RANKED: Hannibal Lecter

‘All five Lecter movies ranked from worst to best…’

The cinematic world has a weird habit of trying to strip the horror genre of its best movies. As soon as something becomes too successful, it is suddenly a thriller. So, let’s get this straight from the offset. Jaws is a horror movie. Alien is a horror movie. And Silence of the Lambs is definitely a horror movie, no matter how many Oscars it won (five if we are counting). Despite this, Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter (as he is hardly ever known) is often left off the list of greatest horror movie killers, perhaps such a concept is just too coarse, too vulgar for Lecter to grace with his presence, and yet, there is no doubt that he is a chilling and ruthless character. This list is a celebration of Lecter and all he has achieved. Starting with:

5. Hannibal Rising (2007)

This is a weird film. It has moments of incompetence but it’s not terrible. It features a talented cast in the shape of Dominic West, Gong Li and Rhys Ifans. Even Gaspard Ulliel is fine in the leading role. When viewed in isolation it is an average horror thriller that is admittedly much too long. In the context of this franchise and this character, however, Hannibal Rising is an utter failure. There isn’t a single point in this preposterously long film in which I can connect Ulliel’s interpretation of the character with what Anthony Hopkins delivered in the earlier films. It’s not a terrible movie but it’s a terrible Hannibal Lecter movie.

4. Hannibal (2001)

This belated sequel was judged too violent for both director Jonathan Demme and original protagonist Jodie Foster, the result being a film that feels stripped of all the visceral power that made Silence of the Lambs such a masterpiece. As this is Ridley Scott, Hannibal is a mix of stunning directorial flourishes and overwrought misfires, and naturally, it’s too long. Despite the return of Hopkins as Lecter, Hannibal really suffers from the loss of Foster. Julianne Moore is a fine actress, but her performance is a pale imitation here and this robs her scenes with Hopkins of any impact they may have had.

That being said, the grisly conclusion is genuinely gasp-inducing, and Hopkins has flashes of genius to match his Oscar-winning performance in the film that preceded this one. Neither of these high points can save Hannibal from being an ultimately disappointing sequel.

3. Manhunter (1986)

This is the only film on this list that I watched for the first time for this article. Perhaps because I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role of Lecter (or Lecktor as it is spelt here) or perhaps because I’ve always found director Michael Mann’s films a bit of a slog, either way, this has been sat on my watch list forever. Predictably, it’s great.

Lecktor is portrayed here by Brian Cox and I love what he does with the role. His Lecktor is less sophisticated. More brutish. His prison cell is brightly lit with sparse white walls, the opposite of the cave-like dwelling presented in Silence of the Lambs. In many ways, however, this isn’t Lecktor’s film at all. Not really. Instead, Mann focuses on William Petersen as Will Graham and Tom Noonan as the murderous killer known as the Toothfairy. The former is more intense and tortured than Ed Norton’s take on the character while the latter is more physically imposing than Ralph Fiennes. The two performances aren’t better than those found in Red Dragon necessarily, but they are different enough to justify watching Manhunter even though many of its scenes were to be lifted wholesale by Ratner for the 2002 remake.

The best thing about Manhunter (aside from the appearance of Dennis Farina) is just how ’80s it is. Everything has that MTV sheen including the incredible soundtrack that only could have been released in 1986. The denouement, set to Iron Butterfly’s ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’, is truly exceptional cinema and there is no denying that this is a better film objectively than Red Dragon – it’s just… I really love Ed Norton.

2. Red Dragon (2002)

Imagine securing a cast featuring Hopkins, Norton, Fiennes, Emily Watson and Harvey Keitel and then having Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) direct them. There is a time and place for a Brett Ratner movie. The darkened cell of Hannibal Lecter is not it. Having said that, Red Dragon is mostly a success. Norton serves as a much better counterpoint to Hopkins than Julianne Moore did in Hannibal (despite his ludicrous blonde highlights) and Emily Watson almost steals the whole movie as the unsuspecting plaything of Fiennes’ demented serial killer.

The overriding feeling here is of what might have been. Red Dragon is undoubtedly an entertaining movie and one that still holds up all these years later, but it is difficult not to imagine what someone like David Fincher might have done with these characters and the gruesome fable in which they exist. Alas, the studio went after Michael Bay before settling on Ratner, so their intentions were pretty clear. In the end, this is a popcorn movie that is elevated by an incendiary cast. It could have been so much more.

1. Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The primal violence of Hannibal, the captivating plot of Red Dragon, and even the excreta that is Hannibal Rising, none can hold a candle to Hopkins’ original portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Despite having less than half an hour of screen time, Hopkins delivered a performance so intensely majestic that he still took home the Best Actor gong at that year’s Oscars. But Silence of the Lambs is more than one performance. Jodie Foster has never topped her own portrayal of the driven and ambitious Clarice Starling. Scott Glenn is suitably domineering as FBI boss Jack Crawford. Ted Levine and Brooke Smith also shine as cat and mouse duo Jame Gumb and Catherine Martin.

Simply put, Silence of the Lambs is not just one of the best horror movies ever made, it is one of the best movies period. One of the few films from the ’90s that stands up without any need to rely on nostalgia. A timeless classic. A flawless masterpiece. Much like Lecter himself…