The First and Last Hannibal movie: HANNIBAL RISING (Webber, 2007)

Well, it’s the first Hannibal movie, because it starts with him as a child, and it’s chronologically the last one released. Unless #BryanFuller makes a movie, instead of Season 4 of the TV show. Or Sir Anthony Hopkins comes back as an octogenarian Hannibal, with his wife (Clarice – Jodie Foster or Julianne Moore would both be fine) running the meat business. Martha De Laurentiis @neoprod – I have a script treatment ready!

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This is the Hannibal film everyone loves to hate. We are treated to a sweet young Hannibal (Aaran Thomas) having to watch his beloved little sister Mischa being eaten by Nazi collaborators and deserters, and then discovering that he himself unwittingly joined the feast.

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From this, we deduce, came his hunger for human flesh. Like the desperate young crash survivors carving meat from the corpses of their dead teammates in Alive, his subsequent actions may not be acceptable, but become at least partially understandable. Psychopathy founded in trauma.

Hannibal of course would have hated this – remember that he told Clarice in Silence of the Lambs

“You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviourism… Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil?”

Or as the 21st century Hannibal said:

when it comes to nature versus nurture I choose neither. We are built from a DNA blueprint and born into a world of scenario and circumstance we don’t control.

There are two streams of thought on the subject of evil: one, from Rousseau to Arendt, is adamant that morality requires an explanation for evil, while an alternative stream from Voltaire to Jean Améry, insists that it be left unaccountable. Clarice Starling and Dino De Laurentiis would seem to favour the side of Rousseau, while Harris and Hannibal, and many critics of the film, seem more aligned with Voltaire. Harris apparently faced the awful choice of accepting large sums of money to divulge the origin story, or else see it betrayed by another writer.

The opening image of a film, they tell you in film studies, sets the mood and the theme. This one opens with a spider-web.

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People are afraid of spiders, for reasons that I have never quite understood. Beware, this one seems to be saying, and we hear childish Hannibal in the background, telling Mischa to run and hide! But it’s just a game. Until the Nazis appear, with their Hiwis, or Lithuanian collaborators, led by the irredeemably despicable Grutas (Rhys Ifans), bandits who are all too willing to assist the SS, for their own profit.

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Hannibal’s parents are killed, and the Hiwis take over the lodge, desperate for food, and finding none.

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Except for the children.

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We do not witness the cannibal acts then, but in nightmare flashbacks eight years later. Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is now a teenager, still mute from PTSD, in an orphanage which uses the former Lecter Castle. He is accused of not honouring “the human pecking order”

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Yes, he hates discourtesy. He won’t swallow bullying. Yet.

He escapes the orphanage, crosses Lithuania, Poland, East Germany (hops over the Wall, easy as anything) and arrives in his uncle’s home in Paris. Uncle is dead, and he moves in with his beautiful young Japanese aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li, who is Chinese, but, ah well). Will there be romance as she helps him recover his voice?

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She teaches him about the Samurai code, in front of the armour of her ancestors, strangely evocative of a later Hannibal.

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She teaches him the art of fighting. And the treatment of enemies.

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A butcher in the marketplace insults Murasaki, and Hannibal is enraged. The butcher (a Nazi collaborator) becomes Hannibal’s first kill, and then his first human meat, after the chef explains the delights of eating cheeks.

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Hannibal presents Murasaki with the butcher’s head. When she objects that he did not need to do that for her, he replies

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Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to Hannibal. Ah, so young, and already eating the rude. And already seeing cannibalism everywhere – looking at a fresco of Abraham on the mount, about to sacrifice his son, he asks

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So much about older Hannibal is revealed – the police inspector (Dominic West from The Wire) gives him a lie detector test – but he responds to nothing.

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Hannibal is also brilliant – the youngest student ever admitted into medical school. But he is still obsessed with Mischa and the men who took her from him. He can draw their faces from memory, but cannot remember their names. A dose of sodium thiopental, truth serum, with the Goldberg Variations (another Silence of the Lambs reference) playing in the background, gives him his mental break. Or maybe breaks something in him, depending on your propensity for behaviourism. He remembers that there was a bag of dog-tags left in the lodge, returns to the Soviet Union (no problem crossing the Iron Curtain for Hannibal apparently) and finds all the names. And Mischa’s teddy bear, and her bones. And one of the Hiwis, whom he dispatches, much as Will later dreams of dispatching Hannibal.

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He licks the blood off his glove, with some gusto, and prepares the cheeks for a fresh-air feast.

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Hannibal spends the rest of the movie tracking down the rest of the gang, who are now into respectable industries like human trafficking and drowning ortolans for lunch.

Along the way, there are interesting discussions of our topic – cannibalism. One of the gang tell Hannibal, as he is about to be killed:

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Survival cannibalism. Common in the days of sail, and in various famines. But the Inspector knows what happened, back in the USSR.

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Cannibalism happened on the Eastern Front, says the Inspector. This is not news to Hannibal. He is determined to find the gang leader, Grutas. The Inspector tells him (us) what a lovely guy Grutas is. He sawed off the head of the Rabbi at Kaunas.

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He walked away from his war crime trial because a witness got acid poured down her throat. So really, whatever Hannibal does, well, it’s OK with us. But the Inspector has decided Hannibal is insane.

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Murasaki tries to persuade him to give the gang up to the police. She can be quite persuasive.

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But Hannibal cannot make that promise. He has already promised Mischa – revenge.

At his first encounter with the villain, Grutas, he has an interesting outlook on cannibalism too.

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There you have it. Cannibalism is about love.

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Then the big reveal. Lady Murasaki is a captured by Grutas, Hannibal comes to the rescue and has Grutas at his mercy. Mercy is not a word Hannibal uses much, and when Murasaki asks him to stop, he says

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Grutas replies:

So did you. You ate her too. So why don’t you kill yourself? Pot Watcher fed her to you in a broth. You have to kill everyone who knows it, don’t you? You ate her, half conscious…

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Hannibal snaps, and carves M for Mischa on Grutas’ chest.

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Murasaki gives up, despite Hannibal’s protestations of love.

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Instead of following her, Hannibal stops for a quick snack on Grutas’ cheeks.

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Trivia time: Hannibal is not only a brilliant doctor, musician and cook, but he is also apparently ambidextrous. Check him out writing left-handed in this movie, whereas he is right-handed in all the others, and in the TV series.

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The film got a measly 16% on Rotten Tomatoes. Most criticism centres on the fact that it is not particularly scary, but that rather misses the point, IMHO. The question the film asks is: how do people overcome the social conditioning of their childhoods to become what they are – killers, cannibals, rapists, politicians? It may be genetic, as Hannibal tells Clarice: “nothing happened. I happened”. Or maybe the childhood itself offers a clue to how, as Clarice asked “you got that way”. The film offers a view of the latter – a gentle, loving little boy with, clearly, a brilliant mind, but so traumatised that he can think of nothing but revenge. His target – rude people and bullies. No one minds seeing them get their comeuppance. But you take a bite out of their cheeks, and suddenly everyone is convinced you’re a monster.

But here’s why I like this film:

  • The book and the screenplay are both written by the brilliant Thomas Harris, who of course created Hannibal. This is the only film in the series for which Harris wrote the screenplay
  • The Director is Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring)
  • There are two Hannibals in this movie (a 100% increase on all the other movies)! One at age eight, and the other a young man
  • It only takes Hannibal’s story up to his arrival in North America, leaving a nice narrative gap between that and his eventual capture and captivity by Will Graham in Red Dragon, which was perfectly filled by Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal (even if time shifted by a few decades)
  • It shows the humanity of Hannibal, his devotion to his sister, and his determination to hunt down her killers. If you don’t want your Hannibal to show humanity, then this can be a problem
  • It was a prequel. Every great character gets a prequel – Darth Vader, Indiana Jones, Vito Corleone, Mr Spock, Zorro, Batman – even Jesus has scored a few. Why not Hannibal?

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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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Doctor Lecter! Doctor Who?

David Tennant, the tenth Doctor Who, has told Entertainment Weekly that he was in consideration for the role of Hannibal Lecter in the television series Hannibal that ran for three seasons from 2013-15 (and we are still hoping for a fourth?)

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Hard to imagine anyone but Mads Mikkelsen playing the role, in hindsight, although he was, at the time the show was first announced, accused of being no Anthony Hopkins. But, as it turned out, he was perfect in the role, playing Hannibal as a fallen angel, rather than Hopkin’s trickster.

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But had that deal not been done, how would Tennant have been as Hannibal? He says that he met up with Bryan Fuller (the showrunner) a couple of times, and they talked about the role, but, he adds, “Mads Mikkelsen… was a perfect choice for it”. Here he is as Kilgrave on Marvel’s Jessica Jones. A much creepier Hannibal perhaps.

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Having an old friend for dinner: “The silence of the lambs” (Demme, 1991)

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The silence of the lambs is, almost without exception, the film that people first mention when I talk to them about cannibalism. This is a little surprising as, although the male lead, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), is a cannibal, for most of the film he is incarcerated, and even on the loose he is not seen actually eating anyone (although he certainly discusses the idea with some gusto). In the sequel, Hannibal (Scott 2001), he is indeed shown serving human flesh – the brain of Clarice’s nemesis – to its owner. In a later prequel, Hannibal rising (Webber 2008), an attempt is made to trace Lecter’s psychopathy to childhood trauma: the cannibalism of his sister during the war, much to the displeasure of many of his fans, who complained of the loss of the nuance and the mystery.

The silence of the lambs has become something of a cinematic classic, while the sequels and prequels have largely faded from memory. Robert Butler in the Chicago Tribune credited the film with legitimising cannibalism in the movies, with its star cast and haul of all five major Academy Awards – best picture, best actor, best actress, best director and best adapted screenplay. Before this, Butler claimed, cannibalism was limited to exploitation films. No doubt directors from Luis Buñuel to Peter Greenaway might demur.

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The film is a psychological thriller with Hannibal Lecter, an evil genius, trading insights into the most private neuroses of trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling in exchange for his profiling of the serial killer, Buffalo Bill, whose very name seems to animalise him. Bill is killing and skinning women to make a woman suit. He is pure monster, closer to the gender-challenged Leatherface of Texas chain saw massacre than the urbane, sophisticated, civilised psychiatrist Lecter, who remains a mystery. Bill and Leatherface are in fact both based on the real-life murderer and grave robber Ed Gein (as was Norman Bates from Psycho), who was very keen on making things out of human bodies, although whether he was a cannibal is still uncertain (and he’s not telling).

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Lecter’s jailer, Dr Chilton, comes closest to attempting a diagnosis, saying “Oh, he’s a monster. A pure psychopath. So rare to capture one alive”. Starling, asked by a young policeman if Lecter is a vampire, simply replies “they don’t have a name for what he is”. Maggie Kilgour, who wrote an excellent book on cannibalism as a “metaphor of incorporation”, wrote that Hannibal is defined by “rhyming logic” – anyone named “Hannibal” must end up a “cannibal”. That is good enough for the viewers – the man is considered pure evil, but deliciously, he is not a monster in the sense of Leatherface or even Sweeney Todd: we appreciate his style and wit, we even like him in contrast to the other psychopaths we meet in the film: Buffalo Bill, and Multiple Miggs, who ejaculates on Starling on her way out of the asylum, a dastardly act that the chivalrous Lecter abhors, and because of which he chooses to assist her. The psychological or legal weaponry of modern society is useless against his brilliance and primitive, raw power; Staring is sent to interview him like the lamb of the title being led to slaughter. Buffalo Bill has captured his latest victim, Catherine Martin, daughter of a powerful US Senator, and there are only days or hours before he kills and skins her to make his “woman suit”.

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The opening of the film finds Starling running in the woods, small and alone like Red Riding Hood, yet we soon find that she is on an FBI obstacle course in Quantico, running past the motto “hurt, agony, pain – love it”. Starling is not one of the screaming victims that we find in Texas chain saw massacre: Starling is still a victim, though, of patriarchy from her colleagues, mental probing from Lecter and stalking in the dark by Bill, but she is smart, well trained, strong and sassy, standing up to her boss when he uses the chauvinist card: she is the perfect example of the prey woman becoming the avenging hero.

‘Slasher’ films like Texas chain saw massacre routinely pit the redneck monster against the civilised hero. The silence of the lambs turns the ‘slasher’ order on its head: Lecter is the city sophisticate, Starling the West Virginia redneck – he skewers her with the observation “you’re not more than one generation from poor, white trash, are you Agent Starling?” Yet when she is splashed with his neighbour’s semen he tells her that “discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me”. Lecter is a pastiche of classical monsters: Dracula’s hunger for blood (and exaggerated courtesy), Dr Frankenstein’s scientific insight, Dr Jekyll’s secret identity; his power to terrify is precisely his amiable, civilised charm: we would rather be scared of cannibals who wear leather masks and grunt than those who eat us with fava beans and a nice chianti.

Clarice Starling has to overcome not just the mind games of Lecter the monster, but also the political ineptitude of the men around her in order to blow away the psycho-sexual killer Buffalo Bill, who is not a cannibal, at least not in gustatory terms. Bill is a depraved cannibal in the sense that he incorporates human skin into his persona, but it is Lecter, the deprived cannibal in the asylum, who is the protagonist.

The silence of the lambs trades in close-ups: Starling usually pensive, Bill leering and imagining a valid sexuality, Lecter directly threatening, staring, unblinking, in extreme close up, straight into the audience’s eyes. It is us that he is addressing, analysing, threatening. Under the menace is a keen humour, often rare in the genre. Besides Lecter’s pun about “having an old friend for dinner”, he also reflects on Starling’s offer that, in return for helping catch Bill, he will be allowed to use a beach (under SWAT surveillance of course) where there are terns. Terns – the word suggests to him that he and Starling should have “turns” at sharing information. Starling’s turn will not relate to the case, but to her life, her childhood traumas. Despite her boss’ instruction to tell him nothing personal – “you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head” – she describes her worst memory: the death of her father, a town marshal gunned down while on duty, and her subsequent life on an relative’s ranch, where she found the truth of animal agriculture, being awoken one night by the screaming of the spring lambs as they were slaughtered. She tried to free the lambs, took one and ran, but was caught and sent to an orphanage. Since then, Starling has been struggling with the contradictory messages given to children that harming animals is wrong, but eating them is fine. Lecter’s speculative diagnosis is that she believes that if she saves Catherine, the lambs will stop screaming in her dreams. She has made the lambs subjects, while Bill makes his victims objects. As Starling tears up under the intense and massively magnified gaze of Hannibal Lecter, she gives a glimpse into the abyss of what Carol Adams calls the “absent referent”, the process that objectifies animals (and women) who are the victims of violence.

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Starling’s lambs are not the only part of modern civilisation scrutinised and turned inside out by The silence of the lambs. The social order is very commonly defined in film by showing not examples of it but characters or events that transgress it. The strength of Lecter’s character is his ability not just to offend the social order but to be an extreme example of it: like modern America, he is educated, rational, even enlightened, yet, like modern society, there is an undercurrent of voracious appetite and extreme violence. Similarly, Starling transgresses social boundaries with her challenge to masculine power structures and her role as the rescuing hero rather than the hero-victim. Cary Wolfe believes that the most important discourse in this film is that of species. While cross-gender conflicts are examined through the minor character of Bill and to some extent Starling, and class issues in the clash of the civilised Lecter with the often inept and backward authority figures, at the heart of the film (reflected in its title) is the struggle of Starling to come to terms with the objectification of the innocents – the lambs of her childhood or the women Bill is skinning. Objectification is seen throughout: Bill speaks to Catherine in the third person: “it rubs the lotion on its skin; it does this whenever it’s told”; Lecter speaks of his victims by function: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti”.

One critic went so far as to say that Hopkin’s brilliance in the role makes Lecter “the cannibal we all want to be”. Lecter does not resist humanist symbology, he takes it to its logical extreme: he orders rare lamb chops, (a reference to Starling’s trauma), in his cell before he slaughters his jailers and escapes, as if to say that he does not eat animals instead of humans: he eats animals, so why not eat humans? He represents consumerism taken to its logical conclusion. As Maggie Kilgour summarised, the film demonstrates the continuing power of primal appetites: “man-eating is a reality – it is civilisation that is the myth”.

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