Guess Whos Coming to Dinner?

Affable, cheery and witty raconteurs to a man, the goremeisters chatting volubly to the camera in The American Nightmare, Adam Simon's lively documentary about the horror movies of the 1970s, would grace any dinner party. Either it pays to flush one's night terrors out of the system via art, or maybe this congenitally waggish genre just attracts comedians. (Though I'm not sure whether Wes Craven is kidding when he argues that

horror movies build character in children, it seems likely that little readers—if they still exist—of the Brothers Grimm would agree.) When pushed to account for their early careers, all have their obligatory —and, whether by coincidence or cunning editing, remarkably consistent —sociological take on why they made the films that they did and why the horror film exercised such a tenacious hold on the public imagination during that decade. Craven, George Romero, John Landis, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg et al. grew up in the shadow of nuclear terror and came of age in the '60s. What better fuel for the genre than the tension between the assaultive traumas of that period—the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., the killings at Kent State University, Vietnam—and its newfound sexual and political freedoms?

Of course, it's easy to pin the tail on the donkey when you have hindsight on your side. “We shoot a lot of stuff,” says Tobe Hooper, who made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, “and then, 20 years later, we find out what it really meant.” Times have changed, and—post-Cold War, post-recession, possibly even post-politics —the horror is us. I suspect that 20 years from now, the most culturally significant horror movie of the year 2000 will be the yuppie slasher movie American Psycho. As to 2001, Ridley Scott's eagerly awaited Hannibal, if it stirs in memory at all two decades from now, will likely register as that film he released after Gladiator.

The last things one expects from Scott are timidity and good taste. Both prove fatal to a sequel that has little option but to either top the fright of Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, or glide sideways into parody. True, Scott is working with serious handicaps. For one thing, it's been 20-plus years since he made a horror movie. For another, in the 10 years since Demme's film blew away the competition at the box office and walked off with five Academy Awards, the writer Thomas Harris, whose novels inspired both movies, along with Michael Mann's Manhunter, has become a household name, which means that the millions who read him today already know the plot of Hannibal. The fear and loathing Dr. Hannibal Lecter generates no longer have the force of nameless terror. We already know he likes to dine off the impolite and the young and beautiful—though one has to wonder, looking at one of his potential entres in Hannibal, what percentage there might be in munching on anorexia.

Harris understands that his monster has to affront our sense of what is normal and right in ways he hasn't before. In the book the uneasy rapport between Lecter and Clarice Starling slowly acquires a new dimension that clearly makes Scott nervous. As the movie opens, the two have been out of touch for years. Starling's FBI career is going down in flames fanned by her old nemesis, Paul Krendler (played this time by Ray Liotta, whose bluish pallor and shifty good looks emit a natural creepiness long before he opens his mouth). Since his escape from maximum security, Lecter has passed his retirement as a full-time aesthete living large in the piazzas of Florence, taking time out to surf the Web and monitor his own fluctuating status on the FBI's Most Wanted list while he considers casseroling a local detective (Giancarlo Giannini) who's ill-mannered enough to try to make some pocket money out of nabbing the doctor. Lecter has been keeping an eye on Clarice, but bringing the two together requires the machinations of Mason Verger, a filleted victim of Lecter's who now languishes beneath wads of Oscar-grabbing makeup and plots to use Clarice as the worm to hook his former flayer.

Given Scott's strengths, it's no accident that one of the most powerful scenes in Hannibal is an early action sequence in which Starling (now played by Julianne Moore as a result either of Jodie Foster's high-mindedness or, if you believe the whispers of less generous chatterers, of her dissatisfaction with the size of her fee) is forced to take down a black woman drug dealer who's holding a baby in her arms. Here, the movie's largely faithful screenplay, credited to David Mamet and Steven Zaillian (an odd couple if ever there was), makes a small but crucial change to the role Starling plays in the shootout. Its effect is to soften her, just as Hannibal will be progressively softened in ways that will compromise beyond repair a relationship that's founded on mutual absolutism and rigidity, be it in the service of right or wrong.

For all its elaborate plotting, the novel is, at its core, a love story as preposterous as it feels entirely logical. Scott is willing to take Harris' goofy romanticism onboard up to a point (the point that stops short of an NC-17), but it's not comfortable territory for him, any more than are the sauntering ruminations on character to which Harris is addicted. The movie gets hopelessly bogged down in atmospherics: the scene-setting in Italy feels interminably stretched out, mostly for the sake of showcasing Scott's undeniable gift for composition. Under most circumstances, Moore can act Foster right off the radar. But she lacks the tense, uptight composure that made Foster a perfect choice to play the ramrod agent in The Silence of the Lambs, and lacking a director who works as well as Demme does with actors, Moore gives a flat, spiritless performance, almost matched by that of Anthony Hopkins, who, notwithstanding the Armani threads, shuffles around like a pensioner in bedroom slippers. Neither Clarice nor Lecter can move without being accompanied by swirling mists and a score of choral classical lite. And though the showdown—a dinner party, naturally—has its amusingly baroque moments, the finale is a flat-out evasion (as much out of cowardice as in the interests of a further sequel) of the sublimely loony theatrics with which Harris ends his novel. Capped by a schoolboy snicker of a coda, Hannibal is the flabbiest of cop-outs from a director who, from Alien to Gladiator, has shown himself a master of the art of excess.

The American Nightmare was directed by Adam Simon and produced by the Independent Film Channel. Now playing at the Nuart, West Los Angeles; Hannibal was directed by Ridley Scott; written by David Mamet and Steven Zaillian; produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Martha De Laurentiis and Scott; and stars Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore. Now playing countywide.

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