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Hannibal Rising

dir: Peter Webber
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Hannibal Lecter: The Wonder Years, or Look Who’s Stalking could have been better titles for this new prequel chapter to the Hannibal Lecter legend. Did you wonder what Hannibal was like as a child? How was his toilet training conducted? At knifepoint? Did mummsy and daddsy punish him for wetting his bed by ripping out his liver and feeding it to him with a mediocre Chianti and some azuki beans as an accompaniment?

All Hannibal Rising is and ever will be, is another trip to the well for fun and profit. The makers, especially ancient Dino De Laurentis, have confused the popularity of Thomas Harris’s initial books (Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs), and the iconic status of Sir Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in Silence, with an unquenchable thirst in the audience for anything with a hint of Lecter-related marketing attached to it.

I’d understand if Thomas Harris has written a book that resonated with the public, garnered major sales, and seen a resurgence in demand for a cinematic version. Since the book in question was released simultaneously with the film’s release earlier this year, we know that’s not the case, and that it’s just merchandising.

Maybe people would go berserk for another trip to the well for the further adventures of Hannibal Lecter. If Hopkins played the character. Why would they imagine the masses would line up to see someone else play the character? It’s a signature role. Can a prequel version of The Godfather be far behind, where Shia Labeouf plays the Michael Corleone role made famous by Al Pacino?

How about a prequel to the Star Wars trilogy where someone plays a young Darth Vader? Yeah right. That trick will never work.

I remember hearing whisperings on the net that there was to be an Early Years Lecter book or flick, and I can’t remember giving a good goddamn either way. I thought it was to be called The Lecter Variations, but maybe that’s something else entirely. All I know is that low rent exploitation of the Lecter brand was inevitable, and I don’t care either way. Sure, I consider Silence a classic, and have a fondness for both versions of Red Dragon, but I’ve got more important things in my life to worry about than wondering if Anthony Hopkins is getting enough work in his old age.

An early look at what made Hannibal become a cannibal could have been interesting. I guess. What stands out most about this film, however, is that had you changed the name of the protagonist, and removed one scene of staggering pandering idiocy (involving a mask), this would be little more than a grim revenge story set just after World War II. As such, the fact that it’s the origin story of a famous serial killer character, as if he’s some kind of comic book hero, is somewhat perplexing.

Hannibal Lecter and the whole Lecter clan are Lithuanian aristocrats, with their own castle and all, rendered homeless by the onslaught of German and Russian soldiers. The family flees to a cabin, and all the adults die, leaving Child Hannibal and his beloved sister Mischa all alone in the world. Though it is the tail end of the war, they have as much to fear from feral Lithuanians as they do from marauding soldiers.

A band of mangy mutts set upon the cabin, trying to avoid soldiers, who end up committing an unspeakable atrocity upon Mischa. Hannibal becomes a cold sociopath right then and there, and decides to dedicate his life to bringing vengeance down upon the heads of those responsible.

From a Soviet orphanage, ironically in the castle he used to call home, to the streets of Paris, the various elements going into creating the character of Hannibal are put on display. But even better than this, we find out how Hannibal (as a teenager played by Gaspard Ulliel) came to be so magical in everything he does.

How or why this transpires I’ll never bother to find out, but Lady Murasaki, his Japanese auntie via marriage, played by that most famous of Japanese actresses, Gong Li (in case the sarcasm isn’t coming across, she’s a very famous Chinese actress), takes him in and makes him, somehow, a super-ninja super-aesthete hyper-intellectual.

Who would have guessed? Barely out of short pants, he’s already a quip-making, knife happy, medical ghoul with keen insights into the weaknesses that lurk within men’s souls. How and why? Well, because the script said so, didn’t it?

In truth the flick is as unilluminating as any of the film’s more vicious detractors allege, but it is nowhere near the stinker I thought it would be. It’s shameful, and utterly exploitative, but it is a fairly creepy experience. Ulliel is no Hopkins, in fact he never reminds you for a second of any glimmers of the vile supervillain he is to become down the track, but he does look very empty of humanity and very sadistic.

The script keeps throwing up these scenes, like an inexplicable and anachronistic polygraph lie detector test whose only purpose is to have someone look at the results and say “He is a monster!”, or viewing a crime scene, just after all the horror and atrocity of the war, and saying “this man is a monster!”, in an utterly fake pop psychology manner to indicate the concept that Lecter is some kind of, I dunno, monster or something.

Nothing that important is revealed in this story about what deep trauma Lecter suffered as a child to turn him into what he would become that wasn’t mentioned in the book for Hannibal (and I don’t want to start talking about that travesty of an abomination). But at least we know that Lecter, being something of a prodigy, started very young in his murderous career, and from this young age possessed the keen senses and supernatural good luck that would make him the most admired and beloved serial killer of all time.

I did find it far creepier than the average slasher/horror flick. The difference is probably in budget, tone and production values, since it is put together like a prestige Eurotrash arthouse flick with a Hollywood budget. It was made by Peter Webber, whose previous gig involved the visually sumptuous but vapid Girl With a Pearl Earring. I think he was hamstrung and straitjacketed by an idiotic script and risk-averse producers, but he tries damn hard to salvage the story from the idiotic plotting or action and horror flick clichés that the film drowns in. The acting doesn’t really help that much either, being its predominant absence that is most noticeable.

The fundamental difference with this story versus any of the other Lecter ‘products’ thematically is that it really does star Lecter front and centre as a hero main protagonist. Maybe that’s transgressive in its own way, but, really, if viewed as a standalone story, Lecter is little different from any revenge story where a guy wants revenge on a bunch of people who did them wrong. As played by this guy, though, there is none of that hypnotic charm, or Olympian distance from humanity. Just the creepiness of having a pale teenager kill some bad, bad men.

Look, it’s really not that bad, but it’s hardly a worthwhile film. The screenplay penned by Harris himself is a disaster and the real reasons for the flick’s weak nature, and all the blame for any of the subsequent Lecter adventures rests squarely with him. Maybe someone else wrote Red Dragon and Silence, because the guy who’s penned these later books is a hack of gargantuan proportions. He now writes the kind of crap that Stephen King in the worst depths of his alcohol and cocaine addiction would have never published, deciding it was bullshit not worth the paper it was scrawled and vomitted upon.

The scene where Lecter puts on part of a mask is particularly stupid. It’s stupid for reasons that are really obvious, but not so obvious that Harris wasn’t embarrassed to death for putting it in the script. Considering that in the scene in Silence where he is forced to wear the mask by the authorities that it is an involuntary act, it’s the height of idiocy and tedium to imply this mask affinity inspired by these earlier, magical moments from his adolescent years. Oh my good god is it embarrassing.

Though this flick was box office poison, I would not be surprised to see more of these get made. Lecter could become this kind of bizarro world James Bond, played by an array of different actors down the track, solving crimes and mysteries whilst chowing down on his enemies’ faces when the mood takes him. Considering the sheer amount of crappy flicks that come out, what difference would it make? Hell, make it like the Harry Potter stories, and release a Hannibal Lecter and the Bag Full of Heads-style flick every year. The law of diminishing returns kicked in two sequels ago, so we can’t expect much. But hell, it’s not like Thomas Harris has anything better to do.

4 times I was expecting the flick to turn into Hannibal Lecter Versus the War Criminals and I was right out of 10

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“What did I ever do to you?
- Aside from eating my sister? Nothing.” – Hannibal Rising.

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