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Wednesday, April 4, 2001

Anyone for more gore?

Flashback to 1960.

Film: "Psycho" Scene: Janet Leigh in the shower, a flurry of ripped curtains, a piercing scream of terror and black blood running down a drain. Result: Audiences are afraid to take showers without locking the bathroom door for weeks to come.

Fast forward to 2001.

Film: "Hannibal" Scene: Anthony Hopkins hanging a man off a balcony as his guts plop out onto the street below. Result: Audiences may laugh, yawn or run to the restroom, but they won't be feeling even the slightest chill as they walk out of the cinema.

Anthony Hopkins in "Hannibal"

Have cinema's serial killers been done to death? The question can be answered this month as two major Hollywood serial-killer flicks open in Japan: director Tarsem Singh's hallucinatory "The Cell" and Ridley Scott's chiaroscuro "Hannibal."

Scott's film sees Anthony Hopkins reprising his role as Hannibal Lecter in the long-awaited follow-up to 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs," the film that sparked mainstream cinema's serial-killer craze, while "The Cell" is a reworking of "Silence's" motif -- getting inside the head of a serial killer -- with a sort of Ken Russell-meets-MTV surrealism.

Both films are visually stunning, feature high-pedigree casts and seek to pass themselves off as art. In "The Cell," Singh creates a truly amazing psychedelic dreamscape with rich set design and cinematography; "Hannibal," with its psychosexual undertones, has clear aspirations to classic horror. (Note the visual quote of "Frankenstein" in the shot of the silhouetted Hannibal carrying a slack Clarice in his arms.)

These visuals mask something darker, however: the fact that both these films are as insipidly plotted and stomach-churningly brutal as the most exploitative, straight-to-video trash imaginable. Devoid of well-tuned suspense or cat-and-mouse mind-games, these films merely attempt to shock audiences by resorting to ever-more foul acts of onscreen barbarity.

Jennifer Lopez in "The Cell"

"The Cell" breaks new ground in tastelessness. One scene early on has serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio) placing a bleached and mutilated young woman's corpse on a table. After hoisting himself over the dead girl using chains attached to a gnarly web of body piercings, he masturbates over her body while watching a snuff video of her slow, agonizing death.

If that doesn't leave you feeling like you need a shower, then try this: "Hannibal's" climactic gross-out scene involves Dr. Lecter scalping a man, scooping out part of his brain, stir-frying it and feeding it to the still-conscious victim.

And I should mention that both films share the dubious honor of presenting graphic disembowelment.

Are we having fun yet? Fright, chills, tension and release: This we want from a film. And many recent films -- "The Blair Witch Project," "The Sixth Sense" -- have managed to do this without lingering on slow, excessively cruel methods of killing (a practice usually left to the seedier ghetto of slasher flicks). Scott and Singh, however, manage only to induce nausea with their films, without a moment of true terror.

Hollywood films usually demand identification with the protagonist, and that certainly presented a challenge for Ridley Scott in "Hannibal": how to make audiences sympathize with a cannibal. (Considering he pulled it off, Scott's next career move is obviously political consultancy.)

Carefully, the film sets up its story so that the audience feels everyone killed by Lecter deserves it, for crimes such as greed, pedophilia and lechery. Lecter has no innocent victims, feeding only on what he calls "the free-range rude."

It's also interesting to note that he gets all the tag lines of the sort usually accorded to action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. When you think about it, though, it's not that much of a stretch to go from rooting for a "hero" who can make a wisecrack as his enemy's arms are torn off (Arnold in "Total Recall") to an antihero who rips out the guts of his enemy. We are being asked to revel in pain and mutilation in both cases, and in that sense, we aren't that much different from Lecter: We like bloody vengeance, as long as the victim "deserves" it. This would have been an interesting parallel to draw, but, just as with "Gladiator," Ridley Scott doesn't confront the audience's bloodlust.

This is in sharp contrast to "Titus," another film about violent retribution that had Hopkins playing a Roman general driven to an act of cannibalism. Where Julie Taymor's adaptation of Shakespeare illustrated the endless cycle of violence sparked by the lust for vengeance, and the utter impossibility of ever finding solace in it, "Hannibal" has nothing to say.

It's worth recalling the outrage that greeted Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers," which was decried as glamorizing violence and was heavily cut before release. There was no single act of violence in that film nearly as explicit as what "Hannibal" contains, and it included a scene -- when Micky and Mallory randomly kill a young woman in a motel room -- that really forces the viewer to question any identification he may have had with the antiheroes. Significantly, "Hannibal" contains no such moment, but where is the outrage?

Obsession, by Hollywood

Many critics have made the argument that "Hannibal" is a grand romance, a beauty-and-the-beast tale of the love that knows no name between predator and prey, Lecter and Starling. But I would argue the opposite: "Hannibal" is proof positive of the notion (espoused by Wilhelm Reich, among others) that sexual repression breeds death obsession.

Like Lecter, who can barely bring himself to admit his desire for Starling, Hollywood compensates for a marked reserve in portraying any sort of frank sexuality onscreen with an overindulgence in the imagery of death. Even a mildly racy softcore scene can earn a film the dreaded NC-17 "adult" rating, and most contracts require directors to turn in an "R" cut, since NC-17 films are banned from most video stores and newspaper advertising.

Yet while such limits are imposed to contain "obscenity," somehow feeding a lobotomized man his own brain is considered less obscene than a naked human body. In no other recent film has this neurosis been so apparent as "The Cell," which renders its necrophilia explicitly.

But it's not only Hollywood: Just as the techniques of cinema's avant-garde have been appropriated en masse by MTV directors like Tarsem Singh, the outre avant-garde of the art world has finally gone totally mainstream. "The Cell" plunders liberally from the past two decades of "transgressive" art, including the bisected animals of Damien Hirst, the gruesome mutilative tableaux of Joel Peter Witkin, and the extreme body-modification and S/M documented in underground bible Re:Search.

Cult of the killer

One could even argue that the entire obsession with serial killers can be pinned on antithetical underground culture. Just think of the '80s hardcore bands who put Charles Manson's face on their albums or the labels that released his jail-cell recordings. Or Sonic Youth's "Death Valley '69" video, directed by that maestro of the faux-snuff film, Richard Kern. Or Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor making it a point to record at the Spahn Ranch, where Sharon Tate was butchered by the Manson family.

Then came the exhibitions on the fringe art-gallery circuit of some very bad clown paintings, done by none other than child-murderer John Wayne Gacy.

The irony here is that such moves were a flip of the bird at mainstream society, a desire to confront the unspeakable ugliness at its core. (Or, less charitably, an unthinking and nihilistic celebration of the forces of Thanatos.) But these days "edge" sells, and the ugliness is entertainment. Button-pushing has become a routine cry for attention in a crowded market, and may well be the ultimate legacy of transgressive art.

So now we get films where the serial killers themselves are artists. For both Carl Stargher and Hannibal Lecter, killing is a creative pursuit. Lecter is learned in medieval art depicting torture, and spends a great deal of thought on which wine to serve with brains. Stargher has a vivid imagination involving an amazingly artsy fantasy world of oriental decadence, his victims arrayed in elaborate tortures like so many installation works.

We should recall, though, another film from 1991, "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," which presented an altogether more realistic and terrifying take on its subject, a banal and unremarkable man. There are few if any parallels in the real world for the aesthete-killers we see in "Hannibal" and "The Cell." People like Ted Bundy or Ed Gein did not look like Marilyn Manson fans (Stargher) or more foppish versions of Truman Capote (Lecter). They were bland in the extreme, which is what allowed them to continue killing undetected for so long. "Henry" captured what made them so terrifying: the fact that they could be lurking in the house next door.

But that was the path not taken. With "The Cell" and "Hannibal," we find ourselves coasting down a very slippery slope where pure evil is tarted up for our consumption. In "Hannibal," one of Lecter's snide little tag lines comes as he's feeding the torn-off facial flesh of a victim to his dog.

"That's entertainment," he quips. Judging from Anthony Hopkins' oft-expressed irritation at being identified with Lecter, perhaps the irony in his inflection was intentional.

HannibalThe Cell

Rating: * Director: Ridley Scott Running time: 132 min. Language: EnglishOpens April 7 Rating: * *Director: Tarsem SignhRunning time: 109 min.Language: EnglishNow playing

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