When Thomas Harris wrote “Red Dragon” in 1981, he gave pop culture one of its most enduring monsters: the smooth serial killer and psychopathic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter.
Given Harris’ private nature — he disdains the limelight and didn’t interact with the press until 2019 — it’s unknown just how he feels about the footprint his initially secondary character has left on society.
But without Dr. Lecter, it’s unlikely we’d have so many sophisticated serial killers in horror; prior to his appearance, murderers were typically silent juggernauts like Jason and Michael Meyers, or wise-cracking slashers like Freddy Kruger, and their prey was decidedly teenaged.
Hannibal’s impact is intriguing when you consider that, in his first appearance, he’s an inmate with very little screen time. Captured by profiler Will Graham some years earlier, he’s introduced in “Red Dragon” as a figure who’s been much studied yet still remains enigmatic.
Dr. Lecter has refined manners, epicurean tastes and a razorblade of a mind. He revels in the cat-and-mouse game he continues to play with Agent Graham, his greatest adversary, but besides leaking Graham’s home address to the active killer of the novel — Francis Dolarhyde, dubbed “The Tooth Fairy” by law enforcement — Lecter doesn’t actually do much in the story.
Yet from that first humble appearance, a franchise was spawned, covering several books, movies, a TV show and even theater productions. Several actors have assumed the bad doctor’s psychiatric degree, and today I’ll be ranking them from worst to best.
4. Gaspard Ulliel (2007′s “Hannibal Rising”)
In this origin story prequel, we discover Hannibal, orphaned in Germany during WWII, became a vengeful Nazi hunter after soldiers murdered and cannibalized his younger sister. Pursuing the men across France, Lecter discovered a taste for violence that clearly outlasted his quest for revenge.
Just about everyone can agree “Hannibal Rising” — both Harris’ novel and the movie — is a hot mess. There’s just too much going on, and trying to cast the cannibalistic serial killer in a heroic role is a step too far.
And it’s quite a shame, considering Ulliel is an extremely talented actor (he’s won two Césars, the French equivalent of an Academy Award) and was the best thing about the entire film. But, unfortunately, the subpar material he had to work with means his performance alone isn’t enough to salvage his ranking on this list.
3. Brian Cox (1986′s “Manhunter”)
In Michael Mann’s adapt of “Red Dragon”, and the first film made of the Hannibal series, Cox’s Dr. Lecktor (yes, that’s how it’s spelled in the final credits) sits in an all-white cell as he taunts and teases William Petersen’s Agent Graham, the man who put him behind bars, the man he almost managed to kill. Graham holds it together during their interview, but the moment he leaves the room he runs through the facility, hyperventilating.
Later, Lecktor cleverly subverts a button-less phone with the foil from a piece of chewing gum to obtain Graham’s home address, and passes it on to killer Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) in a coded want ad. In his final scene, he expounds on the power of feeling like God and embracing your true self in a phone call with the haunted profiler.
Mann said he limited Lecktor’s screen time to keep the audience wanting more of the charismatic monster, and that sure is the case. Cox, who based his performance off of Scottish murderer Peter Manuel, plays Lecktor as an intense, but somehow charming, sociopath. (Cox also credits his casting to the fact that he’s Scottish, as characters who are “a little bit nasty” are best played by Europeans.)
Cox’s Lecktor is threatening around Graham, yes, but he’s also so polite and eloquent it’s hard to believe this is a man who’s eaten people. I confess I prefer Cox’s take on Hannibal to #2′s; this version of Lecter acts like a normal guy who could perfectly blend in at any gathering, someone who would never set off your internal alarms, which makes him more believable as a killer who escaped notice for years.
2. Anthony Hopkins (1991′s “The Silence of the Lambs”, 2001′s “Hannibal” and 2002′s “Red Dragon”)
When you hear the name “Hannibal Lecter”, I’ll bet dollars to donuts the face you picture is Sir Hopkins’. He did win an Oscar for the role, after all, when “Silence of the Lambs” swept the Academy Awards, one of the few horror films to ever do so.
And his performance is magnetic. Few can stare quite so menacingly, and that eerie cadence he speaks in is disquieting, to say the least. You find yourself holding your breath during his tension-laden exchanges with Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), and when his repressed violence is finally let loose, it’s horrifying to see the animalistic rage beneath his sophisticated veneer.
I’ve put Hopkins at #2, though, for a couple of reasons. He gets a higher ranking than Cox purely because he had more screen time, and thus does more and is allowed a greater presence over the course of three films.
But he’s not at #1, despite that aforementioned Oscar, because his sequels somewhat diminish the incredible impact he had in “Lambs.” “Hannibal” is too outrageous with its ulta-violent set pieces, culminating in that brain-eating scene that is, honestly, pretty laughable, and some of Lecter’s scenes in “Red Dragon” slide too far into camp territory.
Also, Hopkins’ Lecter is just too obviously a dangerous madman. Even at his most civilized moments, those unblinking lizard eyes and ominous intonations mark him as a monster. Far scarier, in my view, is a serial killer you would never suspect.
1. Mads Mikkelsen (NBC’s “Hannibal” series).
In Bryan Fuller’s take on the Hannibal mythos, we finally see the suave forensic psychiatrist prior to his imprisonment. Operating a successful practice and cooking gourmet meals every night, Mikkelsen’s Dr. Lecter first meets Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) after the FBI Special Agent catches and kills the murderer Garrett Jacob Hobbs.
Graham’s superior, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), knows Graham is struggling from the psychological toll of his job, and assigns Lecter to supervise him, unaware Lecter is a murderer himself and begins to push Graham over the edge in the hopes of making him a murderer, too (ah, what delicious irony).
“Hannibal” may be one of the most beautiful, most upsetting, TV shows ever made. Every murder scene is presented as a grotesque, deeply disturbing piece of art. The entire cast delivers incredible performances, and Fuller turns the homoerotic cat-and-mouse between Lecter and Graham up to 11, a choice that succeeds thanks to the scorching chemistry and real life friendship between Mikkelsen and Dancy.
Those who know me know I adore Mads Mikkelsen. The Danish actor was born to play intense weirdoes, and really excels as villains. (Brian Cox may have been on to something when he said Europeans are the best at playing nasty.) His thick accent and Continental polish are perfect covers for his creepiness — the Americans around him, more than once, brush off their uneasiness about his behavior as mere cultural differences.
And Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is a man others want to emulate. He’s so dignified in his suits, so classy with his leatherbound library and expensive art and collection of fine wines. He’s a maestro in the kitchen, and always the cleverest man in any room. This is a Dr. Lecter who would never do something as crass as murder a man, let alone serve his liver with some fava beans. He’s a consummate actor, which makes the moments when he drops his civilized veneer even more terrifying.
For all of those reasons, and because he gets the most screen time and character development across three seasons, I have to put Mikkelsen at the top when it comes to Hannibal Lecters. If you haven’t checked out “Hannibal” yet, the entire series is currently streaming on Hulu, and what better time to watch it than for Halloween? Just be warned: for all of its macabre beauty, it’s a show packed full of triggers and gag-inducing moments.
• ANGIE BARRY is a contributing columnist for Shaw Media. To suggest future topics for The B-List, which covers topics in pop culture, history and literature, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: The Daily Chronicle