Thursday, May 16, 2013

Phantoms in tunnels, and the quiet creepiness of the first Hannibal Lecter film

Being increasingly stressed out by road travel, I have had much reason to be grateful for the Delhi Metro in the last few years. But one of the more oddball benefits of the underground line involves a personal fetish, which I will hesitantly reveal here: I like watching the glow of an approaching train.

Not the train itself, mind, but the intangible things that herald its approach. This is roughly how it goes. Standing on the platform, staring into the darkness of the tunnel, you first have the vaguest sensation of light molecules shifting in the far distance, so that you’re unsure you can trust your eyes (and often, it does turn out to be an optical illusion). Then, very slowly, the sides of the tunnel light up, the specific effect depending on the degree of curvature of the route leading into the platform; in some stations you can see the train head-on from a long way off, and that’s no fun. Eventually this phantom light resolves itself into something concrete, the shadow of the train glides along the wall before the big worm itself appears, no longer scary now that it has a clear physical shape. But for those few seconds before it comes into view, there is a tantalising little Plato’s Cave effect where you can give your imagination full rein: what is there? What is coming? (Yes, I know, the more literal-minded of you might say: “It’s a TRAIN, you moron!” But indulge me.)

Here’s why I’m going on about this: I sometimes experience real-world situations as echoes of spooky moments from thrillers or horror films (at times this can be the only way to get through the drudgery that is real life), and the glow in the tunnel evokes the effect of a scene from Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter. It’s been a long time since I watched this stylish thriller, but I thought of it when I heard about the new TV series Hannibal, about that most famous of fictional gentleman cannibals, Hannibal Lecter. Lecter is best known to movie-goers for his appearance in The Silence of the Lambs (and its cash-in-on-the-publicity sequels, where Anthony Hopkins reprised the role that got him an Oscar), but his first movie appearance was a 10-minute part in Manhunter, an adaptation of Thomas Harris’s superb thriller Red Dragon. Another British actor, Brian Cox, played the role, and the film – like the TV series – touched on Lecter’s complex relationship with detective Will Graham, who apprehended him.

Anyway, the Manhunter scene that I relive in Metro stations begins with a security guard in an underground parking lot, reading the newspaper. Hearing a sound in the far distance, he peers around at the slanting, covered path that cars take to reach the parking base: nothing there, so he gets back to the paper. But the noise – a deep roaring, along with the sound of something rolling along – persists and grows. The camera cuts to the curved path and we see an orange glow lighting up the wall. The guard turns back again, this time a look of terror crosses his face as he leaps up from his chair and runs away; cut back, and at last we get the morbid payoff: a burning figure in a wheelchair heading straight at the camera, at us. (If you’ve been watching the film in sequence, you will know that the character in the wheelchair is a pesky tabloid reporter who had the poor luck to fall into the hands of a serial killer called the Red Dragon.)

It’s worth mentioning that the scene is brightly lit, and it may even be daylight outside the parking lot – the sense of unfathomable evil created here, as elsewhere in Manhunter, has nothing to do with dark shadows or what we think of as the regular trappings of horror cinema. This is a classic example of a film that achieves very menacing effects by keeping explicit detail to a minimum. In Harris’s book, we are told in a single terse sentence that the killer bites off the captive reporter’s lips. The visualisation of this moment in the film is even more restrained – no blood or gore, just an accumulation of little things: the Dragon with his back to the camera casually putting on a new set of teeth, telling the reporter they must seal their deal with a kiss, slowly bending his face towards him; cut to the exterior of the house, with birds calling across the night sky, perhaps implying the lipless screaming that is going on within.

In fact, some of the scariest scenes in the film are almost unnaturally bright, and the refusal to overuse genre conventions is reflected in the art design in the Hannibal Lecter scenes, which contrast strongly with the ones in The Silence of the Lambs. The later film showed Lecter incarcerated in a gloomy, dungeon-like prison cell that looked like it might have rats scuffling about and a private uncovered sewer running down the corridor outside, while Manhunter has him in a neat, blindingly white room where you could almost smell the anti-septic (I kept feeling that the doctor had a generous dose of Brylcreem in his hair!). 

But the sterile tidiness of the setting only enhances the creepiness of these scenes: Lecter’s most distinct qualities – his old-world courtliness, his ability to look deep into the hearts and minds of others, and to manipulate their emotions – are very much on view. Visiting him in his cell, Will Graham is confronted with the terrifying knowledge that he has a deeply psychological connection with the man sitting before him, and that he might easily become a monster by wrestling with monsters. When Graham dashes out of the building after their meeting – even though the only demon pursuing him is the one inside his own mind – you can almost hear his heart pounding. And your own too. If the TV series comes close to replicating the insidiously scary quality of this film, it should be worth watching.

[Did a version of this for my DNA column. More thoughts on  horror movies infecting the real world in my essay "Monsters I Have Known". And earlier posts on Thomas Harris and Hannibal Lecter here, here and here.]


  1. Saw this one on Axn with no idea about lecter. Just saw Brian Cox making phone call to get Will address pretending to have no arms
    was hooked

  2. what tv show are you referring to? CSI?

  3. Sapera: huh? I've clearly mentioned the TV show, with a link to its Wikipedia page.

  4. The problem with TV series on such a subject is that the intensity is not sustainable... with a weeks break in between... and though I am not a director, I do think that every TV series director does keeps this in mind when planning the breakdown of the episodes. Now one way to counter this ( from a viewer's perspective) would be to watch the whole season in one go.. but the episodal breaks do stand against the flow. e.g. I never watched 24.. and the first time I watched was in 2009. I got the whole first season from library, and watched it in one full go.. took me ( I think ) about 14 hours.. and man did I loved it. It was great.. me, my booze and 24.

    ** you can tag this from Alcoholic **

  5. While recommending the series to someone, I started thinking about the books (which I read about a decade ago) and how I enjoyed them. I think I described it to the friend as "high art meets low-brow pulp". It also reminded me that it was one of the last few times I really enjoyed a well written crime thriller series forcing me to download the books again. Thank you for posting those links to the articles on Thomas Harris and Lecter.