After the movie version of Silence of the Lambs swept the top five Oscars, including best picture in 1991, writer Thomas Harris has shamelessly cannibalized, I mean capitalized on the popularity of Hannibal Lecter with rapidly diminishing returns ever since. People love to see stories about the reptilian psychopath who combines artistic pretension with a tendency to parbroil his victim’s liver with white wine and truffles, and why not? Certainly, cannibalism is an acquired taste, but it sells tickets in today’s splatter porn-filled theatres. Lecter’s French sauce made out of some guy’s kidneys still seems slightly preferable to the torture chambers of the Hostel and Saw III, but all of the films market sadism for an increasingly jaded audience.
After Hannibal acquainted us with Anthony Hopkins returning to America to find that Jodie Foster had been replaced with Juliann Moore as FBI agent Clarice Starling, Hannibal Rising begins in 1944 as a prequel of sorts. Eight year old Hannibal has a cute younger sister named Mischa, and we first see them playing briefly on the edge of the ancestral Lecter estate before Russian tanks and German fighter planes kill off both of their parents. Stranded in a house with a bunch of snarling and starving German war criminals, Hannibal tries to protect his sister as best he can, but then the story abruptly cuts to years later when he’s forced to endure a Soviet orphanage in the very same estate that his family used to own. Now looking a bit like a mal-nourished Christian Slater, Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) wakes up screaming in the night as he half-remembers the atrocities his sister suffered, but fortunately he escapes to France to go live with the widow of his uncle, Lady Murasaki Shikibu (Li Gong, looking like she is in the wrong movie).
Since Peter Webber of Girl with a Pearl Earring directed this film, I was often surprised by its classy European veneer. Some set designer did go out and find 1950s style cafes and trains and costumes for this Grand Guignol schlock-fest. Just when you think you might have stumbled upon Masterpiece Theater episode, Hannibal carves up a fat butcher with a samurai sword on a sunny day by a lake as he says things like “How about a slice tangential to the spine?” The butcher had made the mistake of insulting Lady Murasaki, so Hannibal leaves his head on a plate in front of her Samurai shrine. Looking slightly annoyed, she says, “You didn’t have to do this for me.” Hannibal flippantly replies “Rudeness is epidemic” and then sets his sights on the war criminals who ate his sister. The rest of film resembles The Abominable Doctor Phibes as Hannibal confidently dispatches one hooligan after another in creative ways. He has been dissecting corpses in medical school now for years, so he has fun tying one victim to a tree and then having his horse pull on the line until his head explodes. Smug in his twisted sense of ethics, Hannibal quickly attains an air of invulnerability even when the ringleader of the war criminals proves evil enough to have a ship full of female slaves.
I did enjoy aspects of Hannibal Rising in an ironic way, mostly because it becomes funny the more it takes itself seriously. Smirking in his lab coat, Hannibal says things like “The butcher was like butter.” Gong Li tries to look concerned when she tells him that “You smell of smoke and blood.” There’s a French detective involved named Inspector Popil (Dominic West) who threatens Hannibal with such lines as “If you kill in France, I will see your head in a bucket,” but we know nothing will happen to Hannibal as he makes his next human cheeks and mushroom stew. Lady Murasaki proclaims that Hannibal is a “monster,” but in today’s horror market he’s really just another banal torturer, only with better cooking skills