Both repugnant and boring, the grisly, disgusting new Hannibal Lecter thriller is likely the worst film of this year -- and quite possibly the next. Where to dig in first?

Published February 9, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

It's hard to argue with the readers who find the novelist Thomas Harris' necro-thrillers so compelling. Pick up his 1988 "The Silence of the Lambs" or even the mostly atrocious "Hannibal" (1999) and you'll find a shrewd hack's talent for keeping you turning the pages. But for all their readability his books are no fun. You'd think that any writer who invents a character like Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant and erudite psychiatrist who also happens to be a mass-murdering cannibal, would be willing to admit that he's out to administer cheesy, ghoulish shocks.

But Harris considers himself above the wit and low cunning necessary for that sort of thing. Instead, Harris uses the prevailing morbidity of his books to signal that deep things are going on underneath the sordid plot. He's like a man trying to dream up a splatter movie in a fugue state. Harris conceives the grisliest imaginable scenes (an escape sequence where Hannibal Lecter rips off a policeman's face and then uses it to disguise himself as the dead man; Lecter taking off the top of a man's skull and frying up the fellow's brains while he's still conscious) and then presents them as if they were serious examinations of the nature of evil. The effect is both invasive and distanced -- as if you were being smeared with viscera by someone wearing surgical gloves.

But damned if there aren't plenty of readers and critics -- smart people who ought to know better -- who buy into Harris' seriousness. Maybe it's easier to think that Harris is plumbing our collective dark sides, or some such twaddle, than to admit to being drawn in by his po-faced Grand Guignol. Or maybe the cultural allusions that accompany the atrocities in his books, references to Dante and Glenn Gould's recording of "The Goldberg Variations" (a favorite of Lecter's -- nobody's all bad) seem like evidence that Harris is a man of refinement instead of a sideshow barker.

Through Harris' novels (including "Red Dragon," the first in which Lecter appears) and through Anthony Hopkins' performance in the film of "Silence of the Lambs," Hannibal Lecter has become the most famous monster in contemporary pop culture. In Ridley Scott's new film of Harris' "Hannibal," to which it is mostly faithful, Lecter has moved from the sidelines to center stage. (Hopkins was only in "The Silence of the Lambs" for 30 minutes; he won a best actor Academy Award for the performance.) The delight that "Silence of the Lambs" audiences showed for Lecter is no longer a naughty little pleasure but the new film's raison d'être.

Scott's "Hannibal" is the apotheosis of serial-killer chic, the prestige movie version of a Manson T-shirt. No longer a villain, Lecter is now the hero, the superior being given the power of judgment over all the other characters -- the serial killer as arbiter of taste. Even as guardian angel. On NBC's "Today" show recently Sir Tony claimed that Lecter only kills the people who are out to harm Clarice. That's wrong, but it's true that Scott and his screenwriters David Mamet (who worked only on the first draft) and Steven Zaillian have arranged the movie so that we see Lecter's victims exactly as he does. Putting audiences on the side of the villain by making the victims repulsive is a trick that Kubrick employed in "A Clockwork Orange." And here, no one whom Lecter kills is shown the slightest glint of sympathy. His victims are all thieves or killers or pedophiles, or cops so motivated by greed that they're presented as indistinguishable from the bad guys.

There is still one exemplar of morality unclouded by corruption: Clarice Starling, the novice FBI agent who so fascinated Lecter in "Silence" (and played here by Julianne Moore taking over from Jodie Foster). But now, 10 years into her job with the bureau, she's no longer its pride but a thorn in the way of moral expediency. Trying to do good in this world, as Clarice does, only makes you a dupe for the sleazy and powerful. So why bother? Lecter, says Clarice, eats people "to show his contempt for those who exasperate him." In "Hannibal," Lecter is lucky enough to find a director who, like him, looks at humanity and sees a banquet of corruption. Goody, goody. Where to dig in first?

When "Hannibal" opens, Lecter, who escaped at the end of "Silence," has resurfaced in Florence where he is posing as a renowned classical scholar, in line for an important job as head of a library whose previous top man has disappeared. The main threat to Lecter's new identity is an Italian police detective, Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), determined to collect a reward for Lecter's capture. That money is being offered by deformed rich weirdo Mason Verger (an uncredited Gary Oldman, still managing to overact under layers of repugnant latex that make him look like a cross between the monkey in the Domino's Pizza ad and a rotten potato). As the sole survivor of one of Lecter's attacks, Verger is now attempting to track down the cannibal in order to exact his revenge. When he gets Lecter, he plans to keep him alive while slowly feeding him to man-eating boars. Meanwhile, back in the States, Clarice, who has been relieved of field duty pending a review of her part in a drug bust gone horribly wrong, begins to suspect Verger's plans for Lecter.

Ludicrous as the novel's developments were, Harris at least laid the narrative groundwork for each. Scott and the screenwriters ignore it. I'm damned if I can tell how Starling figures out that Krendler (Ray Liotta), the Justice Department agent out to break her, is in cahoots with Verger. Or why certified evil genius Lecter, who's been given something like a sixth sense when it comes to divining the presence of his enemies, walks right into Verger's trap. It's even stranger watching Lecter sipping wine at an outdoor cafe in Florence, carefully wiping off the goblet so as not to leave identifying fingerprints. Apparently, a serial killer whose gob has been plastered all over newspapers and television and the Internet has nothing to fear from becoming a prominent resident of a major European city, vying for a job that will make him known in international academic circles.

"Hannibal," which is very likely the worst film of this year and quite possibly the next, achieves what no movie I can recall ever even attempting: It somehow manages to be both repugnant and boring. The film doesn't hold together as either storytelling or mood piece. But the nonsensical plot, the nonexistent pacing, the utter lack of suspense, the swanky, ladled-on atmosphere of John Mathieson's cinematography (going for sensuous old-world rot and conjuring up about as much romantic ambience as the side panel of a cereal box), the waste of Julianne Moore (whose role consists largely of furrowing her brow while she gazes at crime scene photos), the low-grade camp of Anthony Hopkins' performance passing for wit -- all these things fade away to insignificance next to the genuine ugliness of the movie's violence.

What the movie shows us is disgusting enough: man-eating boars, having been lured by the tape recording of a man's dying screams, tearing the face off a rotting corpse; a pile of bloody entrails going splat on the pavement; a dog gobbling down chunks of his owner's mutilated face; a man conscious as the top of his skull is removed to expose his brain. But as Dan Seymour says to Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not," it's the tone that's objectionable.

Most of us have probably laughed at things just as disgusting in the horror comedies of Stuart Gordon or the early Sam Raimi. But if you're staging scenes at the pitch of grotesquerie in "Hannibal" and they aren't out of Shakespeare or Greek tragedy, then you damn well better have some zip, some sense of play, and Scott hasn't a whiff. You dread each atrocity not because it's going to be gross (it will be), but because it will be heavy-spirited, lingered on (especially the aftermath -- we don't see Lecter putting the knife in a young man's groin, we just see the stream of blood spurting out of his jeans afterwards and hear the gurgling of blood on the soundtrack). As Jonathan Demme did in "Silence of the Lambs," Scott is making a schlock horror movie as if it were serious drama.

But where Demme's movie was, in spots, marked by a misplaced application of the director's trademark empathy (especially in trying to individualize the killer's female victims -- a big mistake; in violent thrillers, treating victims anonymously, not lingering on their ordeal, is sometimes the most humane thing you can do for both the character and the audience), Scott, not a director who has ever been bothered much by human concerns, is willing to share Lecter's contempt for just about everything. He resorts to the crude device of marking Liotta's Krendler as worthy of a place on Hannibal's menu by having him say he always "figured" Lecter for a "queer," or call Clarice a "cornpone country pussy." He's stupid enough to think he can outwit Lecter and thus, in the movie's view, entirely deserving of his fate.

We're meant to feel the same way about Giannini's Pazzi. But it backfires on Scott because Giannini gives the best performance -- the only performance -- in the movie. Watching him is a little like watching some weird version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." His baggy eyes and perpetual stubble and agitated manner mark him as the human being in a world of pods playing trick or treat.

For a character who has assumed the place of uber-boogeyman in the pop imagination, Hannibal Lecter has almost no resonance. The bastard offspring of the old EC horror comics and George Sanders' bitch refinement, Lecter can serve up a big "Boo," but that's about it. The murderous characters that unnerve us the most are the ones we can feel close to, the ones who make us feel protective of them, make us realize what human traits we share with them. No one has ever captured those qualities better than Anthony Perkins playing Norman Bates in "Psycho." And though he's a very different character, the middle-aged businessman in Donald E. Westlake's devastating novel "The Ax" who, after he's laid off, resorts to killing the competitors for the job he desperately needs, makes us feel the horror of seeing murder as necessity (talk about a thriller that really represents our contemporary dark side; nothing Harris has written can touch "The Ax").

Hannibal Lecter doesn't need our solicitousness or our empathy. He's not even all that good a boogeyman. Hopkins is saddled with the weight of the half-baked conceits Thomas has placed in the character. For all the forced, malevolent high-spiritedness of his performance, you can't cut loose and be evil when you have to symbolize our shared darkness. And who buys that anyway? Who really sees a reflection of their sins or failings or whatever in a cannibal?

Nothing Hopkins does in either movie makes me break out in the nasty little giggle I do when remembering Boris Karloff in "The Mask of Fu Manchu" pouring salt into the mouth of a man dying of thirst and then apologizing -- as if he made a mistake. And nothing Hopkins does is as believable or as creepily genuine as the first movie Lecter, Brian Cox in "Manhunter," Michael Mann's film of "Red Dragon" (the one movie made from Lecter books that, humorless as it is, doesn't act as if it's dealing with anything more profound than a serial-killer thriller).

But if Hannibal fails as boogeyman, he does no better standing in for society's collective evil. In this age of serial-killer redux, where are the Hannibal Lecters? Hasn't anybody noticed that real-life monsters like Ed Gein, John Wayne Gacy -- who John Waters once called "the worst-dressed serial killer" -- Ted Bundy, John List and Jeffrey Dahmer all tend to be bland and blobby and inarticulate?

There's nothing new about movies and crime stories that take pleasure in bad guys. But the master criminals of old serials and movies, characters we rooted for even though we knew they were "bad," have been replaced, in Harris' wildly popular books, and in the fascination with real-life monsters, by the master serial killer. And there's considerable difference in taking pleasure in a thief like Raffles, or even a good-guy sadist like James Bond, and delighting in Lecter's mutilations and killings and devourings.

In his recent book "The Blood Poets" the critic Jake Horsley caught the craving that Lecter satisfies in contemporary audiences. Horsley called it the cravings of a movie audience "so utterly, cynically bored and disgusted with their lives (and with society as a whole) that they can take a perverse, almost suicidal pleasure in seeing it all come apart before them. A depraved maniac wandering free as a bird, enacting his sick revenge upon a society which he holds only in the utmost contempt, as beneath him, this idea meets with the approval, if not plain delight, of the modern audience ... The audience acquiesces with this point of view ... it is all too willing to turn society over to the maniac ... it's a logic fit for the slaughterhouse."

"Hannibal" is the essence of that logic of the slaughterhouse. Better than any movie, it can stand for the debasement of pop entertainment. That's not because it's violent or because it's a horror film: From the original "Scarface" and "Frankenstein" to "The Matrix," some of the best popular movies have always and will always be violent entertainments. "Hannibal" instead represents what happens when mainstream Hollywood studios -- two in this case, MGM and Universal -- adopt the tactics of the exploitation films they once shunned, and do so with all the money and gloss at their disposal.

Remember Nixon saying, "If the president does it, that means it is not against the law"? Well, Scott appears to think that if he shows us man-eating boars and spilling guts and cannibal gourmet dinners, and if he does it with studio production values, and if his source is a writer who has won not inconsiderable acclaim, then the result is not a crummy horror movie. Scott will undoubtedly get by with this farrago; audiences will almost certainly make it a hit, and that's almost enough to make you accept his and Thomas Harris' crummy view of humanity. The two of them are like the story's wild boar trainers: They've turned their potential audience into murderous swine. They're convinced that if they lure us in with human screams, we'll come a runnin', happy to gobble up whatever they've placed in front of us, to foul ourselves rooting around in the guts and the shit.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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