Horror is always difficult to make work on television. Essentially, the longer a story goes, the more difficult it is to make it scary. Hannibal, however, is proving that wrong by not only being creepy right out of the gate, but by getting better with each episode.
It’s Built On Audience Knowledge
A prequel of sorts to The Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal is actually an odd mashup of surreal horror and police procedural. Hannibal is still Doctor Hannibal Lecter, a respected physician and psychologist, and as far as anyone knows, he’s just a classy gentleman who wants to help. And that’s what makes it so disturbing, especially as the show carefully interleaves Hannibal’s crimes with the bizarre serial killers he and Will Graham help hunt down.
It’s that sense of knowing the wolf is not only at the door, but has moved in, sold most of your stuff, and is just now preparing to eat you that makes the show so disturbing. It’s not a big reveal that Hannibal eats people in this show. It’s all about what happens as people inch closer to the truth.
It’s A Meaty, Layered Show
If there’s a more literary, detail-packed show on television, it’s hard to think of one. For example, one of the key lines, early in the show, is spoken by Hannibal himself: “Killing must feel good to God, too… He does it all the time, and are we not created in His image?”
This is relevant because pretty much everything about Hannibal, from the architecture of his office to the way he holds his fork, tells us he thinks he’s God. In fact, the entire show is carefully written to show Hannibal as less a literate monster and more of a terrifying, corrupting influence, a Lucifer figure so clever you don’t realize he’s corrupting you until it’s far, far too late. And it makes your skin crawl.
It’s Full Of Little Puzzles And Hints For Fans
Bryan Fuller, the showrunner, can essentially use Graham, Hannibal, and a handful of characters from the novels, but almost no other characters, which even extends to off-hand mentions like Benjamin Raspail. So the writing staff gets creative; for example, the second season introduces Cynthia Nixon as Kade Prurnell, which is an odd name…until you realize it’s an anagram for “Paul Krendler”, the jerk-ass investigator who suffers a rather ignominious end at the end of Hannibal’s fork.
This extends to sly jokes at Fuller’s expense: Ellen Muth plays a woman named Georgia who thinks she’s dead, for example.
It’s Got A Superb Cast
The show is anchored by Hugh Dancy as Will Graham, and Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal, and they do a superb job of playing off each other. So much of this show is built around talking that the actors need to be damn near perfect, and they usually are. Mikkelsen in particular stands out because although as a character he’s utterly monstrous, you still feel bad for the guy. The closing shot of one of the episodes, where Hannibal sits in his chair, longing for his friend Will Graham, will make you feel bad for the people-eating psychopath.
They’re backed by a surprisingly excellent cast, most notably Laurence Fishburne, who in addition to playing his role with surprising understatement, can also be as funny as hell:
It also uses comedians surprisingly effectively. Scott Thompson (yes, Buddy Cole) is a regular member of the cast and Eddie Izzard and Molly Shannon have both had knock-out roles on the show.
It’s Elegantly, Hilariously Disgusting
Hannibal is fairly gory for network television, but the true gross-outs come whenever Hannibal serves food, whether for himself or his guests. It ties in with that corrupting influence he exerts; the only thing Hannibal enjoys more on this show than eating people is immaculately preparing people and serving them to other people.
And the show has, as its main technical consultant, José Andrés, a highly respected chef. In other words, it’s his job to figure out how to make the food on this show seem delicious. It’s the food porn we’re so familiar with, shot beautifully and moodily by experienced cinematographer Jack Hawkinson, paired with the grotesque horror of knowing exactly who’s being eaten. You simultaneously feel hungry and want to gag. It’s the food show from hell, and it’s hilarious.
Again, it’s all about Hannibal’s corrupting influence; why would the people around him believe he’s a cannibal? He’s just a guy who likes to cook, and is quite good at it. Go on, have a second helping!
This goes beyond just the unorthodox proteins. For example, if you pay attention to the ingredients Hannibal serves his guests, you’ll often find hints he’s subtly manipulating them, especially poor Will Graham.
Hannibal is a show NBC isn’t sure about: It narrowly survived a summer run at NBC’s 10pm death slot on Thursday, only to be renewed and placed in… NBC’s Friday 10pm death slot. So, if you love horror, take a moment to set your DVR, or catch up with the series on Amazon Prime; it’s some of the best horror on television.