Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 19 
2 Dec
2002

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Ridley Scott's Hannibal (2001) HORROR
The "wonderfully scary monster" and the international reception of horror
Ridley Scott's Hannibal (2001)

In this cutting-edge research article, Ernest Mathijs analyses the ancillary discourse surrounding the international release of Hannibal to show just how (and the extent to which) "elements of reception...are not limited to extra-textual discussions," but have an impact on how we think about and classify films themselves.


Most of the time, Dr Lecter didn't respond at all to visitors. He'd just, for instance, open his eyes long enough to insult some academic who was there to look over him.
—Barney (Frankie Faison) in Hannibal
Ancillary materials and reception

Is Ridley Scott's Hannibal (2001) a thriller or a horror film? It is a question that could keep film theorists occupied for decades, debating the futility of straightforward genre classifications in contemporary Hollywood cinema, analysing the historical overlap between the two genres, interpreting the weight of prior labels (was Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs [1991] horror or thriller? What about Thomas Harris's source novel?) and, finally, questioning the film's style, the psychology of its characters and the implications of its story and design on the audience (are they scared? what if they're only "so-so" scared?). Arguably, there would be no way out of such discussions, apart from perhaps a settlement on the basis of authority.

In this particular case, however, I think the answer can in fact be straightforward. If one were prepared to go with the descriptions of reporters, critics and reviewers-what Martin Barker calls "ancillary materials," since they are materials that surround the text itself—Hannibal would have to be identified as a horror film. [1] From the start of production up through its worldwide release there was a continuous stress on the film's horrific elements. Early reports concerning Jodie Foster's refusal to reprise her role as Clarice Starling tended to focus on the fact that she found the sequel "too grisly" and insufficiently concerned with the development of Starling's character. [2]

Ridley Scott's Hannibal (2001) Other reports of the time speculated on the script troubles that seemed to surround the project, often mentioning that David Mamet's original screenplay had to be toned down because it contained, depending on the source, either too much gore or the "wrong sort of happy ending." [3] Still other articles centred on the unhappiness of the people (and some of the political parties) of Florence with their city being associated with horrific events, referring to the anecdote that one murder in the film would supposedly be inspired by a historical assassination that took place in the Palazzo Caponi in 1478. [4]

Prior to Hannibal's opening at the Festival of Berlin, newpapers and magazines carried headlines declaring their expectation that the film would "make Berlin shiver." [5] In addition to all this, side stories on veteran producer Dino De Laurentiis (no stranger to the horror genre), satanic film series in the history of cinema [6] and Stephen King's remark that Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) qualifies as the "Dracula of the cellular phone era" all made the connection to horror, if not explicitly then certainly by inference.

The references to horror have not stopped since Hannibal's release, with critics and reviewers describing it as a horror film on an international scale. Although Donald O'Donoghue calls it a "serial thriller" in the headline of his RTE review, throughout the actual article he repeatedly emphasises the horrific elements of both novel and film, singling out the gruesomeness of earlier script versions, the "terrified reactions" of preview audiences and, of course, the "grisly conclusion featuring man-eating pigs." Both Le Monde and Echo de la Bourse refer to the film as "horror" in their headlines, whereas The Guardian Weekly describes it as a "Guignol horror comedy." Finally, David Ansen, in Newsweek, devotes at least one paragraph to a discussion of why he doesn't like the film: for its lack of "suspense" (thriller) and its emphasis on "disgust" and "yuk" (horror). Other terms which appear frequently in reviews include "grotesque," "baroque" and numerous variations on "cannibalism."

And it doesn't stop with professional reviewers either. Comments on the internet connect Hannibal to the horror genre even more firmly. The earliest user comments on Amazon.com (referring to the theatrical release) abound with references to horror, ranging from remarks stating that the film "will not be outdone by any of the genre of horror and thriller," to comparisons with generic horror "like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer," and "the Friday the 13th movies or the Scream films which rely on shock and gore rather than a deep involving storyline." Many of these comments stress Hannibal's gore ("There were SEVERAL 'Yucky' parts...but I love that too!!") and summarise it as a "movie for any horror fan." [7]

From reception to the "wonderfully scary monster"

Yet, are these opinions enough to end the discussion before it begins; do they allow us to identify Hannibal as a horror film once and for all? Not quite. It is one thing to acknowledge the importance of ancillary discourses in assisting, inviting and even determining the labeling of a film, but it is another to see just how neatly the specific horror label fits the attempts to make sense of Hannibal, prior to and after its release. Although it is common knowledge that many producers, filmmakers and marketing departments want their film labeled as early as possible to ensure specific attention from press and fans, and even when this results in conscious attempts to direct their projects into (or against) certain ancillary discourses, such as the horror frame of reference, it is still remarkable to find such a striking parallel between the intention and interpretation of Hannibal.

Therefore, in what follows I hope to show that Hannibal's "horrality" is not just a result of the film's reception, but of its inception and textual properties as well. To be more precise, I claim that those responsible for establishing Hannibal as horror (producers, marketers, critics, fans) have, consciously or not, been building upon a reference frame that has been in development since The Silence of the Lambs (hereafter SOTL). This reference frame focuses on the film's main character, Hannibal Lecter, and his function as the quintessential monster in/of culture. The presentation of this character as the kind of "cultural thing" that horror films have always dealt with, has not only guaranteed the ancillary labeling of Hannibal as horror. Above all, it gives the text Hannibal a place within the horror genre.

Ridley Scott's Hannibal (2001)Everything in Hannibal revolves round the film's eponymous and central protagonist, Dr Hannibal Lecter. Although he is not the only recurring character from SOTL, the focus is obviously and manifestly on him. This may sound curious, but it certainly isn't surprising; it is the logical result of interpretative processes evident in the reception of SOTL. Throughout this earlier film's reception, and during the preparations for the sequel, Lecter's character was consistently singled out by, among others, journalists and academics as the single most interesting element. Although in her reception analysis of SOTL, Janet Staiger points out that a substantial part of the initial controversy surrounding the film came from the perceived homophobia endured by two of its main characters, Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) and Clarice Starling[8], much of the emphasis in the discussions in question still concerned Hannibal. According to one reviewer quoted by Staiger, it is remarkable that the film seemingly calls for a distinction between the "good," "upper class" Hannibal and the "bad," "working-class lout" Gumb. According to another reviewer Staiger quotes, the opposition lies between "an unimaginable vicious genius" and "the other merely rabid and weird." [9]

Later in her essay, Staiger briefly touches upon the Freudian significance of Lecter's role, without really addressing his centrality in the narrative and its broader cultural meanings. Thomas Elsaesser goes much further in a recent conference paper on SOTL.[10], where he calls Lecter the equivalent of the "super-father," the one from whom everything originates and to which everything can be related (the eye of the storm, if you will). For Elsaesser, Lecter's centrality in the story is significant because it problematises the simplistic opposition between good and evil. As viewers we are not supposed to enjoy evil, but by placing him at the centre of the narrative, "Hannibal Lecter becomes not the opponent, but [...] the 'obscene enjoyment' (as Žižek would say) of the system, [...] a palpably present monster." [11]

Unlike Staiger and the critics she quotes, Elsaesser is willing to elaborate on the historical connection between culture and evil this "obscene enjoyment" calls to mind. He demands that attention be paid, for instance, to the film's theme of "bodily transformation: traditional motifs of the horror film, but now seen across two or three thousand years of Western mythology and religion." [12] Moreover, in a recent essay, Daniel Shaw argues that the reason both SOTL and Hannibal have proven so popular with audiences is because their main character both refers to and acts out our admiration for what is taboo: "he is one of the most powerful characters in recent cinema, and our great pleasure in seeing him do what is forbidden comes from our vicariously sharing in that power"[13].

Viewers like Lecter because he allows them to enjoy that which is forbidden by culture and society. This is similar to the process, described by Cynthia Freeland, that allows (or forces) audiences to accept Henry (Michael Rooker) in Henry: Portait of a Serial Killer (1990) and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho.[14] In Shaw's view, Lecter is the Nietzschean †bermensch, the "master of morality," the one who can break the rules because he can also establish them.

Elsaesser, Shaw, Freeland and the critics cited by Staiger all point in the same direction, towards a psycho-anthropological explanation of Lecter as the necessary evil in/of our cultural history (in fact it is odd that none of them refer to Julia Kristeva, Mary Douglas or Rene Girard, all of whose work would have dovetailed perfectly with their arguments). So, in short, what we have coming out of SOTL is not just any old monster, but the monster; an in-control embodiment of all the evil in human culture, or, to paraphrase one critic, "the wonderfully scary monster."

From the monster to filmic metaphors of the horror discourse in Hannibal

It is this "wonderfully scary monster" that forms the centre of the developing discourse concerning Hannibal, around which all other signs are necessarily grouped. In Bordwellian terms, we could say that ever since SOTL's reception (and Hannibal's inception), the specific monstrousness of Hannibal Lecter has become a pivotal cue for both industry professionals, concerned with developing the SOTL franchise, and critics, concerned with developing arguments around future films. It has become central to the organisation of interpretations of Hannibal, and it eventually leads to the film's being labeled a horror movie.

Of course, the case for establishing a connection between the depiction of a monster and creating/seeing a film as a horror film no longer needs to be made. Steven Jay Schneider's classification of monster metaphors as primary cues in horror films demonstrates how different kinds of monsters function as signifiers of horrality in cinema. [15] But is a film that contains a monster always a horror film? Certainly not. It becomes a horror film only when, and because, the monster's role in the narrative renders a specific and reasonable meaning to all (or most) of the film's other signs and metaphors.

This is why Hannibal is a horror film: just like the narrative centrality of Henry and Norman turns their respective stories into horror stories, so too does the unavoidable centrality of the Lecter character, and its play with the conventions of the horror genre, link Hannibal to issues that have traditionally been considered part of the discourse on cinematic horror. These issues then provide possible and reasonable options for establishing new textual arguments and for relating these rhetorically (according to the tricks of the trade) to existing horror discourses, confirming the link, and thus the horror label, again and again.

Ridley Scott's Hannibal (2001)In the remainder of this essay, I will look briefly at a couple of significant examples of metaphors and aspects of Hannibal that are discussed by reviewers in relation to either their identification of the film as horror, or to the difficulty they have in coming to terms with attributing a label to the film that doesn't quite fit. First, there is the general remark many critics make about Hannibal's structural unevenness, with regular reference to the fact that the film consists of several parts, some successful, others not.

Most reviewers break Hannibal down into three somewhat linear sections: an initial one that contains the prologue and credit sequence, along with the introduction of new locations (eg, Firenze) and new characters (eg, Mason Verger [Gary Oldman]); a second one that focuses on Starling's (Julianne Moore) struggle to come to terms with her professional life and that also introduces a new cop (Rinaldo Pazzi [Giancarlo Giannini]) who pursues Lecter in Italy; and a third one that focuses on Lecter's escape from his hunters, and on the cruel methods of killing and torturing that are used by both Verger (the man-eating pigs) and Hannibal (the lobotomy). This last section is also usually held to include the moody scenes in which the attraction between Starling and Lecter increases.

In most cases, reviewers single out the film's first and third sections as the most important ones, mainly because these can be related to features of Lecter's character. Apart from the fact that this leads to arguments and remarks about how "good" Hopkins's acting performance is, or how he dominates the narrative, or how his character has "all the best lines," it also leads to considerations of the function of the gruesome scenes of the pig attack and the lobotomy of Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), scenes which are usually considered to be either over the top (dysfunctional) or horrific (functioning as support for Lecter's evil nature).

In contrast, the middle section is usually considered to be more problematic, and is generally cited in arguments that endeavour to highlight the film's flaws. This intention is usually voiced by stressing that the scenes in this section are "not intense" enough, or that there is no "suspense" here, that Starling's character is "not strong" or that Julianne Moore "is not Jodie Foster." Obviously, these arguments indicate a desire to treat Hannibal in a similar way as SOTL, where reception in such terms was omnipresent. They also point to an inability of the critics in question either to accept or deal with the fact that Hannibal is about nothing but horror. If you are a critic looking to interpret Hannibal as a thriller (as you could have done with SOTL), the dominance of the Lecter-instigated horror discourse will make things very difficult for you. Such critics invariably disliked Hannibal.

When it comes to discussions of style and genre, the dichotomy between the first/third section and the middle section remains in place. Focusing on the first and third sections, most critics come up with straightforward references to "horror" (the logical result of the discourse these sections adhere to because of Lecter's centrality). Whenever these critics turn to the middle section, however, they have more difficulty connecting it to the horror genre. This is partly expressed through the use of a far greater diversity of generic terms in those passages that refer to the middle section (eg, "giallo," "psychological thriller," "noir," "gothic").

Yet, in many of these cases, the horror discourse lurks just behind the corner, and if not mentioned explicitly afterwards (eg, in discussions of the film's "stylish" expressionism or its "giallo" or "gothic" features), it is inferred to (eg, by using Pazzi and his connection with the De Medicis as a means of proceeding to arguments about evil in the Renaissance). In other words, in the discussions of all three sections, reviewers go to considerable effort to establish links with the horror genre, sometimes even unwittingly.

This point is acutely exemplified by a small but significant controversy surrounding the picture. To illustrate a local debate concerning film classification, the Belgian newspaper De Morgen cited Hannibal as an example of a movie which censors have been accused of letting pass without suitable restrictions (the newspaper referred to Hannibal's Australian MA [restricted] rating and also to various reactions of outrage and disgust from audiences in Berlin and Italy). [16] Such a small-scale controversy fits perfectly within the developing discourse of Hannibal as a horror film (anecdotally, an interview I gave for the same newspaper around that time, about recent developments in horror research, also carried a headline referring to Hannibal).

The above examples of how a horror-related discourse, developing since the reception of SOTL, has come to dominate all meaning-making around Hannibal, do not stand alone. Hannibal can be tied to horror-related issues of philosophical morality (satanism, immorality, amorality), violence (or degrees of gruesomeness) and even to the place of psychological theory within horror discourse (Elsaesser describes Lecter's use of psychoanalysis in SOTL as "no more than a 'gothic' version of any known practice"[17]; and in Hannibal's prologue, Barney, who used to be one of his wardens, states that he doesn't think "psychology is a science, and neither does Dr Lecter"). All of these examples show just how dominant the horror discourse is in the case of this particular film.

From metaphors of horror back to reception

Ridley Scott's Hannibal (2001)The question with which this essay began has now been answered. Hannibal is indeed a horror film. This is not just because extra-textual factors, coming from the film's surroundings, have led people to label it as horror, but, just as importantly, because we have been able to link these extra-textual elements to textual features—to what belongs to the film text itself. The dominance of the developing horror discourse around the SOTL-character Hannibal did and still does play a crucial role in determining what the film "is." On a broader level, I hope I have shown how elements of reception and, more generally, ancillary discourses, are not limited to extra-textual discussions. They can have, and in fact do have, an impact on how we think about films, what we think particular films "are" and, in some cases (as with Hannibal), they influence debates concerning what a film will become, even before such determinations have been made.

Ernest Mathijs

About the author
About the author

Ernest Mathijs is lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. His current interests include the reception of horror film, cult film and reality television, and cinema of the low countries. Essays appeared in Literature/Film Quarterly, TV and New Media, Cult Movies (ed Mark Jancovich, et al), Foundations of Science, and Cinema Journal (forthcoming). He is currently editing books on the cinema of the low countries, Big Brother International, and alternative European cinema.


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Footnotes*

*All of the reviews/articles on Hannibal mentioned herein are located in the Belgian Royal Film Archive Library. In total, 87 reviews from seven countries have been consulted for this essay.

1.Martin Barker, "News, Reviews, Clues, Interviews and other Ancillary Materials: A Critique and Research Proposal." Scope: An Online Journal of Film Studies (forthcoming 2002): 3-6.return to text

2.The International Herald Tribune (1999).return to text

3.The Times (1999). return to text

4. De Standaard (2000).return to text

5. De Morgen (2001).return to text

6. Le Monde (2001).return to text

7. Amazon.com customer reviews - oldest first.return to text

8. Janet Staiger, "Taboos and Totems: Cultural Meanings of The Silence of the Lambs." In Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception (New York: New York University Press, 2000).return to text

9.Ibid, 164. return to text

10. Thomas Elsaesser, "Look Deep Inside Yourself: The Silence of the Lambs." Paper presented at the 1st European Psychoanalytic Film Festival, London (2001).return to text

11. Ibid.return to text

12. Ibid.return to text

13. Daniel Shaw, "The Mastery of Hannibal Lecter." In Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror, ed Steven Jay Schneider and Daniel Shaw (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, forthcoming 2003).return to text

14. Cynthia Freeland. The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000), 176-90.return to text

15. Steven Schneider, "Monsters as (Uncanny) Metaphors: Freud, Lakoff, and the Representation of Monstrosity in Cinematic Horror." In Horror Film Reader, ed Alain Silver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight Editions, 2000), 167-91.return to text

16. De Morgen (2001).return to text

17. Elsaesser, op cit.return to text

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