Bryan Cox as Hannibal Lecter

He'll stop staring when he's good and ready

So, last week I happened to be at a Borders looking at the cheap books in the front when I noticed a couple of hardcover copies of the most recent Hannibal Lecter book there for $2 a piece. Just today I thought about it and wondered who will play him in the inevitable reboot of the franchise (I haven’t heard anything yet, but just don’t be surprised when it happens). And then I realized that, when you get down to it, Hannibal Lecter isn’t really all that great of a character and is a totally overrated villain (AFI named him the #1 movie villain of all time, which just strikes me as insane).

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to bash Silence of the Lambs. It’s a great movie, but a large part of that greatness is due to its having had a truly great director, Jonathan Demme, who came up with lots of innovative ways of creating suspense (the scene where Jodie Foster goes to Buffalo Bill’s place sans backup, and later when she’s trapped in his basement were scenes that scared the crap out of me as a kid, and I’m not easily scared). Anthony Hopkins’s highly theatrical (but nonetheless highly effective) take on the character elevates the material and it gets under your skin. How could it not? Hopkins leaves no trick behind in his performance, and it’s deeply unsettling. But he’s completely implausible as a human being–even a total creep–and I think the film suffers in rewatches because of this fact. Lecter’s evil is all on the surface. Once you get inured to that, there’s nothing else to notice or ponder. When you get down to it, literally all there is to the character on paper is that he’s an insane serial killer who likes to eat people. That’s it. Oh, and the Embodiment of All Evil. Generalizations like that are usually dull to me, as I find it scarier when you can’t completely dismiss a bad guy  (Bryan Cox’s take on the character in Manhunter–very restrained, impossibly cold, brutally logical–is more or less what you would expect a real serial killer (not a movie serial killer) to be like, and remains scarier to me).

But, all this aside, what’s not debatable to me (and what helps prove the point) is that the two films in which Lecter appears least in all the movies that feature him–those would be Lambs and Manhunter–are the best of the series, and in both there’s a lot more going on that doesn’t really involve Lecter all that much. In fact, he’s really just a supporting character in both films, he appears in both for a few scenes and he has limited (but important) impact on the plot. Both Michael Mann and Demme seemed to get that economy is essential with a character that is basically supposed to be The Embodiment Of All Evil, that a little goes a long way. However, later movies in the series jacked up the Lecter factor and became basically unwatchable because, well, Lecter isn’t really that great of a character! A shot of malicious evil to move the story along or juice the conflict a bit is one thing, but sitting through hours of the guy with his tics and theatrical preening and eating people simply isn’t very interesting or pleasant, and that’s why Hannibal, Red Dragon and presumably Hannibal Rising sucked (though I never saw the last one). Lecter can be a mesmerizing presence, but making three films focusing on a character who simply isn’t rich enough to support the focus is like, well, making the three Star Wars prequels, I suppose. I hear they tried to add more nuance to Lecter with Hannibal Rising but nobody really cared and nobody watched it. The public apparently demands more brain-eating.

This is all to say that when the next Lecter film gets made (I’m quite certain it will, and probably sooner than later), it’s going to have to feature Lecter predominantly. After all, Manhunter barely gave him a subplot and it wasn’t a financial success! Which means more shitty movies, ultimately, and that’s not something I ever look forward to.

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