Most of the critical reaction to Hannibal, director Ridley Scott’s sequel to Jonathan Demme’s contemporary horror classic The Silence of the Lambs (1991), has warned audiences away from it like the latest disease from darkest Hollywood. Bombarding it with sarcasm and outrage, film writers are accusing it of both excess gore and deadly inertia. But audiences don’t seem to be listening. In its third week, Hannibal is at $128.5 million and counting.
So is this just another case of hype putting one over on the masses? A slick ad campaign covering a big nothing? Somehow, according to professional cine-tasters, the combined and oft-heralded talents of Scott (the director of Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, etc.), screenwriters David Mamet (House of Games) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), and a first-rate cast (particularly Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Giancarlo Giannini and Ray Liotta) have turned to chopped liver, and that’s putting it politely. But wait a minute … this key won’t unlock the door.
Eyes wide shut
When MT film writer James Keith La Croix filed his review of Hannibal two weeks ago, his five-star rating got me curious, considering the critical stampede in the opposite direction. But a similar thing happened last year with Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, which most of the press lambasted, but which James and I (and many others, judging by letters to our editor) loved. So I had to see whether James was uncharacteristically wacko on this one.
Somewhere in the first 10 minutes of Hannibal, I started asking myself, “So what’s the problem?” Oh, right, it’s supposed to be too gory. But then the violent scenes begin, and each time Scott shoots so as not to flaunt the pornographic ripping open of the body. When a man is hung and his stomach slashed, we see no details of the act, just a glimpse of intestines hitting the pavement below in a shocking but horribly funny joke. It’s done with a kind of elegance, if we can use that word about a film that disembowels the absolute corruption of elegance and wealth. Hannibal, with its scenes of continental refinement, antiquity and sumptuous dining (ahem), paints a portrait of capitalist America’s multibillionaire corpse, skin still intact, the flesh rotting and collapsing from within. And America’s film critics, nannies of “good taste,” lift perfumed hankies to their noses and look away.
Oink if you like meat
Later, James and I get on the phone to compare notes. He says the critics’ Hannibal problem comes from Scott’s bringing slasher-horror blood levels to a mainstream film. Nobody complains about gore in Night of the Living Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre anymore, because those “low-brow” cult classics spawned hundreds of imitations and a whole horror underground. Silence of the Lambs is brilliant psychological horror, discreet in its use of splatter and accepted as a masterwork. Hannibal, on the other hand, slices off a hunk of blood sausage en route to the fridge for some pinot grigio. But to what end?
Recently, two films have come out that include sequences of man-eating pigs devouring cadavers: Snatch (Guy Ritchie’s tale of English gangsters) and Hannibal. In these grisly scenarios, each set in Europe, herbivores are trained to become carnivores. The natural world is so turned on its head it’s a wonder viewers can go to dinner afterward. But they do and scarf down beef that’s the product of cows eating chicken dung — or the meat industry knows what else. Think back to John Carpenter’s The Thing (also reviled by critics as bloody and violent when it came out in 1982), which seemed to be a metaphor for the initial awareness of AIDS: The film concerns men trapped in the Antarctic, “infected” by an alien organism and testing their blood for its presence. Similarly, Hannibal comes along just when “you are what you eat” has never been more frighteningly true. With mad cow disease scaring the bejesus out of the English, the French, the Italians, et al, there’s been relative silence about that possibility here in the States. But what would such a discussion do to the American beef industry?
In Hannibal’s last scenes, cannibalism is pushed right in the viewer’s face. Human brains are eaten by other humans (in New Guinea, this has caused outbreaks of kuru, a wasting away of the brain similar to the mad cow epidemic). But only a madman would feed a brain to a child … right?The Hot & the Bothered is edited by MT arts editor George Tysh. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.