I don’t much care for horror films. Aside from Cabin in the Woods, which is less a horror film than it is an exciting meta action-adventure that just happens to feature a lot of blood, they just aren’t very interesting to me. The way I see it, a good horror movie is suppose to scare you, and for the most part horror films (especially American ones) just aren’t scary. Sure, they might make you jump a couple of times with their unnecessarily loud soundtracks, but the terror doesn’t hang off you in the way that it should, which is probably why most horror movie buffs treat the films more like comedies than scary movies.
But NBC’s new show Hannibal, created by Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies) and based on the novels and films of the same name (yes, the Silence of the Lambs ones), is downright horrifying. Last night I found myself thinking about a recent episode right before bed, and just the memory of it successfully kept me awake for another three hours, only able to sleep after I’d cleared my mind with a little Cloud Atlas (Robert Frobisher, you ass). I actually locked my bedroom door, just in case. And that’s why I love it to pieces.
Given the widespread popularity of the Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, chances are you already know who Dr. Hannibal Lecter is, but just in case I’ll sum it up for you (in the context of the show–many of the details differ from the original novels and movies). Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a very talented psychologist and a terrifyingly intelligent and charming psychopath with a penchant for cannibalism. He kills people and harvests their organs for his gourmet dinners, which he enjoys feeding to his friends, who are none the wiser as to the source of their food. At the outset of the show, he becomes interested in one Will Graham, an FBI profiler with an incredible ability to empathize with others–a talent that is both a gift and a curse. Will is part of the task force assigned to catch the “Chesapeake Ripper”–who is actually Hannibal. The show sometimes pretends to be a police procedural, but mostly it is about Hannibal slowly encroaching on Will’s life and driving him mad while everyone else fails to realize what’s happening.
Before I get into the thematic meat of the show, I want to talk about the other two things that make me love it. The first is that the writing, dialogue, characterization, acting, setting, cinematography, special effects, costuming, everything is just flawless. I mean, I’m sure there are things wrong with it, but so far nothing has stood out enough for me to care about it. Not a single character, including the five (five!) female characters, comes off as flat or stereotypical; the dialogue is always doing double or triple thematic work; the dream sequences feel like dreams while always staying on point symbolically; and if Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen don’t get at least nominated for Emmies for this show, heads will roll.
The second great thing about this show is its weird-ass fan base. Hannibal takes itself very seriously. If there are any moments of levity on the show, I can’t remember them; it’s pretty much Serious Business all the time. In contrast, the fandom is just a writhing mass of cannibalism puns, sparkly GIFs and jokes about “murder boyfriends.” While that might sound like the fan base is being irreverent, the reason for it is very important. When you have a show that’s this much of a downer (one person on tumblr commented, “Watching Hannibal is like having an appointment to watch a friend get hit by a car once a week,” which is pretty much accurate), the fans have to lighten things up almost by necessity, just to keep from slipping into the same dark tunnel Will Graham is going down. Every week, the show tears out your heart, grills it on the barbecue and eats it with a side of slow-roasted potatoes, so you kind of need the absurd hilarity of the fandom to put you back together again afterward. It’s like an inane little support group (with a lot of artistic talent). I’ve even had a go at lightening the mood myself:
But the true brilliance of this show lies in the carefully constructed downward spiral of its protagonist, Will Graham, and the way in which you find yourself both rooting for and hating Hannibal. You see, Will is like the most sympathetic protagonist of all time. He’s cute and sensitive, smart but vulnerable, and always trying to help people even at a cost to his own well-being. Hell, one of the first things we see him do is rescue a stray dog off the street and take it home to the pack of other rescued strays he’s acquired. Will Graham makes you want to give him a hug, make him some hot chocolate and tell him that everything is going to be alright.
And then there’s Hannibal. Hannibal is one scary-smart, clinical, manipulative, egotistical, smug, predatory, classy bastard. Everything he does is carefully calculated, whether it’s a casual observation to a “friend” that results in their demise, or slicing someone’s neck open. Watching him work is a deeply conflicting experience, because while you recognize him as a horrific monster, and you want nothing more than to rescue Will from his ever-constricting clutches, he’s also…fascinating. That’s the only word for it. His plans are so meticulously laid that it’s like watching a master artist at work, and even though you hate him, you also kind of love him. Plus, he’s the only person on the show who seems to be having any fun. There is nothing sympathetic about Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and yet you repeatedly find yourself rooting for him. It is a very weird experience.
As the show progresses and Will Graham sinks further and further into madness, it is sometimes hard to remember that you don’t have to sink with him. It has a way of making you turn inwards and doubt your own understanding of the world and sense of self the way that Will is doubting his. You begin to wonder what Hannibal might see inside your head, if you were to meet, and that’s a terrifying thought.
And all of that is before you take into consideration the straight-up gore and violence that happens on the show. It is not for the weak of stomach. I mean, for god’s sake, there’s one episode where a serial killer is literally hiding underneath people’s beds. It plays on just about every phobia you could possibly have, and does it gleefully–and I hear that they actually had to cut bits for broadcast, but those things are going to re-appear on the DVD release. Frankly, I’m amazed that this show is on network television at all, but I’m glad for it. Hannibal is sheer brilliance and everybody should watch it (so long as you can keep your dinner down).
“Psychopaths are not crazy. They are fully aware of what they do and the consequences of those actions.” -Hannibal