Why 'Hannibal' gives us chills

A villain who knows what you're thinking

He's back.

Hannibal Lecter, popular culture's most celebrated cannibal, has been in hiding for the past 10 years - ever since his wide-screen debut, "The Silence of the Lambs," swept the "big five" 1991 Academy Awards and racked up higher box-office profits than Hollywood ever expected.

Some give the credit for his success to director Jonathan Demme, who injected "Lambs" with a heavy dose of high-intensity suspense sequences and shock effects. Others argue that the film simply rode the coattails of Thomas Harris's bestselling novel. Still others praise the emotionally effective acting of Anthony Hopkins as the cannibalistic psychiatrist and Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, the FBI agent who's both fascinated and repulsed by his inexplicably evil ways.

Which theory is right? A clue lies in the title of the movie's long-awaited sequel, which opened last weekend to generally good reviews and packed theaters.

Unlike the first picture, "Hannibal" is named after its own main attraction: Dr. Lecter himself, still a ruthlessly charming protagonist even if his new adventures lack the sense of audacity and surprise that marked his previous incarnation.

What's shared by "Lambs" and "Hannibal" is a steady preoccupation with Lecter's unique blend of smoothly refined traits - his brilliant mind, impeccable manners, seductive smile, ingratiating voice - and brutally depraved crimes, which are far more repellent than the standard-issue murder and mayhem that most thrillers thrive on. It's no accident that the sequel is named after its complicated villain, and it's unlikely the picture would have been made if Hopkins hadn't agreed to reprise the villain.

For better or worse, Hannibal Lecter stands as one of today's most vivid pop-culture icons.

What accounts for his wide-spread appeal? Mikita Brottman, a professor at Shippensburg (Pa.) University who has written extensively on horror tales and "cannibal culture" in film and literature, makes a key distinction between the Lecter movies and more ordinary shockers.

"Most of the [thrillers] that kids watch have an anonymous killer who stalks a series of victims, usually wearing a mask," she says. "You don't know who he is, so he can't have much personality. But you know exactly who Lecter is, and he has all kinds of personality. So you feel much closer to him than to all those faceless bad guys."

Along with his personality, Lecter's profession may be a key to his charisma.

"He's a psychiatrist," Brottman explains, "and to many people that's the equivalent of a wizard or shaman. This comes partly from childhood fears, when you think your father can see everything, and there's no limit to his insight and intelligence. People attribute quasi-magical powers to psychiatrists - in a sense, they can read your mind and absorb your thoughts.

"Lecter's cannibalism is a metaphor for his ability to get into people's minds, which we fear even more than our bodies being eaten.... Lecter does what people are subconsciously afraid any psychiatrist might do, which is to absorb your brain. Absorbing your adversary's power is a basic motif of cannibalism."

Brottman sees an important moral implication in the fact that Lecter is depicted as an expert - albeit a wicked one - in the workings of the human mind. "This is particularly relevant to our time," she argues, "since to some extent our society's moral vocabulary has been replaced by a therapeutic one," using ideas of dysfunction and treatment as models.

"In this atmosphere, a psychiatrist is seen as a moral authority because he's an arbiter of the therapeutic approach. This makes him seem even more powerful and magical, and also more scary."

This may make Lecter the perfect villain for our postmodern age, but Brottman also finds a link between his movies and the premodern fairy tales that have captivated children for centuries.

"There's a lot of fairy-tale imagery here," she says. "Dungeons, cells, people being tossed into pits and thrown to the pigs." The clever, vulnerable Clarice is also a folk-tale figure. "She's a Little Red Riding Hood, a little-girl figure who enters the 'forest' and has a special ability - because of her innocence and honesty and integrity - to get to the ogre...."

For Brottman, Lecter is too contrived a character to frighten in more than a "fairy-tale ogre" way. Still, she gives the filmmakers credit for making him a compelling villain who simultaneously repels and attracts us.

"We're afraid of him," she says, "but we also side with him, because we want him to use his powers to get the other bad guys. And you're on his side because you don't want him against you!"

Though Hopkins's engaging character remains essentially the same in both pictures, "Hannibal" diverges in several ways from "Lambs." It has a different director in action specialist Ridley Scott; a different female star in the versatile Julianne Moore; and a different kind of story, with Lecter on the loose instead of mostly in prison.

"Hannibal" also takes a penetrating interest in traditional European culture, from the background music (we hear Bach during the opening credits) to some of the settings (various landmarks in Florence) to the use of Dante's poetry as a leitmotif, sometimes lyrically romantic and sometimes explicitly horrific.

This serves two important functions. On one level, it gives the movie's over-the-top violence a high-culture veneer that may make it more acceptable for mainstream audiences.

On a deeper level, it conveys the implicit message that chaos and depravity are nothing new, but have always lurked in the shadows - and even the intellectual monuments - of Western civilization.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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