomas Harris.  The monstrous, yet refined cannibalistic Dr. Lecter has captured audience imaginations, quickly asserting himself as one of the best known and worst feared psychopaths in cinematic history.  Though made iconic by master actor  Anthony Hopkins, many actors have polished their teeth a sharp and pearly white and taken the mad doctor out for a spin, most recently the chilling Mads Mikkelsen on television.

The movies and series based on Harris’ work are both legendary and legendarily bad.  When setting the table with Hannibal, you have to prepare for an occasional turkey mixed in with the foie gras and caviar.  Let’s see which of these efforts shine like a fine claret, and which just lay flat on the palate.


Manhunter (1986)


Hannibal Lecter series Manhunter retro review
Looks like an old Nintendo cartridge…

The first adaptation of Harris’ work, Manhunter is an odd introduction to the Lecter character for many reasons.  The title of the film was changed from Red Dragon (the title of the novel Harris wrote) to Manhunter to avoid associations with previous box office flops and kung-fu movies.  The name of Hannibal Lecter is changed to Lektor, and the movie almost takes pains to lightly use Brian Cox as Lektor.  If you’re first introduction to Hannibal the Cannibal was Silence of the Lambs, you’ll be downright confused by under-use of such a chilling and pivotal character.  While the choice was intentional (to keep the film focused on the forensics and investigation tactics) it is a bit odd given how much of a cultural touchstone Lecter has become.

The story follows former federal investigator Will Graham, who has retired from profiling serial killers after confronting and capturing Hannibal Lektor, a psychologist and cannibal who had been murdering young women at the campus on which he taught.  Nearly killed by Lektor, Graham fears getting too close -physically and emotionally- to such dangerous minds.  His ability to put himself in the mind of the killer makes his own sanity questionable, but it is this power that has him called back into service to catch the Tooth Fairy, a diabolical killer who is creating gruesome tableau crime scenes at every full moon.

The movie well captures the adversarial relationship between Graham and Lektor, whom Graham approaches in order to better understand the mindset of the new killer.  In retrospect, more interaction between the two may have helped bolster the mediocre success this movie had at the box office, as it surely did for Silence of the Lambs.  Brian Cox is deft as Lektor, but is not given very much time in front of the camera.  Will Petersen was so good as Graham that he almost single-handedly launched the forensic genre of television drama (which he later starred in himself…as a crime scene investigator…check the initials, OK?)

Hannibal Lecter series Manhunter retro review
No, no, the mask is totally covering your identity. Good job, really.

Michael Mann uses both color and sound to interesting effect in this film, staining the shots in deep blues, cool greens, and police-light reds as the moods shift from scene to scene.  It can become a touch heavy handed, but is visually interesting, and fits the driving electronic musical score quite well.  A little bit of avant-garde goes a long way in a movie about a serial killer with biting issues.

Overall, recommended for fans of the crime scene and profiler procedural but lacking the body and character of the finest Lecter vintages.

Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Hannibal Lecter series silence of the lambs movie review
Why is the moth there? Did she swallow a wool sweater?

The movie that made Hannibal a ficture in pop culture nightmares, Silence of the Lambs is quite nearly the perfect horror/thriller.  It swept the Oscars for stars Jodie Foster, who plays agent Clarice Starling, and Anthony Hopkins as the malevolent Lecter, as well as best picture and adaptation.  Iconic scenes abound, and its legacy in the genre will likely continue to influence films for generations.  Not since Victor Frankenstein has one mad doctor so ably captured the zeitgeist of a generation, replacing surgeons who slash with psychologist who whisper.  Truly a masterpiece.

The story of Silence of the lambs is quite similar to Red Dragon, where a daring FBI agent must engage in a deadly game of mental chess with Lecter to understand and apprehend a new serial killer, Buffalo Bill, who is abducting and skinning young women.  Pro-tip, don’t be a young woman in a Harris novel, you’re going to be in for a bad time of it.

The twist here is that the agent is not an immediate rival to Lecter, as Graham was shown to be a formidable opponent in his own right, but a fledgling agent Clarice Starling, who must turn her raw talent from the academy into real world experience quickly.   Lecter attempts to play a cat and mouse game with the agent, but Jodie Foster quickly turns the tables on him and proves herself equal to the task.  The growing admiration of Lecter for Starling becomes a lynchpin of both the film and the future of the series.

Visually, Silence of the Lambs fires on all cylinders.  Lush and decadent in places, fetid and tawdry in others, it manipulates the mood and accomplishes tremendous amount of characterization without having to bog down into dialogue.  Several sequences, such as the final confrontation with Buffalo Bill, are so stylistic and tight, they are practically required viewing for cinematography students.

Hannibal Lecter series silence of the lambs buffalo bill retro review
Yeah, that’s the one I was talking about…

If you’ve never seen an adaptation of Harris’ work, Silence of the Lambs is the one to see.  Even if you opt to never make a follow up appointment with the good doctor, you will be treated to one of the best American thrillers ever shot.

This film is a fine wine, best enjoyed with fava beans and the liver of a hapless census taker.

Hannibal Lecter series Anthony hopkins retro review
Insert your own slurping noise.

Hannibal (2001)

Hannibal Lecter series - Hannibal - Anthony Hopkins - retro review
Hello again.

Hannibal is the film where the unmistakable odor of rot began to set into the series.  While there is certainly some palatable items to be had, such as the return of Hopkins as Dr. Lecter, most of the fare is a little off.  Jodie Foster is sorely missed as Clarice Starling, here played by Julianne Moore, and the antagonist of the series is no longer a serial killer but a former victim of Lecter‘s (played by Gary Oldman in some of the most terrifying film make-up since The Phantom of the Opera) who is plotting a ridiculously baroque plan of revenge for Hannibal.  More than anything, it is the plot that undoes the film, as the quality cast must flounder through a revenge plan that feels more akin to a vintage episode of Batman than a well paced thriller.

Hannibal Lecter series - Hannibal - Anthony Hopkins- retro review
Sorry, you weren’t eating were you?

The byzantine twists and turns of the script make Lecter into a super villain, luring pursuer after pursuer into traps and ambushes time and time again.  It gets a bit dull, actually.  Gone is the cerebral back-and-forth between equally intelligent adversaries working at cross purposes, and while Starling does get to show some of her old skill as a forensic investigator, it all comes around to Lecter leading everyone on by the nose.  Perhaps Michael Mann was correct to downplay Lecter‘s presence in Manhunter, as placing him at the center of the plot changes the flavor of the film markedly.

Hannibal Lecter series - Hannibal - Anthony Hopkins - retro review
Just a little off the top, please.

Visually, Lecter is placed into some truly beautiful settings, allowing the genteel Hopkins to shine in his oddly characteristic manner- stately elegance that barely hides a snarling rage.  Even as Odin in Marvel’s Thor series, you get the same feel of a powerful anger boiling just under the surface at all moments, sudden as a summer storm breaking over calm seas.  A few scenes attempt to shock the audience, but mostly fall flat.  The final scene where Lecter unsubtly picks Ray Liotta’s brain is nearly comical.  Not a strong final note for our beloved cannibal.

Overusing Lecter, this film is like a drunken reveler, chugging an expensive champagne like a discount bottle of Andre Spumante.

Red Dragon (2002)

Hannibal Lecter series - Red Dragon - Anthony Hopkins - retro review
What chance does Norton have against a gigantic, floating Anthony Hopkins head?

Hollywood went back to the well quickly in order to save the Lecter legacy, choosing to remake Manhunter in a manner more fitting with the “Lecter Trilogy”.  Anthony Hopkins again stars as Lecter, this time working against Edward Norton as Will Graham, as he attempts to stop a serial killer dubbed the Tooth Fairy, played with real menace by Ralph Fiennes.

The film returns to form, matching the guilt stricken genius of Graham against the cool and devious mind of Lecter.  The film features more of Hopkin’s Lecter than Manhunter did of Cox’s, adding both an opening and closing sequence featuring Hannibal, but hews much more closely to the Harris novel, written before Lecter was a household name that demanded all of the attention of the audience.  It’s a tactic that pays dividends, as Fienne’s monstrous killer is a tremendously physical creature, and keeping Lecter as a whispering, mental boogeyman counterpoints the two killers deftly.

Red Dragon is not a revelation in terms of the series, but does discover what formula works best for the series.  The acting is top notch, and the thrills are genuine and subtle.  Nobody has the top of their head removed in this film, at least. If only Hollywood had committed the lesson to heart…

Like a dessert wine, Red Dragon refreshes that palate after one too many heavy dishes, though lacking the heft of a more orignal offering.

Hannibal Rising (2006)

This movie is cinematic equivalent of grape juice, served to children who are unable to appreciate anything finer.  Attempting to cash in on the cult of Lecter, Hollywood sticks it’s neck back into the same noose it had narrowly avoided choking on with Hannibal.  A complicated and asinine back story is provided for the genesis of Hannibal Lecter, which attempts to have it both ways:  a treacly origin story where Lecter is forced to eat his own sister means to humanize and explain away the monster that Lecter becomes, while an arc of Lecter as a young adult hopes to cash in on Hannibal as a nearly super human and diabolical creature.  If sinister grins at the camera where worth five dollars at the box office, this movie would have been the top grossing film of all time.

Hannibal Lecter series - Red Dragon - Anthony Hopkins - retro review
Hard to fear him when you just want to slap his grinning face all movie.

Avoid this film on principle, as it has nothing to offer either fans of serial killer thrillers or Hannibal Lecter aficionados.  If this was the final meal for the depraved doctor, it would be a sorry and scanty meal, indeed.  Luckily, audience need not dine alone thanks to television…

Hannibal (Television, 2013-ongoing)

Hannibal Lecter series - Hannibal - Tv Series- retro review
Always was a fussy eater…

One can argue that all Hannibal has left is going back to the well for yet a third helping, as the television series is ostensibly set leading up to the events of Red Dragon.  Will Graham is back for another bite, as is Hannibal Lecter (now played with a delicious aloofness by Mads Mikkelsen) but the charm of Hannibal is the re-imagining of the now lengendary struggle between these two minds.  Much like Clarice Starling, Graham is an unsure and unproven, yet talented investigator, carrying his own burdens, but free from the scars of his first encounter with true evil.  The series begins before the Tooth Fairy has begun killing and fleshes in the details of events alluded to in the novel, as well as changing the nature of the characters.  Both fresh and familiar, Hannibal may yet pull off the feat of putting new wine into old wine skins.  The vintage is not yet proven, but the crop certainly looks lush and promising.

Hannibal Lecter series - Hannibal - Tv Series
Bon Appetit
About Neil Worcester 1353 Articles
Neil Worcester is currently a freelance writer and editor based in the Portland, Maine area. He has developed a variety of content for blogs and businesses, and his current focus is on media and food blogging. Follow him on Facebook and Google+!

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