Another slice of Hannibal, anyone?

By Felicity Evans

Hit show Hannibal returns to Sky Living for a third season on Wednesday, 10 June. Just what is it that’s so incredibly tasty about the critically acclaimed drama?

[warning: contains spoilers]

“Psychopaths are not crazy. They are fully aware of what they do and the consequences of those actions.”

Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), Hannibal

It’s been nearly 25 years since Dr Hannibal Lecter appeared to audiences in The Silence of the Lambs, standing neatly and calmly to attention as he slid into view around the edge of his stone cell. The film was rightly hailed as a masterpiece for its visual elegance and fresh, intelligent contribution to the thriller/horror genre; central to this achievement is Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of Lecter. A role which could so easily have led to the scenery being well and truly chewed was used by Hopkins as an opportunity to create a modern portrait of a monster: the epitome of glittering, controlled and above all largely hidden malevolence. But Hopkins’s 16 minutes of screen-time not only sealed his brilliance as an actor and stole the film, it also created a template for a new kind of screen villain – the increasingly blurry and degraded facsimiles of which now litter the entertainment landscape like so many badly photocopied bill flyers. Combine this with the decline in quality and popularity of the Lecter ‘franchise’ over the years (ending with the widely-panned Hannibal Rising in 2007) and surely, if Mads Mikkelsen – Hannibal Lecter in Sky Living’s Hannibal – was looking for a poisoned career chalice, it was that old smoothy Lecter himself serving it up…

Given that any kind of attempt to re-boot the world of Lecter would come with all this baggage, it seemed remarkable at best (unwise at worst) when Bryan Fuller let it be known in late 2011 that, alongside an idea he had to revive The Munsters, he was toying with a plan to kick-start a new chapter in the Lecter canon. At the time, The Munsters probably seemed like by far the wiser bet, not least because at this point Fuller was best known for work that certainly flirted with darkness (Dead Like Me; Pushing Daisies) but was mostly pleasantly whimsical. However, once Hannibal began to air in 2013, it didn’t take long to see that Fuller hadn’t just pulled off the near-impossible, he’d removed it at the joint and sautéed it in garlic butter.

Because Hannibal is brilliant. It occupies a space somewhere between Asian horror, arthouse, and the Illustrated Police News. It’s a nightmare made real. It’s completely implausible yet horribly compelling, with a fantastic cast – speaking mostly very good dialogue – constantly working hard to keep the wheels from coming off whenever things get just too bonkers. And in Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Hannibal, we have the 21st century embodiment of a villain who finally feels new and interesting whilst at the same time possessing a pedigree that can be traced right back to the mediaeval period; a baddie who somehow manages to combine elements from game-changing American slashers such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, and the black-and-white horror classics they supplanted: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man.

Mikkelsen’s portrayal (easy to mistake as underpowered, initially) brings so much to the dinner table: Lecter is the ‘outsider’, marked as such by his accent (sensibly Scandinavian to UK ears, admittedly, but exotic to most Americans) and his manner; he’s a cultured and educated European who nonetheless means to feed from and kill the citizens of his adopted country, much like his predecessor Count Dracula. This, coupled with Lecter’s affluence, influence and fine tastes, can’t help but bring to mind (true) European horror tales older than Dracula: Elizabeth Bathory (the decadent virgin-murdering and blood-bathing aristocrat, 1516-1640) and Gilles de Rais (the decadent child-serial-killer aristocrat, 1405-1440). All of this feeds very neatly into a current and popular perception of the privileged and wealthy as cold and heartless, with an expanded capacity for cruelty, even sadism.

“Everyone has thought about killing someone, one way or another…”

Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), Hannibal

By all accounts, Hannibal season 3 is set to serve up more of the same, with – according to Fuller – some scenes in episode 7 so extreme that even the crew gasped in horror whilst they were being filmed. This generous (some might say camp) sprinkling of Grand Guignol only adds to the surreal tone that pervades the show, making the whole thing much more of a grim fairy tale than police procedural. It is no surprise to learn that Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) was slated to direct an episode at one point, and that Neil Marshall, fantasy veteran (Game of Thrones, Constantine), has directed an episode set to air this year – the first to show the new incarnation of yet another classic character from the Lecter cycle: Francis Dolarhyde AKA The Tooth Fairy (Richard Armitage).

Whatever comes next, one thing can be assumed: it certainly won’t lack spice…

Hannibal Season 3 episode 1, Sky Living, Wednesday, 10 June, 10 pm.

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