Dust to dessert – “To Serve Man” (Bare, Twilight Zone, 1962)

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“To Serve Man” was episode 89 of the hugely popular television series Twilight Zone, which ran from 1959-64. This episode is written by Rod Serling who introduced each episode, and is based on a 1950 short story by a science-fiction master, Damon Knight. The television episode moves the action to its own time, where it introduces 1960s politics: the Berlin blockade and the wars in Algeria and Indo-China.

In contrast to all this conflict and confrontation comes a stunning discovery: alien spaceships are landing near cities all over the world. The Secretary-General of the UN, (played by Hardie Albright – fun fact: one of the voices of Bambi), announces that one of the spacecraft has landed near the UN building, and one of the aliens is on his way to the UN to address the people of Earth. The aliens are called Kanamits, and Serling tells us about them:

“Respectfully submitted for your perusal – a Kanamit. Height: a little over nine feet. Weight: in the neighbourhood of three hundred and fifty pounds. Origin: unknown. Motives? Therein hangs the tale, for in just a moment, we’re going to ask you to shake hands, figuratively, with a Christopher Columbus from another galaxy and another time. This is the Twilight Zone.”

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Now, Columbus created much havoc in South America, where he coined the term “cannibal”, a mis-hearing of the name of the Carib tribe, and a misunderstanding of their eating habits. But this lot, the Kanamits, seem like good guys. The 3m dude says (without moving his lips – it’s all done by telepathy):

“Our intentions are honourable. We desire above all things to help the people of Earth.”

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The narration points out how unlikely this seemed: “as a race, we’re unaccustomed to charity. Brutality is a far more universal language to us.”

They offer things normally only seen in science fiction or election manifestos – a power source which can supply a whole country for the cost of a few dollars. A cheap nitrate, which can be added to the soil to end famine for good. An impenetrable force field, which nations can use as a defensive shield. “It was the age of Santa Claus”.

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Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner), a cryptography expert, is asked by the military to translate the book the Kanamits have left on the table of the UN (why would they do that?) Anyway, it’s a very different language from a different galaxy, so he and his team have no idea where to start. Also, he thinks that maybe the military are “looking a gift horse in the mouth”, worried that with the alien imposed peace and prosperity, the armed forces will be out of a job. Then his assistant, Patty (Susan Cummings), bursts in with the news that they have deciphered the title of the book. It is: “TO SERVE MAN”. Chambers calls this “a reasonably altruistic phrase”, although the others are more cautious. But the deserts bloom, armies are mothballed, and thousands of earthlings are invited to board the spaceships and visit the Kanamit home planet. As the guests embark, a smiling Kanamit weighs each person.

Patty is still working on the book, but explains that the capital letters on the title she translated are different to the lower case letters in the book. THIS is what’s holding them up? Anyway, as Chambers starts to board, Patty arrives, having broken the code. She shouts the famous line to him:

Its a cookbook
 

“To serve man: it’s a cookbook!”

 

She has proved that paraprosdokians somehow work fine in any language, even transgalactically.

Confined on board, Chambers turns to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, which was pretty revolutionary in those days. He asks us:

“How about you? You still on earth, or on the ship with me? It doesn’t make very much difference, because sooner or later we’ll all of us be on the menu. All of us.”

Rod Serling sums up in a more profound explication:

“Simply stated, the evolution of man. The cycle of going from dust to dessert. The metamorphosis from being the ruler of a planet, to the ingredient in someone’s soup.”

There’s the rub. We love to think of ourselves as the “alpha predator” (except when we are surrounded by sharks or crocodiles). But what if we weren’t? What if someone else saw us the way we see animals like cows, pigs, sheep and chickens? Is the fear of cannibalism just the fear of being eaten by humans, or also the fear that civilised people (regardless of galaxy) can be just as fierce and brutal as nature, red in tooth and claw? Aliens eating us can be just as disturbing as cannibals, particularly when they look like us, such as in Under The Skin (Glazer, 2013).

When Hannibal Lecter decides some of us are rude and can only be improved by cooking, are his feelings of superiority different to the Kanamit? To eat a human or any other animal requires objectification: turning an individual into a commodity. We do it to our prey. The Kanamits do it to theirs. Are they wrong? Are we?

The full episode is on Youtube:

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Cannibalism with Danish: “The Green Butchers” (Jensen, 2003)

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Anders Thomas Jensen directed this Danish black comedy, which is only really listed early in this blog because it stars – yep, that really is him – Mads Mikkelsen, better known to readers of this blog, I daresay, as Hannibal Lecter in the television series Hannibal (2013-15).

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Svend (Mads Mikkelsen) and Bjarne (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) work in a butcher shop, but are browbeaten by their mean boss, “Sausage” Holger (Ole Thestrup), who says Bjarne’s pate tastes like jockstrap, and even disparages Svend’s marinade (believe it or not, this becomes an important plot point). Holger opens the film with a great summary of animal agriculture:

“I’ve always been fascinated by sausages. It’s almost mythological to kill an animal and then mock it by sticking it in its own intestine. Can you imagine anything worse than being stuck up your own ass?”

They can’t stand this rude dude, so they start their own butcher shop (slagtermester). Bjarne has problems: he smokes twenty joints a day and kills animals so he can collect their skeletons. But it turns out he is the saner of the two partners.

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Their grand opening attracts a total of zero customers. Next morning, Svend does not have a good day: he breaks up with his fiancé and then discovers that he has inadvertently locked the electrician in the meat freezer all night. What to do with a frozen electrician? Holger appears, demanding fillets for the Rotary dinner, and Svend panics.

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Next day, the guests from the Rotary dinner are queueing up outside the shop – they all loved the fillets. Business is booming and, as Svend says, we had to get rid of him, one way or another. The electrician becomes “Svend’s chicky-wickies”. Then the real estate agent turns up, wanting a tour of the premises. So it goes.

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It’s an accidental Sweeney Todd. They meant no harm, and are just being rewarded for bumbling incompetence. And isn’t that the way the world really operates? The Peter Principle!

Then the local pastor reveals that he didn’t like the Rotary dinner. It reminded him of his wife. The wife he had to eat after a plane crash on their honeymoon. Yes, it’s not just Danish Hannibal, it’s also Alive!

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Mads Mikkelsen is very good in the role of the nervous, sweating, irritable Svend, although it’s hard to reconcile this farcical character, and his extraordinary haircut, with the cool, sophisticated and brilliant Dr Hannibal Lecter, let alone Le Chifre in Casino Royale or even Kaecilius in Dr Strange.

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By the end of the film, we are asked questions of perception: what is appetite? What is “meat”? Is the secret in the sauce? Is that a wig?

The promoters had no idea what to do with this film. Check out some of the posters – hard to tell that they are for the same thing!

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It’s a quirky comedy, pleasant enough and inoffensive, unless you are offended by either butchers or cannibalism. If you are equally offended by both, then perhaps it has done its job well.

 

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The unkindest cut: “Teeth” (Lichtenstein, 2007)

Six months into this blog, I ask you: have we actually defined cannibalism? I answer you (because it’s a rhetorical question): no, we have not.

The Oxford Dictionary says that a cannibal is “a person who eats the flesh of other human beings”. But what does “eat” mean, then? “Put (food) into the mouth and chew and swallow it.”  So then we have problems with zombies, who eat the flesh of other humans, but may or may not be “persons” (since they are dead, or undead). And with bulemics, who chew and swallow, but then bring it up again?

Why am I being such a pain about this? Because I like this film, and would love to fit it into my cannibal blog. But she, to put it politely, does not swallow

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Teeth is directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, the son of far more famous pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. It is awkwardly defined as “comedy horror” which can be a problematic mix, and often ends up with silly movies like Eat the Rich. But this one works, although I didn’t find it terribly funny. I guess if you were sitting in a cinema watching a bunch of teenage boys squirm, that might have been good for a laugh.

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Dawn O’Keefe (Jess Weixler) is a teenage spokesperson for a Christian abstinence group called the “Promise”. This is a terrifying crowd – young teens can be pretty off-putting anyway, but this lot want to chant stuff about Eve and the Devil and Sin, and do so with a flint-eyed seriousness that is disturbing (or funny if you see it from a certain angle).

Dawn has a talent which is not known to anyone, including her, or the various males who try to assault and penetrate her: she has a vagina dentata: a toothed vagina. As a tiny girl, she almost bites off the finger tip of her step-brother who is doing naughty things under her swim suit in the wading pool, but the talent comes into its own when a boy from the abstinence group decides that God will forgive and understand if he takes advantage of their solitary swim, knocks her almost unconscious and then starts to rape her. Well, God might forgive, but Dawn’s lower teeth don’t, and he discovers a new and very agonising weight loss method.

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The vagina dentata is an ancient myth that is found in many folk legends from a wide range of peoples. Freud and the classical theorists liked to say that it is a representation of the fear that little boys have of their penis-less mothers, which leads them to assume that they are next for castration, either by her or by their fathers who are angry at their budding Oedipal desires. Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God talks about a New Mexico myth in which “vagina girls” ate men who came to their house for sex. We’re getting close to cannibalism now, I think.

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It’s a huge subject, covering quite a lot of what goes in the festering sewers of our unconscious minds. If you wish to research it more (and it is fascinating stuff), Barbara Creed has covered the subject comprehensively in The Monstrous Feminine.

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So: young Dawn, played brilliantly by Jess Weixler, whom you may recognise as the investigator Robyn in the TV series The Good Wife, believes in saving herself for marriage, a view that is considered somewhat old fashioned now, but still resonates in many parts of the world, particularly the Bible belts. Those around her, including her step-brother with the disfigured finger, feel that she should “put out” as they say, but when she does, boy are they sorry. Creed looks closely at the “taboo of virginity” and Freud’s view that this arises from penis envy and frigidity. Men fear that women will castrate them, particularly when the loss of virginity is painful, as it clearly is to Dawn. Freud ignores the possibility that it is men’s irrational fear of the deadly power of the vagina that leads to fear of sexual intercourse. Brought up in this oppressive environment, Dawn is unaware of her power. The film unravels this power.

Weixler won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival “For a juicy and jaw-dropping performance”, and it was well deserved.

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You have to watch closely to catch the “banana split” gag

The horror of cannibalism is at least as much to do with their power to snap, bite and destroy as it is with their tendency to swallow (any old Jaws can do that). The vampire, without whom the Horror industry would be toothless (sorry), swallows, but only blood, not flesh. Yet it is the sharp teeth and the swallowing that gives vampires their welcome into at least the outer limits of cannibal fiction. Dawn is an unwilling but not totally innocent cannibal, because she soon figures out (through google) what it means to be the bearer of the vagina dentata.

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A film like this could easily degenerate into farce, and the celibate teens could end up laughable stereotypes of conservative bigots. Yet, Dawn takes us with her on her quest to understand what she is, what she wants, and what she can do to those who wish to force themselves on her. The logline states “every rose has its thorns”, and the trailer says “Something is wrong with Dawn O’Keefe”. But surely that’s not true – there is something very wrong with the rapists, and it gets a lot wronger as they get closer to the climax of their plans. One review said:

“What’s most important for Dawn is she discovers her vagina is not a curse but a source of power.”

Dawn at first thinks that her vagina dentata might be the “Adam within”, a forbidden male side of her character that causes gratuitous havoc. But in fact, the teeth are her defence and her weapon against injustice. With her extra teeth, and the ‘dawning’ of the realisation of her own power, Dawn is a superhero of the #MeToo age.

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The film has a respectable 80% on Rotten Tomatoes website, with the concensus being:

“Smart, original, and horrifically funny, Teeth puts a fresh feminist spin on horror movie tropes.”

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This poster was apparently banned

The final credits state:

No man was harmed

 

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Dead people’s fingers? Really? No.

The film blogs arrive on Sunday morning (eastern Australian time) but occasionally another possible cannibal connection arrives which is too good to miss. Take a look:

Dead peoples fingers

Yep, not dead fingers at all. It’s a fungus, that happens to look like grey fingers with nails. It’s Xylaria polymorpha, commonly known as dead man’s fingers, a saprobic fungus.

So what’s it doing on a cannibal blog? Only this: it reminded me of the scene from the TV series Hannibal called “Amuse-Bouche“. People are being buried, alive, to feed fungi.

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I guess you’d call that: life imitates art?

One of the best shows on television, and I will get to it soon on this blog.

 

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Ensemble cannibalism: “Eat the Rich” (Richardson, 1987)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is reported to have told the Paris Commune during the French Revolution that:

“When the people have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.”

It caught on, some 200 years later, and became the title of a number of songs from such revolutionary outfits as Aerosmith, Motörhead and State of Mind.

Rousseau could have added “and when the people have nothing to watch, they will watch cannibalism comedies”. Lucky he didn’t though, because not many people watched this particular lemon.

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Eat the Rich is a black comedy featuring the cast members of the popular television series The Comic Strip Presents…. (Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, Peter Richardson, Jennifer Saunders and Alexei Sayle), plus a whole lot of big name cameos. Among the cameos are two really great bass guitarists: Paul McCartney and Bill Wyman!

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Enough trivia – time to get to the serious business of comedy. The film is set in a restaurant named ‘Bastards’ where Alex (Al Pellay), is a waiter, trying to put up with the contempt and disgust of the upper-class clientele, who order dishes like “sliced baby koala, poached in its mother’s milk”. Alex is fired for being rude and turns to a life of crime and revolution. The denouement comes when Alex and his friends return to Bastards and start killing and cooking the customers, renaming the establishment “Eat the Rich”.

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This is the police
This is the police. Lay down your knives and forks!

The film was a very thinly veiled satire on Thatcher’s England, but never really seemed likely to be a call to arms. Timeout London said:

“the back-alley production values and total lack of comic invention on display in this Thatcher-baiting misstep meant that any hopes of a Pythonesque run at the movies were knocked way back on their heels.”

It was a commercial flop, taking in only $200,000 in the US. This may have set cannibal humour back decades but, fortunately, we have just learnt that John Cleese is writing a cannibalism film! According to recent press releases, Cleese has revealed that:

“My greatest professional accomplishment will be a movie I’m writing now, a light comedy about cannibalism. It’s called Yummy.”

Hold The Sunset. Phil (John Cleese). Copyright: BBC.
Of course, that could be Cleese being too silly, too silly.

But it shows a certain zeitgeist – cannibal films are the flavour of this era of our culture. I wonder if it relates to our fears about the increasingly apparent hazards of a society and economic system based on ever more voracious appetite?

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If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
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Starting the ‘cannibal boom’: “Man From Deep River”, (Lenzi, 1972)

Man From Deep River, otherwise known as Deep River Savages, Sacrifice and (originally) Il paese del sesso selvaggio (English: The Country of Savage Sex), is a 1972 Italian cannibal film directed by Umberto Lenzi. Largely overlooked in the world of cannibal studies (with some justification), it is best remembered for starting the “cannibal boom” of Italian exploitation cinema that filled our big screens with blood and body parts in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Lenzi was probably trying to imitate the content of the notorious Mondo cinema, which had gained grindhouse popularity after Mondo Cane (Jacopetti and Cavara) in 1962. Mondo films tended to focus on exotic customs and locations, graphic violence, and animal cruelty, often presented as fact. Man from Deep River turned this into a fictional formula.

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The film was inspired by A Man Called Horse (Silverstein, 1970), which also featured a white man who is incorporated into a tribe that originally held him captive. Horse had the advantage of a big star: Richard Harris, who went on to be King Arthur, Marcus Aurelius and Albert Dumbledore (in the first two Harry Potter movies), as well as having a brief but glorious singing career with one huge hit: Macarthur Park. This is all totally irrelevant to this blog, which is about cannibal movies, but you should watch the clip of the Jimmy Webb song Macarthur Park, which has little or nothing to do with anything, even the song, but helps explain why Baby Boomers are, well, the way we are.

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Don’t drop the soap

In Man From Deep River (see? back on track already!) British wildlife photographer John Bradley (Ivan Rassimov) kills a man after a boxing match in Bangkok (as if to say “we can be savages too!”) and heads into the rain forest, with his camera. Naturally, he is captured by a native tribe. Bundled in a net, he is and carried to their village, where they tell the chief that they have caught a large fish-man. After a bit of xenophobic torture and witnessing a couple of murders of members of a rival tribe of – yes – cannibals (the tongue scene is hard to forget), John attracts the attention of Marayå (Me Me Lai), the beautiful and naked daughter of the chief, who convinces her father that John is not a fish-man, just a hu-man. Dad agrees to release Bradley, as Marayå’s slave. Could be worse.

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There’s an escape attempt, and then the chance to join the tribe through a trial by ordeal – but of course, the cannibals are still next door, as they must be to qualify this film for this blog. Things get sticky. And red.

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Cannibalism is certainly featured in the film, but director Umberto Lenzi stated that cannibalism was not intended to be the central theme, and the “cannibal boom” did not really start until Ruggero Deodato released his film Last Cannibal World in 1977 (we’ll get to it eventually). Nevertheless, Man from Deep River is seen as either the inspiration or the start of the cannibal boom, as its combination of the rain forest setting and onscreen cannibalism was a revolutionary innovation (Tarzan movies never dared). Lenzi was asked to direct Last Cannibal World, but the producers chose Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust, 1980) when Lenzi’s price was too steep. Lenzi didn’t miss the boom, though, making Eaten Alive! (1980) and his most famous work, Cannibal Ferox (1981).

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Looks delish, but I’m a bit tied up right now

Man from Deep River also set the standard for scenes of extreme violence and carnage, including on-screen killing of animals, which rightly incited the wrath of censorship authorities around the world. It is a simplistic although surprisingly sympathetic look at the clash of modern and ‘savage’ cultures, mixed with a rather touching love story. It is elegantly filmed, although Lenzi’s obvious affection for twiddling his zoom lens can get a bit nauseating. But most of all, Man from Deep River set the pace for the cannibal exploitation movies that came after it: the white man, lost and bound, finding that his pretensions of superiority just don’t stand up to the scrutiny of the jungle.

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Literally: ‘the place of savage sex’. Fake news.
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The First Hannibal movie! “Manhunter” (Mann, 1986)

 

Polite cannibal films are careful not to show teeth sinking into flesh. But it’s a bit odd to have a cannibal film, especially one involving “Hannibal The Cannibal”, which doesn’t even mention the subject of cannibalism!

Hannibal Lecter first appeared in print in 1981 in Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon. Incredibly (in hindsight), there was a five year gap before Robert Mann directed Manhunter, a corker of a movie – and the very first Hannibal film. Mann altered both the title of the story and Hannibal’s surname, for no particularly good reason – it seems there may have been some doubt over the copyright to the name, although the plot was almost identical to the book. There have been suggestions in interviews that, because Bruce Lee was churning out Dragon movies at the time, producer Dino De Laurentiis was worried that people would think “Red Dragon” was just another Kung Fu movie.

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The Director, Michael Mann, was named 28 on Total Film’s list of “the 100 Greatest Directors Ever”. Before he got the gig, David Lynch was considered for the job, but reportedly rejected the role after finding the story to be “violent and completely degenerate”. Quite a judgement call from the man who made Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks!

Brian Cox plays Hannibal Lecktor (as it is spelt in the credits). It’s a masterful performance, but “Lecktor” is a minor character who is a foil for the protagonist, Will Graham (played by a young William Petersen, later the star of CSI), rather than a menacing and cannibalistic presence. In fact, Hannibal does not appear until 23 minutes into the film, and then there is no mention of his gustatory predilections. This Hannibal is a simple monster, a serial killer, and is played by Brian Cox as a rendering of the Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel. As Cox says in an interview, “Real evil is something that is so scarily normal”. The back story is that Will was the first to recognise that Hannibal was the serial killer that the FBI was seeking. The book Red Dragon, if not so much this film version, is the fertile soil from which sprouted most of Bryan Fuller’s TV series Hannibal. Also, of course, the Anthony Hopkins version of Red Dragon in 2002, which was a bit jarring, in that Hannibal had visibly aged, despite it being supposedly a  prequel to Silence of the Lambs.

I’ll get to that one. As Hannibal likes to say: “All good things to those who wait”.

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Brian Cox in his lonely cell

So, Cox’s Hannibal is normal, urbane, brilliant and uncomplicatedly “evil”. This approach makes sense: Hannibal can understand the Tooth Fairy (the psychotic killer who is the actual villain of the film – Hannibal is in a cell the entire film). The Tooth Fairy believes he is becoming a higher form of life. He writes to Hannibal:

“You alone can understand what I am becoming. You alone know the people I use to help me in these things are only elements undergoing change to fuel the radiance of what I am Becoming. Just as the source of light is burning.”

Hannibal, in his lonely cell, enjoys collecting articles about disasters, particularly those in which churches collapse and kill worshippers. He deduces from this, as he tells Will, that killing must feel good to God:

“It feels good, Will, because God has power. And if one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is.”

Hannibal believes in a maleficent god, one who enjoys the power of killing. So does he, and so does the Tooth Fairy. Hannibal offers to help Will find the TF, but only because he seeks revenge – he finds out Will’s home address, and passes it on to the TF with instructions to “kill them all”. These are not simple projects when you’re in solitary in a high security mental asylum. He is not just brilliant (and evil) but very resourceful.

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Will before he became Gil on CSI

John Lithgow, Mandy Patinkin, Brian Dennehy and even the director William Friedkin were considered for the part of Hannibal, but Brian Cox got the part, and played it brilliantly. He has on numerous occasions denied feeling cheated that Anthony Hopkins got the sequel (and the Oscar) in Silence of the Lambs. Well, he’s either telling the truth or a very great actor (he’s both).

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Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins as telephonic manipulator Hannibal Lecter/Lecktor

Hannibal’s main scene is below:

Cox did express an opinion that, after Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal had “lost his mystery”. You may have seen Cox not that long ago as General Kutuzov in the BBC production of War and Peace, or as Churchill, in the movie of the same name.

 

In 1986, the idea of some sort of homoerotic relationship between Hannibal and Will was pretty much unthinkable – that had to wait for Bryan Fuller’s masterful television prequel Hannibal some quarter of a century later. Nonetheless, Will Graham gets the best line in this film. As Lecktor waxes lyrical about the way Will has managed to get a journalist killed during the investigation, Will blurts out:

“I’m sick of you crazy sons of bitches!”

But the rest of us are not, Will. We enjoy cannibals, even if they are as modest about their eating habits as Hannibal Lecktor. They remind us that we are not gods, but edible animals.

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