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THE HANNIBAL LECTER COLLECTION
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Julianne Moore, William Peterson, Brian Cox
Directors:  Michael Mann, Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott
Audio:  DTS HD 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1 (Manhunter), 1.85:1 (others)
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  369 Minutes
Release Date:  September 15, 2009

"Hello, Clarice."

Overview:

There has been one name synonymous with terror over the last two decades...and that name is Hannibal Lecter.

Audiences who remember actually got their first glimpse of the cannibalistic killer back in 1986 with a film from Michael Mann called Manhunter.  But it would be five years later when Sir Anthony Hopkins would turn him into the cultured, well-mannered, soft-spoken, yet utterly unsettling villain that would haunt our dreams and keep us shrinking in our chairs.  Based on another in a series of novels by Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs not only showed how psychological horror could be, it ushered in a new era of respectability for the scare film genre when it became only the third film in history to score the top five Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay).

Fans were eager for more, and though troubles plagued the attempts to bring Dr. Lecter back to the screen, Anthony Hopkins was always willing to reprise his role...an absolute must.  With the exception of Robert Englund playing Freddy Kreuger in all of the Nightmare movies, there was no other actor so singularly identified with such a terrifying role.

Now, with The Hannibal Lecter Collection on Blu-ray, fans can re-experience the original trilogy of visions that brought this charismatic killer from the page, to the screen, and into our collective subconscious.

Manhunter ***1/2

Will Graham (Petersen) is a one time FBI agent who deserves a little more than just a footnote to the story of one of the screen’s most popular villains in recent memory.  He’s the man who put Hannibal Lecter behind bars.

Manhunter, however, is not that story.  Instead, it’s the tale of Petersen and his relationship with the legendary serial killer, and how he uses it in a bizarre way to try to capture a new and equally menacing one.

I should back up.  Manhunter marked the first theatrical film for Michael Mann, who, before delighting audiences and critics alike with works like Heat and The Insider made his reputation as creator and executive producer of one of television’s most dynamic shows (at the time), Miami Vice.  For his first foray into movie making, he chose the popular Thomas Harris novel, Red Dragon. 

It wasn’t the story of Hannibal Lecter (or Lektor, as spelled in this picture), but an intense yarn about an FBI agent with an uncanny ability to make his mind work in the same manner as the killers he hunts.  That’s good, because it often leads him to picking up clues his fellow agents would have missed, and often brings him right to the perpetrators.  But it’s quite bad for him personally.  As the film opens, he’s been away from the bureau since nabbing Lektor:  the process of entering the mad doctor’s mind left him scarred both physically and mentally, and it took a healthy stay in a psychiatric ward to rid himself of those maniacal, murderous thoughts.

But with the dawning presence of a new serial killer, dubbed “The Tooth Fairy” (Noonan) because of his affinity for bite marks and tendency to molest his male victims, Petersen’s old boss, Jack Crawford (Farina) shows up to ask his help again.  He’s naturally reluctant, after promising his wife (Greist) and kid that he was through with that route, but his instincts kick in and he begins the investigation.  Like the wolf baying at the moon, Petersen doesn’t know why he must follow this thing through to the bitter end…he only knows that he must.

The killer appears to be following a lunar cycle pattern, giving the FBI only a short window of opportunity to identify him before he strikes again at the next full moon.  Petersen must therefore jump start his unique abilities by paying a visit to Lektor (Cox).  He arrives at Lektor’s maximum security cell under the guise of asking him to review the case files, but the good doctor knows the real reason:  Petersen is trying to get back into Lektor’s maddened and violent frame of mind in order to track The Tooth Fairy.

Comparisons to Silence of the Lambs are inevitable…after all, the film follows some of the same characters, and at the heart of it is also a mind game with Hannibal Lektor.  Mann takes some slightly different approaches with this material than Jonathan Demme did with his film, however.  While Silence was mostly psychological and about the nature of fear, Manhunter is less interested in involving the audience on such a subconscious level.  It’s a brooding and suspenseful cop movie, with emphasis on the investigation process and the character of Petersen.  Unlike Silence, Lektor is not the most interesting character here…instead, it’s the man who once almost destroyed himself by making himself think like a psychopathic killer.  What will happen to him this time?

The film is superbly crafted by Mann and well acted by the entire cast.  Cox makes for an intriguing, if less appealing, version of Lektor than did Anthony Hopkins in his Oscar winning role.  The picture also makes more use of simple lighting and shading to create effect and atmosphere, and less of the psychologically significant interior designs found in the later movie.  Fresh from the heels of Vice, Mann pumped his movie with plenty of synthesizer music, the only aspect that really dates the film.

The Silence of the Lambs ****

Silence of the Lambs is a film I’ve journeyed into time and time again over the last fifteen years. I use the word "journeyed", because that’s exactly what this masterful psychological thriller from director Jonathan Demme feels like. It doesn’t just show madness on the screen for you to observe. It brings you deep inside, and keeps you there far beyond the level of comfort.

Take the introduction to Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (Hopkins). Long before we ever see him, we are being fed information about him. The bold, blossoming young FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Foster) is being given an assignment to interview him in prison. To get to Lecter, she descends, descends, descends, until we wonder if her destination is no less than Hell. The hallways grow darker. The walls are coarser. Keep away from him, she is warned. A photo is shown to her of a nurse who didn’t heed that advice. We don’t see the picture; we see Starling’s reaction, as the doctor offers exposition about being able to save her jaw and one of her eyes ("His pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue…").

This is the fundamental premise of true psychological horror that so many movies fail to grasp. It’s not what we see that scares us the most deeply; it’s our own imagination. I can still remember when this picture first came out, and thinking that Anthony Hopkins was far too nice a guy to ever play such a disturbing character. But the film gives him a proper introduction, and by the time we first see Lecter standing in the middle of his cell, waiting for Starling (waiting for us?), our minds have been prepped. We can’t look away from this man.

Jonathan Demme has always been an experimenter with "confrontational cinema", and it’s never been used more effectively than in Silence. Instinctively, audiences crave the security of the so-called "fourth wall" that separates us from the events on a stage or screen. By constantly filming his characters staring into the camera, and therefore at us, that security is stripped away. We know that Lecter and Starling are talking to one another, but we’re no longer merely observing. We’re involved. As Demme’s camera gets closer and closer to Lecter’s leering eyes, there’s no place for us to retreat to.

The style perfectly enhances the subject matter, which is the story of a young female trainee trying to coax information out of one serial killer in order to trap another. Clarice endures Lecter’s prying eyes, but in reality, she endures them from everyone. She is a woman in a "man’s world"…in situation after situation, she is forced to assert herself when in reality she must feel like the unwanted stepchild. Perhaps it’s no wonder that she becomes the perfect person to interview Lecter; perhaps also, it’s no wonder that Lecter is fascinated by her, and shows some willingness to help.

There is very little violence shown on screen…most of what we recoil from, we do because of the mere suggestion of violence. By the time we do see horrible events unfolding, we’re ripe for them, and they have much more potency than they would had they just been installed into some by-the-numbers slasher film.

Silence of the Lambs is character driven. It works because of our affinity for the two leading roles. Starling is a complex mix of strength and vulnerability, of emotion and reason. She stands firm for Lecter’s psychological assault in one scene, yet in another, we see her break down in tears. She is in a constant state of having to prove herself…both as a trainee and as a woman. She has to prove herself to her boss, to Lecter, but mostly, to herself.

And as far as Lecter himself goes, Anthony Hopkins created one of the most memorable and popular screen villains of all time. He horrifies us with his psychosis, yet he attracts us with his charm. His intelligence is fascinating and frightening. In many ways, he comes across as the perfect dinner companion…provided you don’t end up the dinner.

Starling’s quest is a dark journey…there’s no way to ease herself into this kind of world. If she ever seems lost for confidence, though, it is only briefly. She reminds us time and time again that she has the resilience for this work, as well as the instinct and intellect for it. She constantly walks a high tight rope above an abyss of madness, but she always makes us believe her footing is sure.

Character, atmosphere and story all come together to culminate in one of the greatest climaxes ever filmed for a thriller. There are surprises in store, and long moments of almost unbearable suspense. This sequence comes like a fanciful dessert after an unbelievably satisfying meal. You know consuming it is going to hurt, but you can’t pass it up.

The Silence of the Lambs became only the third film in Academy Award history to sweep the top five Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and a Screenplay award), and it did so with many odds against it. In most years, the film with the most nominees takes home the top award, but JFK failed to pull off the feat, and almost never does a film released in February stay with the voters until award time, but these just serve to validate what an amazing movie this really is.

Creepy and satisfying, brilliantly acted and directed, and boasting an impeccable screenplay from a top selling novel, The Silence of the Lambs is a thriller that works on all levels. It helped re-establish psychology as a driving force in horror, and by giving emphasis to character over action, earned a spot as one of the best films of its decade.

Hannibal **1/2

When you get down to it, there really is no following The Silence of the Lambs…maybe as a book, but never as a film.  The original squirmed its way down into our subconscious minds the way very few movies even had the courage to attempt.  It was spearheaded by two brilliant, Oscar winning performances, Oscar winning direction, and a chilling Oscar winning screenplay.  Each of these elements so perfectly served the others that it was like an impeccable house of cards…one misplacement could have spoiled it all.  But it was surefooted, confident, and relentless.  It did not misstep.

Many fans clamored for a sequel because they loved the characters of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, even though we probably all realized in our hearts that it could never replicate the experience of seeing Silence for the first time.  When author Thomas Harris penned Hannibal, a return to the screen seemed extremely likely, especially when word got out that the inimitable Anthony Hopkins was eager to once again sink his teeth (pun intended) into the role he made famous. 

But the ground was shaky from the start.  Jodie Foster declined a large salary to reprise her role as Clarice, publicly stating that she didn’t approve of how the character was handled in the sequel.  Director Jonathan Demme, whose confrontational style of cinema made Silence strip down the so-called “fourth wall” to unnerve us further, also passed on the opportunity to return.

If Hannibal was to be made, it would have to come about with a new leading lady and a new director.  The part of Clarice went to the amazing Julianne Moore, who proved herself more than capable of stepping into the shoes of a firmly established character.  It took less than a minute of screen time for audiences to accept that Moore was Starling, and go on from there.  For a director, the studio was lucky and smart to acquire Ridley Scott, fresh off his work on what would become the Best Picture Oscar winner, Gladiator. 

But the irreplaceable component was Anthony Hopkins.  Though Hannibal Lecter had once been played by Bryan Cox, the mad psychiatrist could never be portrayed by anyone else after Hopkins.  His stylistic mix of quiet, edgy madness, charm, manners, and undeniable intellect made Hannibal into a screen presence audiences loved and feared in equal measures.  They recoiled from him, yet they always wanted more of him.

Hannibal starts in story as it does in reality, a decade after the events in Silence.  Lecter is still at large, but has lived a quiet life out of the spotlight for ten years…so much so, that he was even dropped from the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.  Starling has become a respected agent, but the public black eyes given to the Bureau in recent years have affected even her, as she finds herself wrongfully blamed for a sting operation that goes terribly awry.

With her career in jeopardy, but with her usual defiance and pluck firmly intact, she accepts suspension, but at the same time, becomes aware of the possible re-emergence of her old nemesis.  One of Lecter’s victims, Mason Verger (the only one who lived to tell the tale), has gotten in touch with the doctor’s old caretaker, Barney (Faison).  There is a large reward on Lecter’s head, naturally, but Verger is only out for personal revenge (for a past encounter almost too gruesome to describe…you’ll have to see it for yourself).

Lecter had been living a quiet, anonymous life in Italy, but the presence of reward seekers on his trail brings him out of his retirement.  He and Clarice will meet again…and this time, without the protective glass in between.

The film works on a certain level, but fails at the same time because it doesn’t reach beyond that level.  Scott’s approach to the material is more literal and less cerebral.  Silence could spook us just with the idea of what Lecter did to a nurse while in custody; Scott’s only means of competing is to show that moment as footage from an old surveillance camera.  It doesn’t scare; it merely startles, and the point is, of course, that we never needed to see it at all.

The original film played on our deepest fears long and torturously before ever shedding blood for us.  Hannibal rarely exists any higher than shock value.  There are effectively gruesome scenes, to be sure, but it’s all appetizer and no main course.  We leave the picture still feeling hungry.  That being said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t confess that the climax didn’t disturb me more deeply than just about any other horror film I can recollect.  It had chutzpah, panache, and impact…it’s just too bad that what came before it wasn’t more worthy.

If Hannibal falls short as a sequel, does it at least succeed as a film in its own right?  Possibly.  If you can shake the cultural infusion Silence has been for the last decade, you have in Hannibal a stylish thriller with a great look, terrific characters, and a sense of fearlessness in its approach to repulsive subject matter.  The problem is, very few of us have lived in enough of a vacuum to be able to appreciate it without comparing it to its far-better predecessor.

Hannibal is no wash, but neither does it completely satisfy.  The reversion from psychological horror to a more literal one isn’t worthy of the Lecter legacy.  He was far too great a villain to be reduced to a mere quip-quoting slasher.

Video ***1/2

These are mostly impressive Blu-ray presentations...as you might imagine, Manhunter suffers slightly worse than the others owing to age, but despite some aging artifacts and some instances of noticeable grain, it renders well in high definition for an 80s picture.

Silence and Hannibal are much better suited...each film has dark stretches, and a bit of textural grain here and there probably was unavoidable, but the colors and contrast are more striking than ever, as is the level of detail, even in said darker scenes.

Audio ***1/2

Again, Manhunter may fare the worst of the lot because it predated digital surround, but the remix offers some nice dynamic range, some rad 80s music, and clean and clear dialogue.  Audio becomes much more important with the psychological games of Silence, and the uncompressed DTS HD soundtrack delivers more creepy ambience, more startling bits of dynamic range, stronger music, and yes, clear dialogue...most important.  The same can be said for Hannibal, which has a few larger scale scenes (including the FBI raid) that open up the channels a little more and deliver some nice contrast to the eerier, quieter sequences.

Features **

This part of the review was a puzzler to me...I'm still shaking my head as I write.  No features are listed on the outside of the box...are these films actually without extras?

Yes, and no...and if you can explain to me the thinking behind this, I'd certainly welcome it.  Manhunter?  Not a thing.  Hannibal?  Nothing but a few trailers...all the features from the original DVD releases are nowhere to be found.

Yet on the disc for The Silence of the Lambs, everything is there from MGM's initial and excellent DVD release.  Included instead is a well-made documentary reflecting back on the film, featuring interviews with key cast and crew members including Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, screenwriter Ted Tally and some 1991 footage of Jodie Foster. There are 22 deleted scenes (not indexed, only viewable as a whole), an original 1991 short featurette, a trailer and 8 TV spots, a photo gallery, Anthony Hopkins’ answering machine message (real?). and a short but HYSTERICAL outtake reel…you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Mr. Hopkins doing Sylvester Stallone. I will say no more.

But why nothing on the other two discs?  MGM's DVD of Hannibal was actually nicely packed with extras, commentary and more.  Again, all I can say is...puzzling.

Summary:

It's a real treat to have The Hannibal Lecter Collection on Blu-ray, but fans expecting to get everything they once loved about the DVD releases might be thrilled with the audio and video quality, but disappointed in the less-than-generous transfer of extras to the high definition medium.

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