Sometimes, a monster merely happens. You can argue all the FBI profile material, and trace a killer’s lineage back to days vivisecting his (or on rare occasions, her) pets, but the truth is that evil doesn’t necessarily need a clinical explanation. If we are to believe the dogma and the organized ritualization of same, it is a constant within our ethical purview, and battles constantly with good for domination over our soul. So do we really need to clarify why bad things happen, or why individuals forsake morality for something more mean-spirited and sinister – even when the entity in question is a maniacal medico who likes to cannibalize his victims with some fava beans and a nice Chianti?
Hannibal Lecter, especially as personified by actor Anthony Hopkins in three separate films – The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Red Dragon – remains a stalwart cinematic sicko, a fiend formed out of everyone’s own internal horror hierarchy and imagination. Some see him as horror humanized. Others tend to treat him like the granddaddy of death, the far more eloquent bunkmate of figures as fiendish as Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger. He doesn’t demand elucidation – he readily infers his foulness. So what’s the best way to destroy said demon, to undermine his already potent noxious nature? Why, give him a rationale for being so repugnant, that’s how. And that’s exactly what Hannibal Rising does.
While not the worst prequel ever made, this might just be the most pointless. It draws on luxuriant imagery and old world charms to try and defend the insane actions of a future madman. It provides excuses instead of scares, psychological underpinnings where a couple of good gore sequences would have sufficed. Unlike the previous pieces in the Lecter legacy, Rising isn’t really about police procedure or burrowing into the mind of a serial killer. No, this is your standard revenge flick, Michael Myers and his growing slice and dice dementia moved half a world away and several decades into the past. Here, we meet the mighty Lecter clan, wealthy Lithuanian land owners who are naturally caught up in the middle of the Nazi/Russian flare-ups of late World War II. Hoping to avoid the fate of many of their fellow countrymen (including several singled-out Jews), the entire clan flees to the country. There, a pre-pubescent Hannibal and his beloved younger sister Mischa can become instant orphans and take turns starving.
The narrative catalyst that will come to guide the rest of the storyline – and by inference, the rest of our psycho’s despondent life – arrives in the pretense of some jaundiced German sympathizers led by the god-awful, grotesque Grutas (a barely recognizable Rhys Ifans). Along with his four flunkies, this misguided mercenary has been changing allegiance and looting the countryside, all in a desperate attempt to stay alive. When they see the Lecter little ones, they automatically think ‘bargaining chips’. But as the war drags on, and rotten potatoes and scrapbook leather become scarce, little Hannibal and his precocious sibling start looking like lunch. Before you can say “pre-schooler soup’s on!”, an atrocity occurs, and our title terror is left to die in the woods. Thankfully, he is rescued and sent to a Russian orphanage. The rest, as they say, is half-baked history.
From the minute we meet Gaspard Ulliel as the adolescent Lecter, we start to sense where the rest of this tale will be taking us. In his adult years, our villain is portrayed as an intellectualized façade housing an animalistic viciousness. As he’s eating the meat off another human’s cheek, he’s simultaneously rationalizing and relishing it. Here, Ulliel is given a different task all together. He is supposed to be youth corrupted by circumstances, naiveté obliterated by the horrors one human can inflict on another. As he escapes his institutionalized captivity, he leaves the orphanage bully scarred and scared. When he arrives in France (to hook up with his Samurai loving Japanese Aunt – don’t ask), he embraces chivalry to a fatal fault. All the while, our actor resembles a reject from an Armani ad, high cheekbones and chiseled jawline making him the most sinister supermodel on the planet.
Up until this time, we’ve been patient with Hannibal Rising. We’ve accepted the overlong warfare footage (expanded, if only a little, on the new Unrated DVD released by Genius Productions) and snickered ever so slightly at all the feudal Asian claptrap. Gong Li is wasted as Hannibal’s arch relative. Frequently dispossessed of her only means of support or shelter, she still manages to act and dress like a character carved out of Memoirs of a Geisha. There is supposed to be some connection to her sword and sandal traditions and Hannibal’s eventual descent into death dealing, but we never see it. Perhaps it was something that screenwriter (and novel author) Thomas Harris left for readers to discover. The final piece of the puzzle is a shot of sodium pentothal. It helps our troubled anti-hero find some clarity, and before you know it, he’s traipsing around Europe exacting retribution on the men who made Mischa-bobs out of his kin.
It’s too bad that we’ve stopped caring. You see, the inherent problem with Hannibal Rising is not its exterior make-up. Ms. Li aside, the performances are fine, and Ulliel is diabolical and dapper. We don’t even mind the war criminal crusading police officer, or the less than effective henchmen who surround Ifan’s indelible antagonist. In fact, if we didn’t realize that this entire narrative is building up to the creation of that master of corrupt quid pro quo, this would be a well made, period horror film with lots of atmosphere and some effective moments of dread. We’d even forgive the last act’s sudden shift into slasher film territory, Hannibal creating cleverer and cleverer ways to exact his wounded revenge. But the prequel specter hangs heavy over this entire production, leaving one feeling disoriented and angry. Two plus two does not equal four in Hannibal Rising. No, this is a movie that wants to question the existence of addition before even getting down to the brass tacks of finding said sum.
Indeed, the two concepts of Hannibal just don’t gel. The cold blooding killing is there, as is the unhealthy appetite for corporeal foodstuffs, but when you view this newest version of the character alongside the one well established over the last two decades, it’s like seeing a bad Turkish knockoff. There’s a basic recognizability, but the pieces aren’t quite fitting together. Forget the attempted nods to Hopkins characterization – this Lecter is light years away from his eventual self. In fact, one could easily argue that this entire film is merely the opening salvo in a series of Hannibal prequels where we learn – over time and many body parts – how a cruel kid from Lithuania turned into the bane of Will Graham and Clarice Starling’s existence. It’s not that Hannibal Rising lacks justification. It’s more that these descriptions just aren’t good enough. Lecter is larger than life, a freakish combination of dozens of other famous mass murderers filtered through one man’s incredibly inventive mind. But here, Harris is resorting to tabloid basics. As a result, we spend most of the time wondering when young Hannibal will stop sulking and start carving up his hamsters.
Showing the same deftness for period flare as he did in Girl with a Pearl Earring, director Peter Webber acquits himself quite well. He doesn’t understand the first elements of suspense or thriller pacing, but he can offer up a nicely evocative abandoned cottage. He does rely a little too heavily on chaos-creating montages and quick cuts meant to hide most of the hideousness, but he delivers the dramatics with practical aplomb. It’s a shame then that he’s left holding the Lecter mythos bag. Had this been any other lunatic, Webber would be welcomed as the newest member in the macabre makers fan club. As it stands, he sits lording over the shattered remains of a once viable film franchise. At least he has a co-conspirator. Thomas Harris was thought of as the gold standard of horror literature. But thanks to this unappealing prequel, he’s now a sell-out shill. And that’s more terrifying than anything present in Hannibal Rising.