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Classic Horror Recipes Aren't as Overcooked as 'Hannibal'

In great thrillers, tension--not gross-out scenes--makes you squirm.

February 23, 2001|GENE SEYMOUR | NEWSDAY

The real test of a horror movie--any movie, really--comes in its power to haunt more than scare you. Any dope with an overactive, overripe imagination can make you squirm and jump in your chair like a lab rat. But it's the rare chiller that stays under your skin and spooks your memory banks years after the fact.

I first saw "The Night of the Hunter" (1955), for instance, when I was young enough to empathize with the children whose lives are endangered by the murderous country preacher, played with indelible menace by Robert Mitchum. What kept me awake afterward wasn't what Mitchum actually does to anyone in the film. It's what he threatens to do ("CHILLL-dren!" he sings out repeatedly at one such moment) and what's implied in his sloe-eyed rage that to this day makes my body temperature feel like a December sunset in the Maine woods.

Even the little things in movies whose shadows are neither literally nor figuratively as long as "Hunter's" still register with me. Daryl Duke's "The Silent Partner," an undervalued 1978 thriller with an ingenious script by Curtis Hanson ("Wonder Boys," "L.A. Confidential"), has one jarring moment when Elliott Gould's laid-back bank teller casually answers his apartment doorbell, opens the peephole and stares into the merciless lizard eyes of Christopher Plummer's psychotic bank robber. His muted threats feel sharper than any blade. The few pieces I've read about this movie mention scenes of nasty, near-graphic violence. I can't remember any of them. I do remember those eyes and that voice.

"The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" came out four years earlier. It's not as polished as "Partner" and nowhere near as subtle as "Hunter." But amid all the profligate carnage, dismembered limbs and antic mayhem, there's one scene that stalks my dreams. It comes when Leatherface attacks two of the ill-fated teenagers, with one getting knocked out by a hammer, his body trembling and shaking before it's battered into stillness. His distraught girlfriend, meanwhile, is hoisted onto a meat hook. As she hangs there, you're left to guess what her body is going through as her dead friend is hacked to pieces and she's got a foot-long metal spike digging into her shoulder blades.

Was her blood visible? I don't remember. Maybe I blocked it out. What I do remember is that her screams slowly bend themselves into these rapid-fire, high-pitched sobs--which, rather than grossing me out, only reinforced a determination never to do anything to a human being that causes it to sound like that.

I'm guessing that the entire budget of "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" would probably account for a day's catering for those who worked on "Hannibal." I know for sure that for all its relative extravagance, "Hannibal" has nothing that haunts me as those aforementioned scenes do.

Not that Ridley Scott and company don't work at it. Fair and foul means are deployed throughout the movie to keep your head in the game. (Memo to those who've seen the movie or read the book: pun intended.) Logic is the movie's first and most grievous casualty, as all plausible motivation is subdued merely to allow Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter to smirk and lurk all over the place like a sybaritic, homicidal combination of Jack Benny and Boris Karloff.

Yes, he's that much fun to watch. And he's such a generous actor that you can sense his desire that you share the apparent enjoyment he has in his work. But the movie keeps getting in his way and ours. Portent is layered onto the action with a trowel. There's so much buildup to what everyone's conditioned to believe will be a graphic, bloody denouement that the movie seems cluttered with a wretched excess of anticlimaxes.

Which wouldn't be so bad if "Hannibal" possessed even a little of "Texas Chain Saw Massacre's" breakneck momentum or "Silent Partner's" compressed tension. Some of the latter can be found in "Hannibal's" cat-and-mouse chase scenes in Florence, all of which would have made for a tidy, yet grimy little thriller all its own. Giancarlo Giannini's Italian detective carries all the reined-in complexity, warped virtues and stressed humanity that the rest of the movie sorely needs. When he goes, so does the movie's capacity to surprise. It becomes just another Hollywood thrill machine, getting you all excited and worked up over nothing to the extent that even the gross-outs toward the end evaporate in one's mind, days, even hours after you've seen them.

Yet the $58 million "Hannibal" made its opening weekend--and the millions more it will doubtless make in the weeks ahead--will only accelerate a depressing parade of over-elaborate, overcooked thrillers resembling behavioral experiments more than stories with people and emotions you recognize.

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