Coming to DVD May 29th
Directed by Peter Webber
This is where Hannibal Lecter dies. His “beginning” marks the inevitable end to our waning fascination with pop culture’s sophisticated flesh-eater. No, Hannibal Rising doesn’t literally spell out the onscreen demise of Lecter. As a matter of fact, its ominous coda hints at even more episodes in this fine young cannibal’s life. But they’d do well to end here. The Lecter legacy is becoming an overcooked faux pas. As they say…stick a fork in it, ’cause it’s done.
Over the last twenty-one years we’ve been introduced to two prequels already: Michael Mann’s atmospheric and ’80s chic Manhunter (where Brian Cox devoured the Lecter role) and a shameful redo under the title Red Dragon whose only purpose seems to preserve a sense of uniformity in the cinematic mythos by shoehorning Anthony Hopkins into the material.
Hannibal Rising has no such star power to fill Lecter’s shoes, a major challenge echoed repeatedly throughout this disc’s serviceable making-of featurette and the director/producer commentary with Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and Martha De Laurentiis, respectively. The film has its back against the wall for this reason and many others including the grand question itself: Why posit a backstory at all and further demystify one of history’s best screen villains? Well, all signs point to the “big dollar sign in the sky;” but from creator Thomas Harris’ standpoint, what’s to be gained creatively? There is no answer to be gleaned in this DVD since the author – who penned the screenplay in tandem with writing the novel much to the chagrin of its producers eager to get started on the film – is a recluse and doesn’t participate in anything, let alone step onto the set of one of his films.
Still, Webber crafts a classy chapter – an “adult fairy tale” with “Western” elements, he says – with rich production value thanks to Academy Award-winning designer Allan Starski (Schindler’s List) whose efforts are awarded here with a drab spotlight interview entitled Designing Horror and Elegance. For all of its gloss the story is a laborious one bogged down by the eternal, “why, why, WHY?!” that doesn’t really pick up steam until young Lecter, played with concentrated gusto by Gaspard Ulliel, exacts his revenge on those who murdered and ate his sister – an all but miniscule plot point originated in the pages of Harris’ book Hannibal discarded from Ridley Scott, David Mamet and Steven Zaillian’s adaptation. It’s The Punisher with Lecter as a samurai sword-wielding anti-hero, another dubious decision to humanize a monster. And in classic Phantom Menace fashion, we’re treated to wink-wink bits of often insulting dialogue that hint at Lecter’s future. “You’re always hunting the bullies,” our trouble-maker is told early on. Oh, barf, you may as well introduce us to a scene where Lecter traverses across the Starling farm.
Flaunted now as an “unrated” edition, the film runs at a strained ten minutes longer. There’s no extra gore but the book’s purists will notice expanded sequences that detail Lecter’s escape from school and his entrance to Grutas’ compound that kicks off the third act.
Hannibal Rising exudes talent behind and in front of the camera, obviously, but this has all of the feeling of an unwanted pregnancy: You can slightly admire the end result, but you never asked for it in the first place. Another prequel would be slightly more forgiving if the story wasn’t so bland tasting.
One can’t completely fault Webber. That would almost be like shooting the messenger. The DVD commentary is a telling one and if you read between the lines Harris and the De Laurentiis team (Martha and the legendary Dino) are Hannibal Rising‘s cheerleaders, warts and all. There’s no talk of “script fixes” or efforts to improve or adjust Harris’ material – Dino apparently wanted to shoot every scene in the 130-page script. Webber was merely a pliable vessel through which Harris, the man behind the curtain, so to speak, could get his vision to the screen without leaving the safety of his home state of Florida.
The director says he stayed in constant contact with the author via e-mail, however, receiving detailed notes on characters (Martha reads some of them verbatim) during the production. But here his vested interest in the material seems to stem from being given the opportunity to play “dress up” with actress Gong Li. Furthermore, he reflects the stereotypes of the horror genre while falling victim to them himself. So, why not change the script to avoid such trappings? This kind of blatant disinterest pollutes the film. Another example of this comes when Webber observes Harris’ symbolic imagery of a boar (carried over from Hannibal and used flagrantly in this film), then dismisses a chance to explore its deeper meaning. Unfortunately, he never addresses his personal thoughts or possible misgivings on taking the job either leaving us with the impression that he was a director given a lush landscape to photograph and a pop culture icon to manipulate – a kid who’s as eager to play with his action figures as quickly as he is to dispense with them.
The disc’s commentary isn’t all about questions leading, frustratingly, to even more questions; there are definitely some interesting factoids presented. Principal photography was predominantly held up by Gong Li’s schedule on Mann’s Miami Vice which had its fair share of delays. Ulliel’s scar on the side of his face (which I think makes him a shoo-in as a new “Joker”) isn’t the work of prosthetics but a scary reminder of a dog attack the actor suffered as a child. Many of the kills in the film were inspired by the gruesome sights Harris witnessed during his time as a crime reporter. And not to pick on Webber any further, he does reference the original 1951 The Thing from Another World as a Howard “Hughes” production, not Howard “Hawkes.” On the adaptation side of things he explains how Inspector Popil’s onscreen persona is a culmination of two other characters from the novel and adds that many of the excised scenes (from the “Deleted Scenes” section of the disc) were a result of “length and pacing issues.” Not so surprising: The Weinstein Company apparently shot additional scenes just for the film’s advertising campaign that led audiences to believe there was a sex scene between Lecter and Li’s Lady Murasaki.
Technically, Genius Entertainment’s DVD is a beauty with a sharp 2.35:1 transfer and, as mentioned before, there is a making-of featurette included. Hannibal Lecter: The Origin of Evil is a puff piece that finds Gaspard talking about his take on Lecter, Webber revealing that he sent his star off to a few real autopsies so he knew what it was like to be in medical school and Martha exuding her unmoving passion for the franchise.
It’s good to see someone is still excited about Lecter after all of these years because by now, if Hannibal Rising‘s box office is any indication (it did better overseas than in the U.S.), many of us have lost our appetite.