Horror prequels are a tricky thing to do. Sometimes it can add a new, compelling layer to a character, but sometimes you run the risk of revealing too much or delivering unsatisfying answers. Rob Zombie’s Halloween, Hellraiser: Bloodlines, and Leprechaun: Origins are only a few titles that are guilty of such crimes. It seems like Hannibal Lecter would be the perfect candidate for a shitty prequel, and I don’t mean a prequel like Red Dragon which was awesome, I mean youngling Hannibal. Where did it all begin? The story that nobody wanted, delivered to us in 2007. But hey, not all horror prequels are bad. So, where does this one fall?
During World War II, a young Hannibal Lecter and his sister witness the murder of their parents. As they hide in their home, a gang of Nazis seek refuge with them, led by Vladis Grutas (Rhys Ifans). As food diminishes, the Nazis soon turn to Hannibal and his sister for food, eating his sister and leaving Hannibal for dead. 8 Years later, Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) escapes the Soviet orphanage that he resides in to live with his beautiful aunt Murasaki (Gong Li). There he begins down a road of vengeance upon the Nazis that killed and ate his sister.
What sets this film apart from the typical cash grab horror prequel is that there seems to be a genuine care by everyone involved to make a solid film. The film itself is actually written by Thomas Harris, writer of all of the Hannibal Lecter books. You can tell it’s his hand putting this together because not only does it feel like a novel, clocking in at 121-minutes (I watched the unrated 131-minute version), there’s a slow approach to the storytelling that just seems more (as I said before) genuine. I really appreciated that about the film, it’s not just Hannibal Lecter thrown into a sloppy, hastily-made slasher film. It’s a solid character piece where we get to know Hannibal, but we don’t get to know him TOO Much. We get to know him just enough to get sucked into the revenge story, while still not knowing every single detail about him. There still remains that creepy aura of mystery around him.
This offers up some solid performances by lesser known actors, certainly star Gaspard Ulliel. He’s not exactly great, you can tell it’s his first big film, but he does a more than admirable job taking the reigns from Anthony Hopkins. What I really like about Ulliel’s performance is that he’s not doing a Hopkins impression, but he captures the soul of the character. If anything he more resembles Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal from the TV show Hannibal, which of course aired six years later. I think I would’ve liked to have seen a bit more of that charm from this particular Hannibal, but this film focuses more on his decent into murder so I guess it makes sense to see the psycho Hannibal more, which I’m fine with. In fact, I think Ulliel really nails that creep factor. Rhys Ifans is also great as the head villain, which only furthers my wonder why he isn’t a bigger star. I love Ifans in everything I see him in, hell he was the best thing about The Amazing Spider-Man. He’s unrecognizably sinister in this film, managing to bring some weight to a character who’s not always given the best dialogue in the script. Even Dominic West makes a small appearance and although he’s not given much to do in the story, certainly not in the later half, he does a very fine job with the material. I always like to see Dominic West, another actor who I don’t think has gotten his due yet.
I’m not familiar with any of director Peter Webber’s work, such as Emperor or Girl With a Pearl Earring, but something that I noticed about this film was not only the nuance he brings to the direction, but also his incredible ability to film violence. Every single bit of violence in this film is extremely effective and cringe-worthy. It’s not just exploitation or gross-out violence, it’s powerful stuff. The editing, the sound design, the actors, every single tool that was used to design these moments of horror create something truly effective. Although the film is focused on Hannibal’s drive for vengeance and decent into cannibalism and murder, there really isn’t a large amount of violence in this film. It’s mainly a character piece, but when it does get to the killings it’s shocking and gruesome, without ever becoming cartoony. I think some of the stuff in the beginning with the soldiers is a bit cartoony, but everything later on works spectacularly.
Although I think that a good chunk of this film works really well from a storytelling stand point, I feel like the first 40-minutes and the final 30-minutes suffer pretty heavily. The first 40-minutes in particular I found extremely flat and dull. I found the character of Hannibal to be uninteresting and I just didn’t care about the story, especially all of the World War II stuff. It isn’t up until the murder of the German butcher that the movie gets going and Hannibal begins to get some personality. It’s worth it to sit through just to get to the good stuff, but goddamn it’s admittedly hard to get through. I don’t mind the film running as long as it does, I think that it uses it’s time well for the most part, but the final act of this film just felt too unnecessary for me, like it could’ve ended 20-minutes earlier. The whole idea of taking the aunt hostage so Hannibal has to hunt down this boat and fight for his love was just fucking silly to me. It was like the final action scene in Taken, except I’m watching Hannibal Lecter save the day like he’s some hero. Luckily, I think the film manages to bring back the scary Lecter by the film’s end, but there’s a big chunk of that finale that just felt out of place to me. It doesn’t help that Gong Li’s character was one that I could’ve given two shits about.
Gong Li’s character is another aspect to this film that’s completely unnecessary. There’s this romantic angle to the whole thing that I couldn’t buy into, plus her character doesn’t add anything to the story. You can take her out of the film and not only does the film not falter in any way, it would make it a tighter, more personal film. Not only is the romance cheesy, but Gong Li’s performance is horrible. It’s so obvious that she doesn’t know English very well because she stumbles over every line. Line delivery aside, she just has the same look on her face the whole movie. The character is flat and her performance is even flatter. Every time she’s on screen, the movie slows down, which hurts a lot of the film. Luckily there’s so much other good stuff to carry the film, but she really damages it whenever she’s onscreen.
This movie certainly has it’s issues, from a bad “love story” to moments of trying to hero-ize Lecter too much, plus an extremely slow first 40-minutes that creep along slower than they should. Luckily, there’s a big chunk, almost the entire second act, that delivers on everything that I wanted. The violence is effective, the storytelling and writing are surprisingly very eloquent and tasteful, plus the character of Hannibal Lecter becomes interesting and I found myself giving a shit about what was going on. Despite it’s issues, the film is far more compelling than not. It’s never amazing per se, but it’s a very solid watch. I wouldn’t say that you should rush out to see this, but it’s an underrated flick that I think you should check out if you have a day off or a bored evening inside. That may not sound like much praise, but I just feel like that’s the better environment to watch it in, as opposed to gathering all your friends around to watch something fantastic. It’s no Silence of the Lambs, but it’s much better than it has any right to be.