Hannibal’s Feminist Take on Horror

The NBC drama proves that you can stamp out sexism and still produce scares.

Sady Doyle March 11, 2014

Mads Mikkelsen role as Hannibal Lector may be the character's definitive performance. (Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

There are cer­tain rules a girl has to fol­low, if she wants to pre­serve her men­tal health. Get lots of sleep; spend at least 15 min­utes a day out­doors, prefer­ably while exer­cis­ing; breathe deeply and count to fif­teen before decid­ing whether you want to respond to some guy who called you a cunt on the Inter­net. And, most impor­tant­ly: Nev­er ever, under any cir­cum­stances, watch NBC’s Han­ni­bal right before going to bed. 

The show’s success comes from the way it’s managed to rip itself free from the moorings of previous movies, as well as the Thomas Harris novels they’re based on, and become its own animal.

Trust me: I have bro­ken the rule about Han­ni­bal. (And all of the oth­er ones, real­ly, but that’s a dif­fer­ent arti­cle). It result­ed in some of the worst, blood­i­est night­mares of my adult life. But it’s worth not­ing that each and every one of those night­mares was exquis­ite­ly art-direct­ed. Sud­den­ly, my sub-con­scious was full of de-sat­u­rat­ed film stock, baroque tableaux of the Under­world, and strik­ing col­or palettes and fram­ing choic­es. Han­ni­bal may very well be, as Matt Zoller Seitz and The AV Club have called it, the best dra­ma on net­work TV. It’s cer­tain­ly the most beau­ti­ful show on TV, peri­od, and the most fright­en­ing. It also takes on the ser­i­al-killer cop pro­ce­dur­al — one of the most irre­deemably woman-hat­ing gen­res on TV — from a fem­i­nist perspective.

Han­ni­bal is a hard show to sell. The char­ac­ter of Han­ni­bal Lecter is beyond played out: Silence of the Lambs, the sequel, the pre­quel, the remake of the pre­quel, the pre­quel that’s a pre­quel to the pre­quel. Han­ni­bal is yet anoth­er pre­quel, fea­tur­ing cen­tral char­ac­ters from Red Drag­on and Silence. We already know who lives, who dies, how and when. More­over, Antho­ny Hop­kins’ Lecter is an impos­si­ble act to fol­low, too wide­ly par­o­died to be scary, but too wide­ly praised for anoth­er actor to take his place. Shoe­horn­ing the whole thing into a pro­ce­dur­al for­mat and turn­ing FBI pro­fil­er Will Gra­ham into one of television’s 47 dif­fer­ent ambigu­ous­ly autis­tic won­der-detec­tives should have made it unwatchable.

And yet, Han­ni­bal is one of the best long-form hor­ror sto­ries I’ve seen. It shares more DNA with Break­ing Bad than CSI: Rather than being a catch-the-killer mys­tery, it’s a char­ac­ter-based sto­ry about an evil man hid­ing in plain sight, about psy­cho­log­i­cal vio­la­tion, invis­i­ble cor­rup­tion and inevitable down­fall. The biggest scare of the first sea­son wasn’t a gory corpse dis­play — though we got lots of those — but the rev­e­la­tion that Will had encephali­tis, and Han­ni­bal was pre­vent­ing him from get­ting treat­ment. The pri­mal fear here isn’t axe-mur­der, it’s aban­don­ment; all the blood in the world can’t scare us more pro­found­ly than the idea that the peo­ple who care about us may be fak­ing it. In terms of style, Han­ni­bal fre­quent­ly invoked the sacred names of David Lynch and Stan­ley Kubrick, and wore those ref­er­ences well; the float­ing, glacial cam­era work and pac­ing owes much to The Shin­ing, and there’s a lot of Twin Peaks in the way its night­mare log­ic and sur­re­al imagery sug­gests a super­nat­ur­al, cos­mic hor­ror bub­bling just under the sur­face of a mun­dane detec­tive sto­ry. But where Twin Peaks was all col­or and camp val­ue, Han­ni­bal is relent­less­ly dark and bleak. The noto­ri­ous silli­ness of its online fan base (lots of flower crowns and com­ic-sans memes, many of them rely­ing on Will Graham’s fail­ure to notice cer­tain sub­tle clues) seems like an attempt to shake off the show’s chill, as much as any­thing else.

And for what it’s worth, Mads Mikkelsen actu­al­ly may be the defin­i­tive Han­ni­bal Lecter. He’s said that he plays the char­ac­ter not as a vio­lent crim­i­nal, but as Satan incar­nate. The show has tak­en this ball and run with it: Lecter isn’t so much a char­ac­ter as he is an ambu­la­to­ry locus of evil spread­ing cor­rup­tion and pain into the lives of every­one in its vicin­i­ty, a life­like per­son suit” wrapped around some­thing unspeak­able. Mikkelsen has a weird, bal­let­ic grace and buoy­ance that makes even his vio­lence look ele­gant — in the knock-down drag-out fight that opened Sea­son 2, I swear the man’s fin­ish­ing move is a god­damned sis­sonne. He is a mas­ter­ful­ly sub­tle actor who can con­vey his character’s mon­stros­i­ty with a quick flick­er of his eyes or a slight­ly-too-calm reac­tion. He makes a very con­vinc­ing Lucifer: If there’s one thing the Dev­il is known to do, it’s offer­ing peo­ple food they’ll regret eating.

The show’s suc­cess comes from the way it’s man­aged to rip itself free from the moor­ings of pre­vi­ous movies, as well as the Thomas Har­ris nov­els they’re based on, and become its own ani­mal. And it has done this, large­ly, by find­ing or invent­ing roles for women and peo­ple of col­or. Thomas Har­ris wrote roles for a whole bunch of white men, and then Clarice Star­ling. In Bryan Fuller’s vision, half of those white men are women, and many of them aren’t white. The cen­tral role of Jack Craw­ford, a world-weary FBI boss who’s been in near­ly as many books as Han­ni­bal him­self, goes to Lau­rence Fish­burne. His ail­ing wife, a silent pres­ence in the nov­els, is Gina Tor­res, and she gets a whole episode devot­ed to her inner life and strug­gle with can­cer. Oth­er side char­ac­ters from the books are rein­car­nat­ed as women, and giv­en meati­er parts to boot. Where tabloid reporter Fred­dy Loun­ds was a snivel­ing creep, the rein­vent­ed Fred­die Loun­ds is a slick, lev­el-head­ed, relent­less­ly ambi­tious jour­nal­ist who doesn’t mind get­ting a few peo­ple fired (or killed) if it means her sto­ry might get picked up by the New York Times. Then there are the new­ly invent­ed female char­ac­ters: Gillian Ander­son as a regal, moral­ly ambigu­ous ther­a­pist who may or may not know Hannibal’s secret, and Kacey Rohl as a teenage girl who sup­plied her can­ni­bal father with vic­tims in order to stay alive.

These are weighty, com­pli­cat­ed, inter­est­ing roles. Writ­ing them, and spend­ing such a large amount of screen time with them, demon­strates a real com­mit­ment to mak­ing sure that white guys don’t con­tin­ue to get all the good work. And Fuller’s com­mit­ment to shak­ing up the crime-pro­ce­dur­al for­mat doesn’t stop there. Of all the baroque vio­lence and tor­ment we see on Han­ni­bal, the one thing Fuller refus­es to put on screen is rape or sex­u­al vio­lence: I just feel very strong­ly as a fem­i­nist and some­body who likes women, I just can’t derive any sort of enter­tain­ment plea­sure from it,” he’s said. Vio­lence is always aes­theti­cized on Han­ni­bal, but it’s almost nev­er sex­u­al­ized. We’ve seen a naked female body impaled on a stag head, but we’ve also seen a pletho­ra of nude, artis­ti­cal­ly mur­dered men, and many more bod­ies that are so muti­lat­ed or decom­posed that their gen­der seems irrelevant.

It’s instruc­tive, on this note, to com­pare Han­ni­bal to the HBO hit True Detec­tive. Much of True Detective’s appeal — the styl­ized visu­als, the over-the-top lyri­cism of the dia­logue, the cos­mic-hor­ror under­tones, the hal­lu­ci­na­tions, the the­mat­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant con­junc­tion of naked lady corpse and decap­i­tat­ed stag head — seems prac­ti­cal­ly air­lift­ed in from Han­ni­bal. But True Detec­tive is almost entire­ly reliant on the clichés that Han­ni­bal stu­dious­ly avoids. The plot turns out to be a stan­dard bud­dy-cops-catch-the-killer mys­tery, com­plete with clichéd back­woods per­vert in a tum­ble-down shack. Every sin­gle woman, up to and includ­ing Marty’s pre-teen daugh­ter, is pri­mar­i­ly rel­e­vant to the plot in terms of the sex­u­al things she does or the sex­u­al vio­lence that’s forced upon her. It’s not enough to have a cult of ser­i­al killers wor­ship­ing Love­craft­ian Elder Gods: They have to be a cult of Elder-God-wor­ship­ing ser­i­al-killers who also gang-rape chil­dren, or else it’s just not scary. And, when­ev­er the plot stalls, we’re mag­i­cal­ly whisked away to a strip club or a harlot’s boudoir, so as to revive our inter­est in the show through naked breasts.

The stan­dard defense for these tropes is that hor­ror film­mak­ers need them to get decent scares. It’s true: Child rape is a very unpleas­ant thing to think about. (Although there are plen­ty of True Detec­tive fans who seem to spend mul­ti­ple hours per week spec­u­lat­ing about it on Red­dit). But Hannibal’s most pro­found accom­plish­ment is the fact that it proves these moves are unnec­es­sary. It nev­er comes across as prim or neutered. It’s hor­ri­fy­ing, both on a jump-out-of-your-seat lev­el and a queasy psy­cho­log­i­cal lev­el. It turns out that being buried alive until your skin dis­in­te­grates, or hav­ing to rip half your own face off to save your life, or just find­ing out that your psy­chi­a­trist is active­ly try­ing to give you brain dam­age, is still pret­ty dis­turb­ing, even when there aren’t any gang-rapes includ­ed in the pack­age. And the plot doesn’t suf­fer when women are allowed to play real roles: Spec­u­lat­ing on Abi­gail Hobbs’ pre­cise lev­el of com­plic­i­ty with her father, or what Bedelia du Mau­ri­er knew about Han­ni­bal and what she thought of it, com­prised a major part of the fan the­o­riz­ing dur­ing Hannibal’s first sea­son. For fem­i­nist film­mak­ing to suc­ceed as a polit­i­cal state­ment, it has to suc­ceed at being decent film, and that’s what Han­ni­bal does. It’s hor­ror with a pro­found respect for human life, and for the human beings who watch it. That, more than any­thing, is why it deserves the Best Dra­ma on TV” label.

Just don’t watch it before bed­time. Because, I’m seri­ous: Night­mares. Ter­ri­ble ones. For the rest of the week. 

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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