Over the last 30 years or so in popularized fiction the serial killer genre and its tropes have been tossed about in every conceivable manner. From Freddy Krueger who kills teens in their dreams to mindless monsters like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, the genre had become cartoonish and pastiche. Even more creative killers like the recent Jigsaw from the Sawmovie franchise were left lacking for originality and depth. Then came, Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter. Hannibal Lecter is the creation of author Thomas Harris, who first wrote about him in the 1981 novel, Red Dragon. Beyond the printed page it is Anthony Hopkins portrayal of Hannibal Lecter that has elevated this character to the apex of modern movie monsters. Hopkins purposely down played his introduction of Lecter on the movie screen by standing perfectly erect and still, speaking in a calm kind voice. What is monstrous about him is not what is seen but what is held back. He is groomed and organized and completely in control of himself. Hopkins then delivers the now famous quote, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some Fava beans and a nice Chianti “, he then makes rapid sucking sounds behind his closed teeth. Hannibal Lecter is smart, real smart, and this portrayal of him by Anthony Hopkins has a definite verve, a feeling of controlled insanity. He epitomizes intelligence with a true artists mind coupled with a blue blood distinctive air to him. This portrayal of Hannibal Lecter helped to shape and redefine the genre of horror and what a movie monster could be.
Hannibal Lector’s first appearance on film was in the little known 1986 thriller Manhunter,which was the retitled adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel, Red Dragon. Played by highly underrated actor, Brian Cox, the Hannibal Lecter character stood out but not to the degree he would in his next big screen outing. Re-casted by director Jonathon Demme for the sequel, The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins would catapult the character of Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter into a shared cultural icon. Roger Ebert wrote, “His approach to Lecter’s personality (Hopkins says on his commentary track) was inspired by HAL 9000 in “2001”: He is a dispassionate, brilliant machine, superb at logic, deficient in emotions” (Silence).
Hannibal is extremely cultured not some social misanthrope. This is the major difference between Hannibal and other popularized monsters created in the thriller and horror genres. He is brilliant and meticulous, classy with an air of affluence with a demeanor overflowing with taste and culture. Anthony Hopkins conveys all these traits playing Lecter while behind the bars of a prison cell. You would never know he was insane until it is time to break out of said prison. Sitting in a jail cell we see Hannibal’s artistic nature. Beautiful charcoal renderings of classic architecture and another of Clarice Starling draped in long clothe holding a baby lamb on her lap adorn his transitory cell. Awaiting transfer back to the asylum he so loathes Lecter masterfully tricks the federal marshals and kills them to garner his escape. Hopkins face is devoid of emotion even while he eats a man’s tongue out of his mouth and bashes another’s skull in with his own billy club. Blood is splattered all about Hannibal’s mouth and cheeks, a horrid scene of gore played to perfect elegance. When the transfer authorities come to gather Lecter they find one of the marshals posed up in the air along the walls of the jail cell like an angel. The mans back has been flayed so his skin is pulled up over his shoulders, they look like wings, his arms are risen in the shape of a V. Hannibal has created a terrible beautiful work of art. Audiences who recall scenes such as this realize Hannibal has a unique signature to his organized chaos and mayhem. He is the renaissance version of a serial killer. Making something beautiful out of his murder is his true calling card. Let’s be honest, if there was a real-life serial killer like Hannibal Lecter out in the world today, his grisly artistic deeds would get more press than President Trump turning the Bunny Ranch into the new Camp David.
“Real-life serial killers are transformed into larger-than-life celebrity monsters through the combined efforts of law enforcement authorities, and the news and entertainment media, that feed the public’s appetite for the macabre” (Bonn) 2017. Depictions of real serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and fictional ones like Hannibal Lecter have become blurred and synonymous with one another in the public’s mind, (Bonn) 2017. Stretching as far back as the infamous Jack the Ripper to the more modern Zodiac Killer from the bay area who mailed letters to the San Francisco Chronicle detailing his monstrous acts. To Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gasey the public has always had a macabre fascination with serial killers. In Jeffrey Cohen’s (Monster Culture, thesis I: The Monster’s Body is a Culture Body) we see that, “the monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment-of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety and fantasy….the monstrous body is pure culture.” The character of Hannibal Lecter is an extension of a culture that isn’t easily taken in by the mundane or trite. Unlike reality the fictional monster must be that much more engaging, enthralling, this is what grabs the intelligent public’s imagination and keeps them coming back to see what he will do next.
“And then of course there is the relationship of Hannibal and Clarice. He is the villain, and yet not the villain; he is her mentor, her undeclared lover, her opponent”, (Bradshaw). We find ourselves liking Hannibal in The Silence of the Lambs because he is helping the hero of the story, Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster. She does not insult Lecter’s intelligence and a working almost friendly relationship is struck up between the two of them. Not only does Dr. Lecter help her catch the serial murderer she is in pursuit of, Buffalo Bill, named as such because he skins his humps, but Lecter helps Starling work out unresolved issues from her tormented past.
In the film Red Dragon(2002) Hannibal Lecter muses to FBI investigator Will Graham, “It wasn’t the act that got you down, really,” he goes on, “didn’t you feel bad because killing him felt so good?” And “why shouldn’t it feel good? It must feel good to God-he does it all the time, and are we not made in His image?” “God has power, and if one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is.” As terrible as it sounds, this makes sense in strange way. It is as though Lecter theory of getting rid of evil in the world is to simply play God. “It is only humanity’s capacity for cruelty that allows us to experience mercy. Implied in these lines is the idea that if we were to eradicate cruelty completely, mercy would disappear.” “It is this necessary balance of the contraries that Harris begins to explore in Red Dragon” (Gomph). Lecter toys with the thought of playing God, he twists the boundaries of right and wrong, the light and dark of our human nature to make the truth of unconscionable acts appear acceptable, almost normal. It is not the despicable act per se, it is the acceptance of the act that makes us worry. Anthony Hopkins has a gentleman’s demeanor about himself when delivering his lines as Hannibal, his composed rationality makes it all the more riveting to watch.
Dispassionate and brilliant, a superb predator at the head of the food chain. Lecter is like a great white shark cruising the depths. Is a White shark evil because it eats you while swimming in the ocean? Of course not, it is only acting unto its nature. This is the envy we experience when enjoying Anthony Hopkins portrayal of Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter. The indiscriminate sweeping away of the refuse that offends us, that we find objectionable. A monster without a moral center to get muddied or clouded by doubt or remorse. Honestly, which one of us would not like to be untethered from morality like this? Perhaps, if only for a day, on second thought, make it two.
Bonn, Scott A. “Our Curious Fascination With Serial Killers.” Psychology Today, Sussex
Publishers, 23 Oct. 2017, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wicked-deeds/201710/our- curious-fascination-serial-killers.
Bradshaw, Peter. “The Silence of the Lambs Review – Psycho-Killer Hannibal Still Chills.” The
Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 1 Nov. 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/nov/01/the-silence-of-the-lambs-review-anthony-hopkins-jodie-foster-jonathan-demme.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, (1996) “Monster culture (seven theses)” from Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome
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The Silence of the Lambs.Directed by Jonathon Demme, Orion Pictures, 30 Jan. 1991.