When I taught at Ted Bundy’s alma mater, one student wrote this report: “He was our babysitter. He was not a very nice babysitter. He would play games and scare us and then say they were just games.”
That’s the kind of creepy mental peekaboo that made Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (whose saga is partly inspired by Bundy, who was convicted by teeth marks) immortal. But Ridley Scott’s movie of the Thomas Harris novel Hannibal is not scary. It’s just a game.
Twice, Hannibal’s tale has risen to pulp tragedy on camera, in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986, reissued on a director’s-cut DVD) and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Demme made Hannibal a permanent pop phenom: dark father, demon lover, mind-reading puppetmaster, ruthless icon of will, intellect and appetite–he’s a man for our time. Scott’s Hannibal repeats pop-culture history as stylish farce. Not that the creator of Alien and Blade Runner has lost his voluptuous touch. There is much to admire in Hannibal, including the penultimate scene that reportedly made Demme, screenwriter Ted Tally and Jodie Foster (who played Hannibal’s nemesis, FBI sleuth Clarice Starling, in The Silence of the Lambs) flee shrieking from the sequel project. (Spoiler alert: I’ll describe this scene below.) Yet Scott’s Hannibal is a diminished thing.
You can get at the heart of these films by comparing their snuff scenes. Manhunter boasts the most haunting opening scene: a killer’s-eye view as he (the superb Tom Noonan, star of Buried Child on Broadway) ascends a stairway to a bedroom and shines a camcorder light on a woman’s face until she awakens and sees her fate. Later, we see her as the madman himself does–with eerie lights in place of her eyes and mouth, as if she’s lit from within by lust and magnesium. That’s it–no gore, only horror. Horror is what you think, not what you see.
Demme’s immensely humane, deeply moral, emotionally acute The Silence of the Lambs employs a like discretion. When Hannibal (Anthony Hopkins) cuffs and clubs his cop captor, we don’t see the biting and bludgeoning directly; we see the cop’s face as he grasps what’s about to happen, and we see Hannibal’s face, spattered with blood and then blissed out on exquisite music. Later, we see a tableau of the crucified cop with angelic wings made from red, white and blue bunting (Demme associates violence with extremist Americanism). It’s the idea that’s horrific, not really the tastefully distanced atrocity itself.