Hannibal Lecter used to be a viable movie monster. Now, he's an overused cinematic cliche.
He was a child of war, a forever twisted byproduct of the Nazi party and its Eastern European collaborators. Born into the aristocracy only to be initiated into evil, he would eventually evolve into a world class psychiatrist, renowned renaissance man, and perhaps, the most brutal serial killer of all time. Indeed, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, as conceived by former crime reporter turned bestselling novelist Thomas Harris, would transform the horror genre, making the calculated mass murderer an icon and jumpstart a few dozen dire imitations. Even the character's own legacy, peppered with awards and parodies, highlights the fickle nature of filmmaking, as well as the always dangerous quest of trying to recapture creative lightning in a bottle built from consistently diminishing returns.
Over the course of four novels - Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Hannibal Rising - and five motion picture adaptations of same, the myth of this man-eating monster (Lecter is best known as a classy, cultured cannibal) has gone from curiosity, to phenomenon, to unimpressive afterthought. He's risen to ridiculous heights and fallen farther, faster, than any other fright film figure. Sir Anthony Hopkins earned his one and only Oscar for playing this dark, deceptive manipulator, even replacing the prior treatment by (a better) Brian Cox. The Scottish thespian originated the role in Michael Mann's excellent Manhunter, offering up a casual cruelty that Hopkins would later accelerate and amplify.
Now out on Blu-ray, along with the misguided sequel Hannibal, Mann's treatment of the material is the key to keeping the character in check. When Lecter is the main focus, as he is in Ridley Scott's overwrought follow-up to The Silence of the Lambs (or worse, the waste of time that is Rising), he's too much. He's not scary, but squelched. Everything we like about his bi-play with various adversaries - FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling, Profiler Will Graham -is reduced to a ridiculous set of biased beats. Instead of giving us a sense of malevolence and rotting evil, we become acutely aware of the nonsensical nuances the performance is giving the part...and we are not happy about it.
More than anything else, Anthony Hopkins is responsible for Lecter's rapid rise and equally abrupt descent. While studios and producers are known for being unable to leave well enough alone, actors rarely get riled up over repeating themselves. Jodie Foster obviously felt this way. After reading how her character was treated in the novel Hannibal, she refused to come back for the movie. This left the talented but misplaced Julianne Moore to try and take over, and even with some radical changes to the ending, it still didn't work. Add in Scott's senseless desire to turn everything into a gloomy Gothic joke, from the disemboweling of Italian police detective Rinaldo Pazzi to the eating of Paul Krendler's brain, and you've got the makings of a mess.
In fact, everything outside of Jonathan Demme's definitive portrait of the character is a bit wonky. When Cox played the part (though the name was changed to "Lecktor" for reasons of copyright) his presence was part of an overall plot mechanism. It was a cog to a bigger picture, no matter how effective the turn was. Hopkins ran with the role, much to its eventual deconstruction and demise. Lector, in his work, is a creepy carnival barker, a man made up of many tactics to get the same reaction out of his intended victims - supplication. All throughout the mythology, Lector uses his psychological training to turn people into puppets, the better to disfigure them (as with Mason Verger in Hannibal) or inspire, mentor, and guide them (The Tooth Fairy, Buffalo Bill).
But this doesn't mean the character is better for it all. Indeed, Manhunter was an excellent prologue for the mastery of Silence. We needed more after Cox wetted our already eager appetite, and Hopkins nailed it. It should have been left at that. Yet no one could walk away. After the Academy recognition, it was as if Lector had to live on, if only to verify his ongoing value as a genre icon. Of course, Harris had final say, and he clearly concocted a way of circumventing the potential payoffs.
Having his beast bedevil Starling to the point where she would gladly give herself to this embodiment of evil was just the first volley in what appears to be a systematic desire to dismantle the entire Lector empire. Rising is even worse, since it works in material that makes little sense within the overall backstory. Just like seeing Will Graham's confrontation with the diabolical doctor at the beginning of the Red Dragon remake, there's no clarity, just confusion. It doesn't appear to match with what we already know - or think we know.
Again, Lector is one of the great creations of modern horror. He is everything we ever feared about this kind of killer captured in one haunting, harrowing mix - that is, until he was allowed to take center stage. Then, his obvious flaws came out. What once seemed wicked was now arrogant. What was once mesmerizing was just mean. Even above and beyond the various incarnations the character has been through (the books are far more baffling than the movies in that regard), we still see the core that captured our imagination in the first place. Lector legitimizes his existence by suggesting that, when some people deserve to die, it's best to destroy them wholly...and nothing implicates this better than eating their liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
In retrospect, Manhunter and Silence should have been enough. Even a remake of the former would be fine if it had been handled in a manner less tied to the needs of the various star egos involved. When we end up with is a rocket-like rise and a meteoric fall, a nowhere to go now problem that places the burden directly on Harris to hone in on and hammer out. Naturally, he won't do it - unless the paycheck is too big to say "No" to - and the result of such a decision requires a kind of aesthetic R.I.P. For a while, Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lector was, no matter how you spelled his name, the defining standard for the serial killer. Today, he's a riff in a reactionary history. While he may not deserve better, audiences of his artistic interpretations surely do.