Ranking the “Hannibal” Franchise
Hello, Flickchart. Another year, another Halloween. For the past six years, Flickchart has ranked an iconic horror franchise on Halloween. We’ve done slashers and two doses of supernatural horror. This year, we turn to a franchise some may argue isn’t horror at all. In fact, the central film in this franchise has been the subject of many debates over whether it’s a horror or a thriller. This author comes down firmly on the horror side, with the sequels also bearing the hallmarks of a horror franchise, particularly where its iconic central character is concerned.
We are, of course, talking about the Hannibal franchise! Based on a novel series from Thomas Harris, these films follow various FBI agents who seek the mad genius of serial killer Hannibal Lecter to aid them in capturing serial killers they can’t bring in alone. We will be ranking all four mainline entries in the franchise, as well as the original adaptation of Red Dragon from back in the 1980s. The TV shows will not be ranked, though we highly recommend that you watch the Hannibal series starring Mads Mikkelsen as the titular killer, as it is a fantastic three-season show that was cancelled too soon. As for the recent Lifetime show, Clarice, the less said, the better.
Now we must get to ranking, so we won’t wake up in the dark to that awful screaming of the lambs.
5. Hannibal Rising (2007)
The Hannibal franchise is a bit of an odd one, due to the first film in the franchise being an adaptation of a sequel book. The film itself later obtained multiple prequels, one of which was in fact the first book of the novel series. Typically horror franchises wind up with reboots by their later entries, but it’s hard to define what would be a reboot in this franchise. Regardless, the worst film is the earliest prequel, which is in fact a prequel novel.
Thomas Harris wrote the book just a year before the film released, for the specific purpose of providing a basis for a new film. Allegedly, producer Dino de Laurentiis essentially bullied Harris into writing the book to create more source material to create a film from. Laurentiis famously missed out out on profits from The Silence of the Lambs (we’ll get into that) and so zealously guarded his rights thereafter. After Hannibal Lecter became a profitable box office venture, Laurentiis wanted the money to keep rolling in. Harris initially refused to write the prequel, having zero interest in it, but Laurentiis hinted that he would have another writer craft Hannibal’s backstory instead if Harris didn’t do it. Harris caved and the book, and then film, was made.
That lack of any real creative impetus can be felt throughout the work. Hannibal Rising takes a few spare lines from other works and tries to provide a compelling backstory for why Hannibal is a crazed cannibalistic serial killer. As one might expect, this story is terribly dull and contrived. The film goes with a traumatic backstory about Lithuanian bandits and a Nazi collaborator eating the young Hannibal’s sister. The film becomes essentially a revenge story after Hannibal grows up and seeks vengeance against these men for his sister’s death.
This attempt to provide some form of moralistic justification for Hannibal is dumb, as are the vague Japanese connections involving the wearing of a samurai mask, which is supposed to serve as a visual link to the masks Hannibal wore in prison and mental hospitals in the earlier films. What the filmmakers didn’t seem to understand is that Hannibal wore those masks to prevent him from biting people while in captivity, not because of any serial-killer MO on his part. Hannibal’s character as introduced in The Silence of the Lambs is that of a mannered, cultured gentleman, so providing an excuse or reason for his actions destroys the horror of the idea that even educated, erudite people can simply be crazy.
Add in mostly drab visuals and performances, and Hannibal Rising is anything but elevating. Director Peter Webber did nothing to make the material interesting. The film plods along out of obligation more than anything, and the only element of praise worth noting is Gaspard Ulliel‘s performance as Hannibal. After having only Anthony Hopkins for the most of the franchise, the change was welcome, and Ulliel brings a certain ferocity. Sadly, it’s in aid of entirely subpar material.
- Global Ranking: #9,795
- 5/5 on Flickchart’s Hannibal Lecter filter
- Wins 21% of its matchups
- 28 users have it in their top 20
The first direct sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, though the third book of the series, started with good intentions. Harris was genuinely excited to write a sequel novel after the breakthrough success of the movie version of Lambs. Laurentiis, owner of the Hannibal film rights, was eager as well. Harris finished the novel in 1999 and sold the film rights for an amazing $10 million. The novel itself received mixed reviews, though horror author Stephen King lauded it and The Exorcist as the two scariest modern popular novels.
At first Hannibal appeared likely to reunite all of the creatives from Lambs, with director Jonathan Demme, screenwriter Ted Tally, and stars Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins all on board. Demme was the first to back out, however, after reading the book and finding it too gory and “lurid.” Specifically, like many, Demme found the ending of the novel just unworkable. De Laurentiis quipped in response that he would “create a new pope” after Demme declined and went hunting for a new director. He visited Ridley Scott on the set of Gladiator and suggested he direct. Scott humorously first thought Laurentiis was talking about the famous Carthaginian general and declined. Once Laurentiis clarified, Scott read the book in a week and was quite eager, though also found the ending implausible. Thomas Harris eventually let Scott change the ending.
Unfortunately, Foster and Ted Tally both backed out. Both found the ending a betrayal of the Clarice Starling character. If one is curious as to what is so crazy about the ending of the book, read it or find a summary. Tally was at first replaced by David Mamet before Steve Zallian, whom Scott favored much more, was brought in to write the film.
Julianne Moore was cast as Starling after many actresses were considered, with Hopkins apparently having a degree of influence and having enjoyed working with Moore on Surviving Picasso. Ridley Scott also said that Moore was at the top of his list after Foster declined. Of final note is the role of Mason Verger, whose part was originally offered to Christopher Reeve. Reeve was initially interested, but after learning that Verger was a quadriplegic, disfigured child rapist, he declined. Gary Oldman was then cast, but he wanted major credit, and when the studio said no he balked. He eventually came back and instead wanted no credit and demanded that the makeup crew make him unrecognizable.
Oldman is certainly unrecognizable in the role of Verger, the film’s villain. A gaudy, scenery-chewing role, Verger epitomizes the film as a whole. An excessively violent work, Hannibal failed utterly to capture the magic of Lambs. For one, Scott doesn’t seem to bring much from a direction standpoint. While he claims he aimed to use the film to highlight the strange underlying romantic tension between Hannibal and Starling, the mere presence of said tension is odd and poorly done. Lambs certainly hinted at Hannibal’s affections, but it never suggested that Starling found him anything more than interesting and charming. This film seems to lean more heavily into this idea, but it doesn’t have the weight to back it.
Hannibal’s odd structure also undercuts its ability to have much meaningful dramatic tension. The film meanders around with the villain mostly inactive outside of scenes where Oldman growls and leers. Starling has a sort of modus operandi, finding Lecter after an introductory sequence establishing that Starling has become a black sheep at the FBI, but she does very little actual investigating. The film is more interested in brutality and gore than the investigative pieces. This certainly solidified the franchise as a horror one, but it also leads the many long, dull stretches. The entire subplot involving the corrupt Italian cop Pazzi, played by a talented if poorly-used Giancarlo Giannini, feels tacked on and poorly explored.
Hopkins, while still dazzling in the role of Hannibal, seems a little bored in comparison to his take on the character in Lambs. Hopkins stated he deliberately took aims to play the character as a more aged Lecter, but an aged Lecter with less of his intimidation plays as an inherently less interesting take on the character. He goes too stoic and fails to shine as bright.
Hannibal lacks the thematic depth of its predecessor film. The insightful, subtle feminist themes of Lambs are fumbled in this film, with Ray Liotta‘s sexist FBI agent much more broad, obvious, and shallow. The invidious nature of sexism explored in Lambs is reduced to “sexism is bad, mkay” and feels utterly lacking as a result. The ending of this film doesn’t get as ridiculous as the novel, but it also feels fairly lame despite some decent gross-out parts. Ultimately, this sequel is just a sad harbinger of what this franchise became.
- Global Ranking: #3,189
- 3/5 on Flickchart’s Hannibal Lecter filter
- Wins 33% of its matchups
- 4,859 users have it in their top 20
3. Red Dragon (2002)
Despite critical issues, Hannibal was a box office smash and proved that a Hannibal franchise could have legs. However, with no other sequel novels to adapt, Laurentiis turned towards a source of his prior failure, the novel Red Dragon. He had originally adapted the book back in the mid-80s but failed to achieve the success he wanted. Wanting to ride that money train, he decided to try again. The book was Harris’s second novel and the debut of the Hannibal Lecter character. As part of writing his first novel, Black Sunday, Harris attended classes in Quantico and interviewed FBI agents with the Behavioral Science Unit. Becoming interested in serial killers and how the FBI profiles them, Harris was determined to write a book focused on serial killers. When his father became terminally ill, he spent 18 months isolated and caring for him, which is when he wrote the book. The novel would be a success, garnering largely favorable reviews.
This filmed version was anchored by Ted Tally, screenwriter for Lambs. After declining to be involved in Hannibal, Tally was convinced to return. He had declined many other offers to write serial killer films, but was persuaded with the idea of forming a Hannibal trilogy that would bring a graceful end to the series. Tally’s return convinced Hopkins to do one more as well, and Tally added more Lecter scenes than are in the novel due to “commercial realities.” In this he received Harris’s endorsement, and Harris even gave ideas for the scenes and dialogue. The strength of Tally’s screenplay convinced Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes, both of whom disliked Hannibal, to sign on for this film.
Director Brett Ratner was tapped for the project based on the strength of his Rush Hour films. He and Ed Norton had one notable clash during production when Ratner wanted Norton’s character Will Graham to be visibly afraid during his initial meeting with Lecter. Norton felt that if filmed properly this would be apparent. The pair managed to compromise, though Norton would go on to have a reputation of being difficult and controlling on set. Hopkins, for his part, knowing this was a prequel film, deliberately played Lecter with more open rage and danger than in prior films. Another fun casting addition was that of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as dirtball journalist Freddy Lounds. Anthony Heald returns as Dr. Chilton from Lambs, as does Frankie Faison, who has the most appearances in the franchise apart from Hopkins. In a fun turn, Jack Crawford returns, played by Harvey Keitel.
While Red Dragon is a noticeable improvement on Rising and Hannibal, it fails to dazzle. Ratner’s direction is not bad by any means, but the story doesn’t really pop. It is largely the acting that makes Red Dragon entertaining. Hopkins’ turn as Hannibal starts to feel predictable, though seeing him dual words with Edward Norton has its appeal. All the same, Hopkins manages to do just enough to keep Lecter worth seeing again. Ed Norton also uses his strengths to portray the wounded nature of Agent Graham well. The strongest performance in the work is Ralph Fiennes as the serial killer “The Tooth Fairy.” He gives the character empathy but also makes him truly creepy, and we daresay he steals the show from Hopkins.
The biggest sin of Red Dragon is that it feels rather droll. The strength of the material is lying there, and it can’t help but work in parts. Ratner doesn’t lack directorial touch, but he goes for the obvious choice each time instead of giving us a film that feels truly creative and unique. It’s a film that entertains enough, but that’s all. It doesn’t wrap you in deep characters, captivating visuals, or harrowing terror. Basically, it lacks everything that Demme did to make Lambs shine.
- Global Ranking: #3,856
- 4/5 on Flickchart’s Hannibal Lecter filter
- Wins 33% of its matchups
- 813 users have it in their top 20
Before all of the Hopkins films and their adjacent works, there was Manhunter. Directed by notable action auteur Michael Mann, this was the first attempt to bring Harris’s work to life. At the time, Red Dragon was the only Hannibal work out there. After the novel’s success, producer Dino De Laurentiis saw potential in the work and rushed to scoop up the film rights to the franchise. His estate owns the films to Harris’s work to this day. Right away, Laurentiis started making changes, forcing the film to be called Manhunter. Varying reports suggest that it was either to avoid confusion with Bruce Lee‘s Dragon movies or due to Michael Cimino‘s film Year of the Dragon bombing. Either way, all of the other creatives involved had disdain for the name change.
After production began, Laurentiis initially considered David Lynch to direct the film as a followup to the Laurentiis-produced and Lynch-directed Dune. Lynch refused, finding the story to be “violent and completely degenerate,” which is ironic considering Lynch’s next work was Blue Velvet. Regardless, he eventually settled on Mann who only had two films under his belt at the time. Mann took his job seriously, spending three years on the script and working directly with the FBI Behavioral Science Unit to make the film as accurate as possible. As a result, forensic scientist and author Brent E. Turvey described the film as “one of the most competent blends of cutting-edge forensic science and criminal profiling at the time.” Mann also interacted with an imprisoned murderer and included a song in the film directly due to the murderer claiming the song was “their song.”
Casting Hannibal Lector (though spelled as Lecktor in this film) was of great import. Many notable actors of the day were considered, including John Lithgow, Mandy Patinkin, Brian Dennehy, and even director William Friedkin. Brian Cox was ultimately cast after Dennehy recommended him. Cox based his performance on the Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel, believing he was cast due to his own Scottish heritage. Mann went of his way to keep Hannibal a minimal part of the film, believing Hannibal’s charisma would make people hungry for more by omitting him. As for Will Graham, De Laurentiis wanted a high profile actor and suggested Richard Gere, Mel Gibson, and Paul Newman. Mann was impressed by William Petersen in To Live and Die in L.A. and fought for him to have the part.
Manhunter draws on Mann’s filmmaking to that point. Very reminiscent of elements of his debut, Thief, the film utilizes lots of diegetic music and focuses on making the soundtrack a force within the film itself. The songs of the bands The Reds, Iron Butterfly, The Primer Movers, and Shriekback provide the primary sounds for the film, and the result is a work that takes dark and violent situations and contrasts them with a very 80s sound to create a mood. Mann also utilizes heavy color tinting and neon, again like Thief, to create a sharp visual mood from scene to scene. Emotional blues are used for softer, tender scenes, while greens and magentas are used to create a sickly feeling when killer Francis Dollarhyde is onscreen.
Mann highlights the central thrust of Will Graham’s over-empathy for killers, a weight that Petersen handles well. The parallels between Graham and Hannibal, and Graham and the Tooth Fairy, create a disturbing examination of how easily the peak of madness can be crossed. This tension is played with wonderfully in the Hannibal TV series as well. Petersen’s performance can be a tad too subdued at times, but he does a wonderful job playing Graham as a man on the brink, something that Norton is too snarky at times to convey well.
While Fiennes eclipses Tom Noonan, Noonan’s take on the Tooth Fairy is still quite good. He took up bodybuilding to prepare for the role, and he does indeed look a physical animal. Noonan also deliberately kept away from other cast members during filming so as to increase their fear of him for scenes. Meanwhile, Cox as Hannibal is a different sort of take. He has his own form of scenery-chewing and yet a laidback delivery that can make his Hannibal feel a little more bland than Hopkins’ take. Though his version is arguably more grounded, Hannibal is not necessarily a grounded character. Cox is not bad at all, but Mads Mikkelson’s version is a much better take on this interpretation of Hannibal.
Manhunter is undoubtedly a superior version of the Red Dragon story. Mann’s style can occasionally go overboard, and it’s a film that feels a tad too smug with itself at times. But it at least has a style, something that Ratner failed to have for large chunks of his version. This cast is inferior to the ’02 version on average, even if the actors here do bring their own fun takes on the roles. Ultimately, Manhunter would help inspire the specific forensic science crime investigation genre and its many acclaimed shows over the next few decades. Certainly Manhunter is the least horror-oriented film in this franchise, though it still has the horrific elements that make Red Dragon a creepy film.
At the time, reviews were mixed and it was a box office bomb. As a result, no immediate sequels came. Later reevaluation has given more praise to Manhunter, mostly well-deserved. This is a fun, stylish work and a very different sort of take on the material than Hopkins’ Lector films provide. Due to Red Dragon and Hannibal repeating many of the same scenes from this film, it all provides a fun way to examine differing takes on the same writing.
- Global Ranking: #813
- 2/5 on Flickchart’s Hannibal Lecter filter
- Wins 46% of its matchups
- 72 users have it in their top 20
No surprises at what tops the list; only once in this article series has a sequel beaten an original. The Silence of the Lambs could be considered the second time, but like the debate about whether it is a horror film or not, it’s debatable about whether this is really a sequel. It started off the franchise we’ve ranked today, as Manhunter really exists in its own little world. None of these arguments really matter, though, in evaluating the masterpiece that is The Silence of the Lambs.
This adaptation began when Gene Hackman, of all people, partnered with Orion Pictures to bring it to life. Hackman wanted to play Jack Crawford and agreed to co-finance the film. Orion was able to acquire the rights to Hannibal Lecter from Laurentiis for free due to Manhunter‘s box office failure, a decision that likely haunted Laurentiis until the day of his death. One could see that Laurentiis was chasing the success of this film in vain with the rest of the Hannibal franchise.
In 1987 Ted Tally was recruited to write the film. Tally, at the time, was mostly known as a playwright and had only written two prior screenplays. Tally had crossed paths with Thomas Harris several times and was interested in writing the film after receiving an advance copy of the novel. He went to work. The project was in danger of falling apart when Hackman backed out and financing fell through. Orion encouraged Tally to keep writing while they tried to sort out the financial issues.
Orion went after Jonathan Demme next. Though the script wasn’t complete, Demme read the novel and was sold. After Tally finished the first draft, Demme quickly read it and things advanced at a fast pace. Tally describes meeting Demme in May 1989 and shooting starting in November.
First though, was casting. Demme wanted to cast Michelle Pfeiffer as Clarice Starling due to having just worked with her on Married to the Mob. Pfeiffer was concerned about the violent subject matter and turned it down. Demme next went after Meg Ryan, who turned it down for the same reason, and Laura Dern, who the studio vetoed due to not thinking her a bankable actress (Jurassic Park laughs in the background). Waiting in the wings was Jodie Foster. Foster read the novel and immediately wanted to play the character, but Demme initially turned her down. Foster kept up her campaign and eventually won the role.
As for Lecter, Demme initially approached Sean Connery. Connery said no, and Demme then considered many other big names including Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Forest Whitaker, and Derek Jacobi, all top actors of the day. The role ultimately went to Anthony Hopkins, of course, in what would become his career-defining role. Demme cast him after seeing his role in The Elephant Man. Humorously, Hopkins initially thought it was a children’s film based on the title, but within reading the script’s first ten pages Hopkins called his agent and said it was the best part he’d ever read. A dinner with Demme sealed the deal.
Hopkins based the character’s voice on a blend of Truman Capote and HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. He was initially nervous to speak with Foster, due to Foster having just won a Best Actress Oscar for The Accused. Scott Glenn was brought on to replace Hackman as Crawford. Glenn met with John E. Douglas to inform the role, and Douglas gave Glenn a tour of Quantico and played him tape recordings of actual serial killers torturing their victims. Glenn reportedly wept hearing the recordings. Ted Levine was cast as the film’s central killer, Buffalo Bill. Levine, ironically enough, had crashed the wrap party for Manhunter, as he was friends with William Petersen.
The film became a smash success. Though it started modestly, word of mouth turned it into a number-one hit for five weeks straight. Critics raved, with Roger Ebert deeming it a “horror masterpiece” and the Academy eating it up. It became one of only three films to win the “Big Five” awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay). The film is known for being the only Best Picture winner that is a horror film, affirming the genre as a prestige genre, something worthy of celebration on Halloween.
All of the praise is not undeserved. The film is Demme’s masterpiece. A culmination of all of his directorial techniques developed throughout the 1980s, he uses his unique takes on closeups, establishing shots, music, and dynamic editing to make The Silence of the Lambs a film that truly shines. Centered on FBI recruit Starling, the film navigates feminist themes of a woman fighting for recognition in a world dominated by men, while also highlighting Starling’s internal struggle with her demons. It’s a performance that Jodie Foster feels tailor-made for, as an actress whose strength is playing women with quiet, humble qualities, yet fierce and blazing inner strength. Regardless of whether Demme thought she would work or not, Foster is the center of this film.
Not to be forgotten are Hopkins and Levine’s performances. Lambs is the home of the single best Hannibal performance. Presented at first as a man who enjoys being terrifying and nearly overly-broad to the point of camp, Hopkins’ take reveals this is all a façade for a hyper-intelligent man frustrated at his imprisonment who has to get amusement in any way he can. Hopkins’ mostly measured, plain tones reveals Lecter as someone who values manners and demeanor most of all, while remaining firmly a villain. His relationship with Foster’s Starling is darkly compelling to witness.
Levine, meanwhile, plays a man struggling with his own darkness and desires. He absorbs himself into the role utterly, adopting a particular tone that so beautifully borders the line between funny and completely creepy. His madness seems genuine, and if you’d never seen Levine in another film, you might think this is how he is all the time. The film also includes a number of fun cameos from Roger Corman, George A. Romero, and Chris Isaak.
It is ultimately Demme’s direction that makes all of these elements work together so well. The film is structured perfectly, starting at first as a mere minor assignment for Starling trying to help out on an unknown case that teases what is coming before the first confrontation with Lecter. The dark evil of what FBI work involves is on full display for both Starling and the audience. It becomes crystal clear this is no mere child’s play, and the film smartly continues to intercut Starling’s training throughout her Buffalo Bill investigation, allowing you to empathize with her as character. You see her make mistakes in training and try hard to rise above them. The film subtly includes little doses of the sexism and leering she faces, which work in tandem with the psychoses and MO of Buffalo Bill.
As Starling becomes further involved in the case, she has to begin to give more of herself, as Lecter demands to know personal information about her. It is Lecter’s means of amusement as a former psychologist himself, though as he learns more about Starling, we see glimmers of the humanity that may still lie within Lecter, buried as they are under the monstrous nature that ensnares Lecter’s soul and mind. The metaphor of Lecter eating his victims highlights both the cultured background of Lecter and the fact that Lecter seeks to consume his victim both literally and psychologically.
The film is also just plain terrifying. Lecter is creepy when onscreen, as is Buffalo Bill. We get to see how they torture their victims as well as how tortured they are. The film is never trying to satisfy gore-hounds, but it never flinches away from the brutality of death. There are several fantastic horror sequences in the film. The moment where Lecter escapes from his Kentucky prison cell is a beautiful concert of editing, music, and performance that leaves you gripping the side of your chair until your knuckles are as white as bone. The climatic ending sequence where Clarice (spoilers!) confronts Buffalo Bill in his home in the dark as Bill stalks his prey is unnerving. The way these sequences work in concert with the film’s themes of masks, duplicity, and fear and trauma, while also functioning as excellent horror scenes, is a testament to how good Demme was at the height of his powers.
The Silence of the Lambs is a serious contender for the best horror film ever. Its excellent performances, direction, and writing add up to a masterpiece regardless of genre. None of the sequels managed to recapture the unique magic of this work that has made Foster and Hopkins synonymous with these roles, and that have made these characters among the greatest heroines and villains in cinema.
- Global Ranking: #19
- 1/5 on Flickchart’s Hannibal Lector filter
- Wins 68% of its matchups
- 18,367 users have it in their top 20
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