While I’m a huge horror fan now, I didn’t really get into the genre until I hit my 20s in the late 90s. So while Silence of the Lambs made Hannibal Lecter the premier movie monster of the time, Ridley Scott’s bizarre Hannibal was my first real exposure to the character. Scott’s over-the-top take came after years of pop cultural saturation, reducing Lector to a series of tics and mannerisms, so I found him more silly than scary. Even after I went back and watched Lambs and the excellent Michael Mann film Manhunter, I still never connected with the character like others had.
That all changed with the 2013 television series Hannibal. In the hands of the great showrunner Bryan Fuller, the show transformed what had become a tired out character into something truly menacing. With Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen in the title role, the show traced FBI profiler Will Graham’s descent into madness as he befriends, and then tries to catch, the famed cannibal.
For the horror site Bloody Disgusting, I wrote about how this focus on Graham made us fear Hannibal again:
In a world such as this, what makes Hannibal Lecter remarkable? His ability to manipulate. Where all versions of the character have had that quality, most exercised their control through overt provocation —just recall Hopkins’s wide-eyed glee when Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) recoiled at his story about the census taker. Mikkelsen’s Lecter is a consummate observer. He’s always watching from his shark black eyes and cataloguing responses to his suggestions. So detached is this Lecter that his own therapist Dr. Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) describes him as a monster wearing a “person suit.”
And what a compelling suit it is, as Mikkelsen underplays the menace to underscore his manners. Largely restraining his murderous impulses (at least until season three, when he fully reveals his nature), Hannibal covers his machinations with good psychiatry, and his schemes with decedent dinner parties. In Mikkelsen’s hands, we understand how Lecter could live so long as among high society. This Lecter can believably demonstrate empathy for his patients, as when he encourages Jack Crawford’s wife Bella (Gina Torres) to view her terminal cancer diagnosis as change to embrace, not a defeat to suffer.