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Hannibal Rising (2007) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

Hannibal Rising (2007) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?
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The episode of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? covering Hannibal Rising was Written, Narrated, and Edited by Mike Holtz, Produced by Andrew Hatfield and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.

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Remember that time Rob Zombie, The Weinstein Company, and Dimension Films got hopped up enough to make some bad decisions together and decided “Hey, you know Michael Myers? The character whose mystique is in large part because we don’t know where, how, or why his evil exists? We should make a film explaining that it’s all because his family sucked and his house smelled like old bologna!” I’m paraphrasing a little. Well, just a few months beforehand the same choice, to explain and demystify the background of one of horror’s most mysterious monsters was made for Hannibal Lecter as well. At least with this version, however, that story would at the very least come from the character’s creator himself; novelist Thomas Harris. Even if he was being forced to do so out of the fear that if he didn’t, those duties could be handed off to another rock star with even tighter leather pants. Just kidding, Rob Zombie. I loved 2007’s Halloween. For better or worse. I wish I could say the same for Hannibal Rising (watch it HERE). In a tale as old as time that will probably reincarnate itself over and over until the end of time… Hell hath no fury like a producer who wants a sequel. Prequel. Remake. Whatever. This is the story of WTF Happened to Hannibal Rising. Or “the one without Anthony Hopkins”.

You’ve probably heard the name Dino De Laurentiis before, especially if you’ve been following our Hannibal Lecter series. He’s the producer who had Manhunter made, then when it didn’t do well at the box office, lent the rights to its follow-up, The Silence of the Lambs, to Orion Pictures for free. Then when that became one of the greatest films of all time, he pulled out all the stops to make sure he and his wife Martha were involved in the sequel. Oh, and he’s produced nearly two hundred projects in everything from Halloween II to Army of Darkness to Serpico. He’s a man who knows what he wants and this time he wanted a Hannibal Lecter prequel that goes back to his childhood.

Up to this point in the franchise, all of the films had been adaptations of Thomas Harris novels. It would be silly to start making films without his novels now… kind of like it would be silly to have someone other than Anthony Hopkins play Hannibal Lecter at this point. But we’ll get to that later, won’t we? There was only one problem. As legend would have it Thomas Harris had no interest in writing another Hannibal story. But De Laurentiis told him if he didn’t put the lotion in the basket he was going to get the hose again. Meaning (as everyone knows), that if he didn’t write the novel, De Laurentiis (who owned the rights to the character), would just have someone else do it. Who knows? Maybe Spielberg. Maybe Rob Zombie. Maybe he’d put his character in the hands of his cousin Eddie who works at the local Piggly Wiggly and had a “good idea” during Thanksgiving dinner. The thought had to be horrifying. Dino wasn’t ashamed of it either, proudly telling Entertainment Weekly “I say to Thomas, if you don’t do (the prequel), I will do it with someone else… I don’t want to lose this franchise. And the audience wants it… He said, ‘No, I’m sorry.’ And I said, ‘I will do it with somebody else.’ And then he said, ‘Let me think about it. I will come up with an idea.’” Harris would go on to not only write the novel but for the first time ever, the screenplay as well for a movie that would release a mere one year later.

To understand exactly why the casting and production of Hannibal Rising turned out the way it did, you might have to first understand the story Harris concocted for the prequel. The story goes back to 1944 and an eight-year-old Hannibal Lecter. His family evacuates their castle and goes to hide out in a lodge in the woods as the war wages on around them. The war manages to find them anyway and a tragic event leads to his parents both being killed and he and his younger sister Mischa being held hostage by a group of militiamen with bad intentions and likely an even worse smell. They chain the children up but quickly realize there is no food to eat and that the icy weather conditions outside would make it impossible to attain any. We all know where this is going and it isn’t an Uber Eats commercial. They eat Hannibal’s little sister. No, seriously. They ate the little kid. That’s… that happened. We’ll find out later they even fed some of her to Hannibal in a soup, unbeknownst to him, of course. You have to check the ingredient lists on the labels of these things. High sodium. Sugars. Family members.

In one of the world’s most awkward time jumps ever, we’re soon in 1952 Lithuania and Hannibal’s family castle has been taken from him and turned into an orphanage of which he is now a member. Super awkward. Everyone there sucks and he stabs a bully with a fork before escaping and finding his super attractive widowed aunt, Lady Murasaki, where the two start flirting and eventually… wait, am I reading the wrong script? This is JoBlo, right? For a second there I thought I was talking about a film on a completely different kind of website. You know the one. “Help, I’m stuck in the dryer!” So, his Aunt takes him in and starts training him in Japanese martial arts and life is pretty good for Hannibal, all things considered. He’s hanging out all day, crushing it at school, flirting with his aunt, learning how to use Samurai swords. I don’t know if Thomas Harris was just on a big Steven Seagal movie kick at the time or what… but this is how we spend our time until Hannibal finally decides to let his freak flag fly and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Cuts A Dude’s Head Off in the woods. Lucky for him, Lady Murasaki seems totally into creepy dudes who make murder face at the camera a lot and she even helps him dispose of the victim’s head. Eventually, Hannibal becomes successful in his studies (which at this point is apparently just cutting up dead bodies all day long, legally) and the two head to France where all of this wild shit finally gets to the point where Hannibal remembers the men who wronged him and decides to track them down and torture them one by one and OH MY GOD IT’S THE PLOT OF SAW X. This is only shocking because Saw X worked decades later. Why didn’t it work here? I have two words for you. Or rather the lack of two words… Anthony Hopkins. Sir Anthony Hopkins if you’re nasty.

Hopkins had just played Hannibal for a third time in Red Dragon and while there is no official reason for his departure from the role online, one can just imagine that he was quite over it at this point. Not to mention the vast jump in age between himself and this iteration of the character. I know, I know. We should have just thrown a backward hat on him and called it a day Tobin Bell style but I don’t think they wore those in the 50s. The studio did have some plans to bring in Anthony Hopkins for a bookend cameo but whether they just decided against it or Hopkins told them to go fly a kite is unknown. All we know is it didn’t happen and a new Hannibal Lecter was cast in Gaspard Ulliel.

Ulliel was cast after a long search and screen tests that included actors Hayden Christensen, Macaulay Culkin and even Hugh Dancy (who would later go on to star in the Hannibal TV show as Will Graham) took place. Dino De Laurentiis said he was chosen in part because they were looking for a mysterious yet charming face who could also be believable as a murderer. Uh… thanks? Thank you? I guess? Once De Laurentiis and friends watched Ulliel in the French film A Very Long Engagement (which coincidentally is what watching Hannibal Rising feels like) they were assured this was their man. Then they had to convince Ulliel to take on the role, who was understandably hesitant. As director Peter Webber said, “It took us a while to persuade Gaspar to do it. I have to say that he was concerned. It’s a big thing to try and take on your shoulders you know? There’s a lot of people who are going to be looking at him and kind of measuring up against Anthony Hopkins.”

Ulliel would prepare for the audition and the role by studying Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs but didn’t want to merely provide an impression of the character, saying,“The idea was to pick a few details from his character and the idea was to pick a few details from his character and then mix it to my own recipe.” Ulliel was also taking a liking to some of the interests of Hannibal himself according to Webber who had sent him to watch some actual autopsies take place in a classroom, saying, “He was lit up with the excitement of having cut this body up. I realized that we had picked the right man for the role. I began to get a bit worried at that point.. Because he came back and he enjoyed it so much he asked to be sent back the next day. That’s when I started locking the hotel door at that point.” I feel it necessary to tell you that Webber was laughing when he said this and did not blink twice when asked if he was in any danger.

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The result of all this wasn’t a bad effort on the part of the late Ulliel (whom the world would lose to a tragic ski accident in 2022). You can see in the performance the attempt at certain mannerisms and personality traits Hopkins had previously brought to the role of Lecter. Unfortunately, as an audience member, it just feels like one of the biggest casting misfires of all time. None of this felt natural to the character of Lecter. What we once saw as a monster behind a plexiglass shield yet still able to make our skin crawl with a mere look was reduced to a character that was completely and utterly non-threatening even when holding a knife to your throat. It’s all very, very awkward in all the wrong ways. It simply does not work.

All this despite some beautiful cinematography and period piece work that featured a lot of dark World War II imagery and elaborate set pieces from set designer Allan Starski. While the direction of Peter Webber and the work of the entire crew made for a beautifully shot film with Hannibal Rising, the film was unfortunately critically hampered by the inability to recreate a believable teenage Lecter character and the question of whether or not this story ever needed to exist in the first place. Hannibal Rising ultimately ends up feeling like some sort of superhero origin story where we’re asked to root for the very person we’re supposed to be afraid of. The idea was clearly to make the bad guys so damn bad that you’d root for pretty much anyone to kill them. And make no mistake the bad guys here were well crafted. Rhys Ifans was cast as the leader of this child-eating militia, and the loveable chain-smoking kicker from The Replacements turned in a great performance. I mean, you wanted to climb into the screen and kick this guy’s ass yourself. All-time supreme bad guy Richard Brake, who you’ll remember from multiple Rob Zombie films as well as the recent Barbarian, was also cast as one of the lead dudes that you wanna see die in heinous ways. And in heinous ways, they do indeed die. From some good old-fashioned chest carving to a horse-rope-scenario that leads to a head popping like a Gusher’s fruit snack… all the workings of a good revenge flick are there, but Hannibal Rising is never able to sell us on the fact that this character is very scary or much less that he’s Hannibal Lecter. And don’t even get me started on them trying to make him sexy. Like, literally. Sexy Hannibal. A CILF if you will. “Cannibal I’d like to f….” You get the idea.

I’d love to blame this whole subplot misfire on Bate’s Motel, but that version of Norman Bates wasn’t trying to make out with his own mom until six years later in 2013. Hannibal Rising featured a constant attempt at sexual smoldering between Lecter and his Aunt who was played by the wonderful Gong Li of Mulan and Memoirs of a Geisha to her best abilities. To no fault of her own, this entire situation was just uncomfortable in all the wrong ways, unfortunately. She’s a joy to watch on screen but when she and Hannibal are making goo-goo eyes at each other you kind of just want to light yourself on fire and take a nosedive into a swimming pool full of broken glass to get away from it. Or something like that. It’s just what popped into my head.

Ninja fighting, aunt flirting, children eating and all, Hannibal Rising unleashed itself upon the world in 2007. The film made $13 million on a $50 million budget in its opening weekend coming in second place to… you guessed it… Norbit. Yes, Norbit. That stings in a special way, but Rising did end up making over $82 million worldwide in the end. Still, yet, it may have provided the final theatrical nail in the franchise coffin with De Laurentiis admitting, “It was disappointing. We haven’t talked about another movie. We have to wait before I know the future of the franchise”. And as we all know the next time we’d see Hannibal on any screen would be in Bryan Fuller’s 2013s TV show Hannibal.

The reactions weren’t great critically, either. Many reviewers loathed the amount of gore and violence in the film which, to me, was some of its most redeemable qualities. But to each their own. Although I will say that I could have used five or six fewer flashbacks of Rhys Ifans biting into a live bird while staring directly into the eyes of the children. For God’s sake, man we get the point! Others bemoaned that reducing all of Hannibal Lecter’s psyche and motive down to a rough childhood was lazy and demystifying, to which I would agree, full stop. While we watched Hopkins wax philosophical about his upbringing at times in the films, I never felt it was quite that simple. There always seemed to be so much more to him we would never be capable of understanding and Hannibal Rising just kind of says, “Nah, his childhood sucked and he’s weird.” Not quite enough.

Though I do admire the work the cast and crew put in on the look and feel of Hannibal Rising, it feels as if the ingredients to make a full meal were never quite there. In the end the franchise, you could say, ate itself. And that is WTF happened to Hannibal Rising. Thanks for watching and please let us know, what is your least favorite horror character explanation attempt of all time? Remember when they made Michael Myers sleep with his own niece? Gross! Well, this is awkward now. Oh, hey. Big Gulps, huh? Alright! Welp, see ya later!

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? can be seen below. To see more, head over to our JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

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