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It’s a pretty sure bet that if you name your kid Hannibal, he’ll grow up to be a serial killer. But what kind of serial killer exactly? That is the question that writer Thomas Harris strives to answer in his latest work of less-than-Grand Guignol horror, Hannibal Rising.
The Hannibal in question hails from the Lecter family, an upper-class clan of Lithuanian origin. We’ve met this Hannibal before, devised as a minor plot mechanism by Harris in Red Dragon and a major plot mechanism in The Silence of the Lambs. Lecter got his own complete storyline in Hannibal, which took place after Lambs. All of the books have been made into movies — Red Dragon twice (the first was as Manhunter), but Jonathan Demme’s Lambs remains the best of the bunch, what with its tidy pile of significant Oscar wins.
Pretty cannibal: Ulliel
Anthony Hopkins could have only played the role of Hannibal for so long before it turned completely satirical on him. So, to keep the character in the public eye, the only place Harris could go with his beloved, cannibalistic murderer is back in time, back to his origins.
Harris’s book, which I haven’t read (and have no plans to read), came out a month before the movie. The movie, which was also penned by Harris but directed by Peter Webber, is a lavishly-made albeit emotionally vapid experience. It’s simultaneously humdrum and mediocre.
Essentially, Hannibal Rising is a tale of revenge, as an 18-year-old Hannibal seeks out a band of scummy thugs who, during WWII, took refuge in the Lecter family’s hunting lodge. (Hannibal’s parents were already killed in a tragic accident involving a Russian tank, a Nazi biplane, and a pod of whales. Okay, I made up the part about the pod of whales.)
The thugs get hungry and, lacking food, decide that Hannibal and his plump little sister Mischa, would make a hearty stew. Mmm, mmm good! Mischa is the appetizer, with Hannibal reserved for the main course. But Hannibal escapes, haunted by the knowledge that his sister’s final resting place was inside someone’s large intestine.
Mischa’s murder reshapes Hannibal’s life. He escapes an orphanage and moves in with his aunt, Lady Murasaki, who was married to his father’s brother, now deceased. You can see where their relationship is headed from a mile away. And you can see can see where Hannibal Rising ultimately is headed from an inch away once the angry young man discovers the whereabouts of the villains. Hannibal’s methods are ingenious and terrifying (if not for the audience, then at least for the victims). Hannibal evolves gradually into a monster, but a cultured monster, one with a taste for human flesh, cheeks in particular.
Starring Gaspard Ulliel
If the movie were about an unknown character, it might have worked — at least we would have less invested, and there might be some suspense as to the character’s outcome. But it’s about Hannibal Lecter, so we know he emerges unharmed, we know he lives to later psychologically torment Jodie Foster about those screaming lambs. In exploring Hannibal’s origins, the film strips the character of all his mystery. And, as portrayed by French actor Gaspard Ulliel, who has an appealing, sharp-featured visage and a well-placed, highly expressive scar on his left cheek, Hannibal is little more than a grimacing shell, like a Halloween mask come to life. Ulliel has his sinister look down pat, but he lacks the complexity and sophistication of the great Hopkins. He’s like an acting baby clam, palatable (at least to gaze upon), but otherwise unformed.
So, gone is the nuance, the mystery, the fright factor, in its place a near-campy ”Dr. Phibes”-like obsession with revenge. Once Hannibal has finished off the last of the thugs? What then? Why does he keep killing? Who knows? Fact is, there are 20 years to go before we get to Lambs. So my guess is that Hannibal will be rising a few more times. He’s the new Jason.