Barbarian (2022)

Late one night during a raging storm, Tess Marshall (a relatable Georgina Campbell) arrives at the small house she rented for the weekend only to find the key missing from the lock box outside. She sees light and a figure inside so understandably exasperated; she bangs on the door, which is answered by an odd man named Keith (Bill Skarsgard, inadvertently carrying the baggage of previously portraying a psychotic killer clown). It turns out the domicile was accidentally rented to two parties for the same weekend! Since it’s raining cats and dogs and they just happen to be in the most dilapidated and depressing area of Detroit, the two form an awkward alliance and agree to share the place together. What could go wrong? Everything could go wrong. Everything you could imagine and a dozen things your mind could never comprehend can go wrong.

I’m not going to be the one to spoil this film’s surprises. Nope, I knew nothing about it going in and I’m a hundred percent sure that’s the best way to see it. (Now whispering) I will say, writer/director Zach Cregger’s BARBARIAN absolutely feels like being trapped in a nightmare that you can’t wake up from. There’s this horrible force that keeps pushing you forward against your better judgment as you go deeper and deeper and sense that where you came from is disintegrating behind you. There is nobody to help, in fact, your every plea for assistance is misconstrued and digs your grave deeper. Every choice you make to fix the situation backfires and makes things worse. You witness the darkest heartlessness of humanity and the unfathomable pain and despair that it fosters. There are no happy endings here, just inevitable decay and rot. It’s all so outlandish it can’t possibly be real but it’s happening all the same. You have a few glimmers of light, a few hopes for escape but you squander them trying to do that right thing for people you have no idea don’t deserve it. Something primal makes you want to cry out for your mother and that may be the biggest mistake of all. BARBARIAN is an ordeal. It can be furiously frustrating at times when the most backward choices are made but I think that just adds to the anxiety and the feeling of hopelessness. It’s a bad dream of a movie and like many bad dreams, it can’t help being as fascinating as it is thrilling.

Kidertrauma Classic:: IT: The Miniseries (’90)

I’m not sure I could possibly think of a movie that better captures the essence of the term Kindertrauma than the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s IT directed by Tommy Lee Wallace. (Its only competition may be the theatrical interpretation of King’s novel or the mighty book itself). Beyond showcasing Tim Curry’s iconic performance of Pennywise the Clown (which scarred a generation), IT distinctly focuses on the horrors of childhood that one can never quite scrape off their shoe as an adult. Interdimensional, shapeshifting, child-devouring monsters from your past are hard to hurdle I know, but so are abusive parents, sadistic bullies, basic bigotry, physical illness, the loss of a loved one and the simple quiet terror of never quite fitting in. The story of IT is a reminder that no matter how much we may move on with our lives or how “well-adjusted” or successful we become, there’s no way to fully escape the events that shaped us.

IT is the tale of a group of misfits known as “The Losers Club” who destroyed an evil entity in their youth which presented itself (mostly) as a hideous clown named Pennywise.

Now adults, living lives of avoidance, dissociation and denial, they are mortified to learn that the monster has returned. Having made a sacred pact long ago, the group returns to their hometown to destroy the creature once and for all. Unfortunately, their adversary knows their every psychological weakness and its powers to exploit them appear to be limitless.

IT: The Miniseries consists of two, roughly two-hour segments (when allotting for commercials). The first part, which focused on childhood events aired on November 18th, 1990 then two days later the conclusion dealing with the modern day adults facing their boogeyman was broadcast on November 20th. Both did exceptionally well in the ratings though the first part is notoriously better regarded with audiences and critics; the final confrontation being deemed a bit of a letdown. IT delivered within its original 192 minutes more genuine, platinum Kindertraumas than could be listed here so, in the interest of space, allow me to list my top five disturbing moments (and please feel free to add your own in the comments):

THE OPENING. The scene in which young Georgie encounters Pennywise in a storm drain is rightfully a classic but I’m equally freaked by our first glimpse of the clown hiding within some hanging laundry on a sunny day. Moments later he has killed a little girl only a precious few feet away from the safety of her mother and home and it still creeps me out.

THE SCRAPBOOK. Trippy surrealism abounds as the gang watches an old photo of their town seemingly comes to life. Pennywise is at his most terrifying, boldly declaring to the group his evil intentions straight to their stunned faces. To top it all off, his hand reaches out of the photo book like a mad cartoon! Freddy Krueger would be proud.

THE SHOWER SCENE. Having to take a shower after gym is nightmarish enough without the showerheads attacking you and a clown protruding from the drain surrounded by stop-motion effects and grinning like a malice-fueled maniac!

THE CHINESE RESTAURANT. As adults the gang regroup at a restaurant to strategize their survival. The dinner is more than ruined when the dessert appears to be fortune cookies that mutate and dispel cockroaches, crabs, agonizing baby birds (!) and animated eyeballs. Nice job triggering my every food-phobia.

MRS. KERSH. They say you can’t go home again and why should you when you might bump into a kindly old lady who transforms into your deceased abusive father.

AND SO MANY MORE. The “Turn Back Now” balloon, the voices in the bloody sink, the talking skeleton, the possessed pharmacist, the ghost of Ben’s father, the werewolf, the mummy, the decapitated head, that darn Eddie Bowers and every single appearance of that wacky jokester Pennywise. Beep! Beep! IT is a giant box of assorted nightmares and indelible images and possibly the most epic made for TV horror film ever made (although, yeah, the king crab climax leaves a lot to be desired. But who cares? You really shouldn’t judge an entire meal on a couple rotten fortune cookies).

NOTE: There is a brand new documentary on the making of IT called PENNYWISE: THE STORY OF IT and it’s streaming on SCREAMBOX. It’s an incredibly detailed look at the creation of the miniseries with fascinating interviews with many involved and wonderful tributes to those who have passed. I enjoyed every minute of it and highly recommend IT!

My Kindertrauma:: Creature from the Black Lagoon (’54) By Justin H.Q.

As it is with most children growing up, my sanctuary was my home. Home is where my parents raised me, where my older brother taught me what I needed to know of the world, where my toys promised to teleport me to another world when the earthly one got to be a little too much for me to handle.

Watching horror movies also became a home of mine. Watching scary movies would become a place where I strangely felt safe, mostly because no matter how grotesque or otherworldly or supernatural or unbelievable the monsters that threatened me from the horror movie screen, the more I quickly understood that every horror movie would come to an end, extinguishing the potential for horror with it. As soon as the credits of a horror film would begin to roll, my heart and my mind would shove the terror of its unimaginable creature back into some harmless recess where I knew it couldn’t reach me.

It was make believe, after all.

And I would have to imagine that if horror films have proven to be problematic in my own life then they present a bit of a challenge to others as well. Some people hate horror movies because they are legitimately frightened watching them. Meanwhile, I love horror movies because they remind me of what scares me about everything around me. Because I discovered through a horror movie that home can be a very terrifying place too, and Creature from the Black Lagoon taught me that lesson.

When first introduced to the creature, I imagined that his physical image alone would give me nightmares when I’d see him ambling about on the screen. But I found that I wasn’t afraid of him at all. On the contrary, I gravitated to the creature. I wanted to understand this thing that looked nothing like me but seemed to feel things that I could also feel. To my understanding, he loved nature. He appreciated beauty. He felt at times like he was different (and that didn’t always feel like a normal feeling).

And when I watched Creature from the Black Lagoon as a child – like the creature – I suddenly felt threatened too.

But I wasn’t threatened in a horror movie by some malformed creature that defied description. In fact, I was threatened by people who looked – for want of a better word – normal. Like real, everyday human beings. And they were invading this creature’s home and they were discarding their cigarette butts into this creature’s home and they sought to abduct the creature from his home. To my way of thinking, Creature from the Black Lagoon is a home invasion film, and the creature itself is the victim. And if I’d come to understand anything about the sanctity of the home, it is that you must always defend it.

Somehow, then, I understood that every home on my block was part of the neighborhood watch program. Were my family far from home, someone would defend our house if threatened by a burglar. And if a fire threatened to burn my home to the ground, a fire brigade would save my house from a smoldering fate. And if a tornado warning was sounded over the radio, the rest of the family would whisk away to the basement, and my dad would stand watch on the house’s front porch, waiting for the first glimpse of a cyclone. And I knew my father would provide first-hand accounts of the storm’s assault on our home rather than be whisked away by terrible winds himself. I knew at all times that my house was protected in these ways.

But watching Creature from the Black Lagoon as a child, I would never have thought that normal people could be monsters, that people seemingly as similar to and familiar to and innocuous as you or I could inspire terror by entering my home – especially with me in it – by taking my home from me or by removing me forever from my home. One could imagine, then, that my sympathies lied with the creature when I watched that film. To this day, my sympathies still do. Even when I rewatch the movie today, I hope that the conclusion will somehow be different, despite the fact that I’ve seen it so many times. I champion the gill man and hope that he will not only save his home but perhaps even discover sympathy, if not love. And for those familiar with this classic Universal monster movie, you know that the monsters win, in the end. The heroic creature, alternatively, does not.

And I’ve since moved far away from that house that I once called home. That house where my parents raised me, where my brother taught me what I needed to know of the world, where my toys promised to teleport me to another world when the earthly one got to be a little too much for me to handle.

And I’ve tried hard since then to forget the lesson that I learned there – watching that 1954 film – that sometimes, the monsters win. Sometimes, home is a place – like a memory – to be abandoned, when it both cannot be defended and when the movie always seems to end the same, no matter how many times you watch it.

X (2022)

One of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had going to the movies in many moons is when I went to see Ti West’s X. It just looked so glorious on the big screen with its huge skies, stark horizons, and broad, eye-popping aerial shots. It’s like an exquisite painting that uses every inch of the canvas properly, a perfectly designed iconic flag I cannot resist saluting. And of course, it stands on the shoulders of giants proudly declaring its loyalty to horror greats like Hitchcock, De Palma, Carpenter, and especially, the one and only, Tobe Hooper. Yet I forgot to post about it and the reason for that is that I talked about the movie so much to myself inside my head that I honestly thought that I had. But I recently snagged a copy on DVD and watched it again so now’s the perfect time to remedy that.

It’s 1979 and Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson) has a brilliant plan to take advantage of the burgeoning home video market by producing a porn movie. He gathers together the perfect cast with his main-squeeze, starry-eyed Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), leggy blonde bombshell Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), and the generously endowed Jackson Hole (Kid Cudi). Helping out with directing duties is RJ (Owen Campbell) who brings along his meek girlfriend Lorraine (Jenny Ortega) to handle sound. The film is to be called “The Farmer’s Daughters” so Wayne rents out a rustic farmhouse in the middle of Texas (actually New Zealand) from two of the scariest oldsters you ever laid eyes on. Things get off to an uncomfortable and shaky start and go swiftly downhill from there. I’m not going to give anything away but it’s like watching that “American Gothic” painting by Grant Wood being ripped to shreds by an alligator but both the figures in the painting and the alligator are aging and decomposing at an accelerated speed.  

There’s nothing quite like watching a horror film made by someone who truly loves the genre and X sends off love letter vibes in every frame. There’s a certain type of eerie, menacing magic going on here that truly transports; it’s like strolling at dusk through a midsummer night’s nightmare and when the you-know-what hits the fan the horror is palpable and feels as ancient and ubiquitous as time itself. My public service announcement is that if you suffer to any degree with gerascophobia (fear of aging) make sure you bring a blanket to hide under while watching this movie. I’m pretty sure I grew a gray beard and developed liver spots before the end credits.

Unsurprisingly and as usual, a major reason that I hold this film in such high regard is because of the people in it and the humanity it displays even in its darkest moments. Writer, director, producer, and editor Ti West gallantly makes a point not to look down upon, judge, or mock his rag-tag team of complicated yet personable outsiders. In one simple scene, they explain themselves and their outlooks and you kind of have to admire their freedom and ability to live outside societal norms unapologetically. It doesn’t hurt that Britney Snow’s Bobby Lynne sings a surprisingly moving rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” which seems to momentarily stop the world from spinning. X is simply great filmmaking that is capable of conjuring up a cornucopia of emotions, horror being just one of them. Now, I better go buy some hair dye to cover this gray and maybe get some Geritol and prune juice while I’m at it. (Sobs quietly). Hey, why didn’t I get a senior discount when I bought my movie ticket!?! Whippersnappers!

Kindertrauma Classic:: The Witches (1990)

THE WITCHES is a swirling cauldron of kindertraumas and how could it not be when it’s based on a book from the mind of Roald Dahl (Charlie & the Chocolate Factory), cunningly directed by Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), enhanced by the genius of Jim Henson (The Dark Crystal), and features a fearless performance by Anjelica Huston (The Addams Family). Some of the frights it delivers are of the creepy and existential variety (a young girl trapped in a painting forever) and some are loud, brazen displays of the hideously grotesque (Huston’s true form as the evil Grand High Witch is truly the stuff of the most vivid childhood nightmares). This PG-rated film can be adorable (talking mice!) and it can be absolutely horrifying (Roeg pulls no punches with Huston’s demise). There are moments of eye-popping creativity but even its quietest respites sparkle with something wonderfully off-kilter and authentically magical.

Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) is a young boy who listens to his grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) as she warns him of the presence of incognito witches all over the world (she knows the score because her childhood friend was snatched by a witch and was forced to live out her entire existence pitiably trapped in a painting). She informs him that witches have a purple tint to their eyes, clubbed feet, bald heads (concealed by wigs), and can smell the presence of children. This information becomes very useful when Luke is accosted by such a being while hanging out in his treehouse and especially when he and his grandmother inadvertently spend some time at a seaside hotel that is host to a convention of witches (masquerading as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). Accidently, Luke learns of the devious witches’ plans to turn every child in England into mice, is turned into a mouse himself, and must find a way (with the help of his grandmother and a new friend) to stop the diabolical creatures.

THE WITCHES is tons of lively fantastical fun buoyed by Roeg’s endlessly creative and bold direction (apparently Roeg reluctantly edited out even more frightening bits when he witnessed his young son’s reaction to the film). It’s also got an admirable mean streak that ensures the viewer never feels they are safely snuggled in a story with a guaranteed happy ending. What really takes the film over the top is the marriage of Anjelica Huston’s gleefully evil performance and the incredible make-up and special effects provided by Jim Henson’s workshop. As the evil Grand High Witch Eva Ernst, Huston provides as much hypnotic dark charisma under heavy make-up (that took 6 hours to apply and six hours to remove) as without. The character is wonderfully larger than life and absolutely oozing with gloriously grotesque wickedness. No adult or child who witnesses this iconic nightmare creature’s remarkable unmasking is likely to ever forget it. Although THE WITCHES ends up relenting by tacking on a happier ending than the book (to Dahl’s dismay), this flick seeps pure hideous horror art and is a masterpiece of dark fantasy.

Traumafession:: Director Chris Moore on Night of the Living Dead (1968)

I wasn’t usually allowed to watch horror films as a kid unless they were rated PG (or possibly PG-13 if my folks were feeling liberal) or if they were on TV where all the gore, sex, nudity, and language would be cut out. The general rule was that, if it was made before 1970 or so, it was probably okay for me to see. With this rule in place, I tried my hardest to find whatever appropriate horror films I could get my hands on. 

One night, while browsing the aisles of my favorite mom and pop video store, Video Library, I saw it. It was staring back at me, taunting me with its bright pink border surrounding a garish and gory piece of art in the middle. It reminded me of the outside of those cheap haunted house rides I’d see at the state fair every October. People were chewing on human flesh, a car was on fire, and a bloody woman was screaming at the bottom. I had to know what horrors were contained inside this tape!

I brought the tape to my father who inspected it, looked at the back of it, and nodded with approval. It was black and white and not rated. How bad could it be? He even said he’d watch it with me in case I got too scared. “Night of the Living Dead!”, he said. “I remember this one. You’ll be fine.”

We got back home, popped the tape in the VCR, and the film started with a static shot of an old country road like many of the ones we had on the outskirts of town. The music was foreboding, but I had my dad there. What could go wrong?

While the first scene did make me uncomfortable, I didn’t get the first true jolt until Barbara got to the farm house, went upstairs, and saw the decomposing head on the staircase. I shrieked when she did and covered my eyes. Maybe I wasn’t ready for this. 

I got my wits together and powered through the rest of the movie, still uncomfortable and terrified I’d have to see that terrifying head again. This movie wasn’t like the Vincent Price horror movies I’d seen. This was stark, brutal, and took no prisoners. No one was safe, including the audience. 

It wasn’t until young Karen came towards her mother in the basement that I started feeling like I couldn’t breathe and I might not be able to handle the rest of this movie. As she approached her hapless mother and grabbed a garden tool off the wall, I could feel my palms getting sweaty. Surely, they weren’t going to show this, were they? As Karen backed her mother into a corner and started stabbing her to death, I ran out of the room, screaming. 

I didn’t see the rest of the film for at least another decade and, if you want to know the truth, every time I see that scene, I still want to run out of the room. Thank you, George Romero, for giving me one of my first true horror film experiences. 

UNK SEZ: Our good pal Director Chris Moore (BLESSED ARE THE CHILDREN, TRIGGERED, A STRANGER AMONG THE LIVING) has an awesome new movie out called CHILDREN OF SIN and as usual, it’s as thought provoking as it is fright inducing! Check out the trailer HERE!

Trauma-scene:: Superman III’s Psycho Cyborg

Some of the most interesting Kindertraumas come from the most unlikely of places. We’re all somewhat prepared for freaky happenings in horror films but few would expect mental turmoil from a comic book sequel centered on the most wholesome flying alien to ever wear tights. To be fair, SUPERMAN III does consciously dabble in darkness when Superman (Christopher Reeve) becomes a rude, drunken version of himself after he’s exposed to impure kryptonite but, as pointed out within the film, our heroes’ bad side leans more toward faulty human than actual evil entity. Instead, SUPERMAN III’s most notoriously frightening transformation occurs to perhaps the least likely character. Make no mistake, the scene in question is not one that unnerved a select few high-strung individuals, this is a capital “K” Kindertrauma that shook many a child. Rarely can you mention the movie SUPERMAN III without someone with the shell-shocked face of a war veteran whispering about, “That robot lady…”

I’ll spare you the convoluted details that make up the plot of this comedic PG-rated adventure. Suffice to say that once again Superman is facing a troika of amoral individuals up to no good. In this case the trio (megalomaniac millionaire Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), his henchwoman sibling Vera (Annie Ross) and his not so bubble-headed main squeeze Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson)) have solicited the aid of one Gus Goreman (Richard Pryor) who happens to be a wiz when it comes to computers. There’s the usual tug of war between the superhero and his enemies and eventually everything culminates in a climax in an underground lair around a giant super computer that we’re told can do anything and has seemingly become sentient. At one point Vera attempts to escape the mechanical beast only to be drug backwards by a laser beam and to be assimilated inside it. With her face visibly anguished, poor Vera has metallic pieces grafted upon her face as sparks fly and her eyeballs turn to silver balls. Suddenly she’s an unwilling robotic zombie clamoring forward with a shocking ragdoll hairdo and lasers shooting out of her face.

On a visual level alone it’s a disturbing display as this once relatively normal person is piece by piece transformed into some kind of TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (’89) by way of STAR TREK’s “The Borg”, half human/half robot hybrid. Adding to the intensity is the clear physical discomfort Vera endures as she is unwillingly overtaken. The resulting creature that emerges walks that freakish uncanny tightrope line between utterly ridiculous and incomprehensibly nightmarish. It’s a bizarre sight to behold that screams of wrongness on a cosmic level. Of course, any reasonable adult would shrug off the entire sequence as high camp nonsense but any kid worth his salt recognizes an unholy abomination when they see one. Ironically SUPERMAN III inadvertently accomplishes what so many techno-thrillers tried and failed at, it actually makes technology legitimately frightening for a spell.

My personal favorite component of this iconic trauma-scene is the fact that it just so happens to involve the late great Annie Ross who I believe is the main reason the cinematic atrocity works so well and is so unshakable. Ross, besides being a legendary accomplished jazz singer who delivered stellar performances in PUMP UP THE VOLUME (’90) and Robert Altman’s SHORT CUTS (’93), should be considered a great friend to the horror genre for her appearances in WITCHERY (’88) and most notably BASKET CASES 2 and 3 (’90 &’91). In Frank Hennenlotter’s brilliant sequels to his cult classic BASKET CASE (’82), Ross portrays Granny Ruth a highly lovable advocate for non-normies everywhere who on occasion breaks into inspirational song. If that weren’t enough horror clout, Annie even provided the speaking voice for Britt Eckland in the masterpiece THE WICKER MAN (‘73). The woman is a legend and it’s all so very fitting that one of the many jewels in her impressive crown would be one of the most memorable and often mentioned kindertraumas ever. A quick cut conveys that after the ultimate computer is destroyed that Vera Webster returns back to her former self (most likely to face consequences) but for many folks who caught this flick at a young age, she’ll be shooting off sparks and blasting off laser beams forever. Some traumas ya just can’t unplug.

Five Favorite Things:: Hannibal by Chuckles72

  1. Hannibal/ Mads Mikkelsen

Mention Hannibal Lecter to most people and they think of the character portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. I have no problem with that – Hopkins’ portrayal is terrific. However, my favorite Hannibal is the character as portrayed by Mikkelsen.

Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is quite different from the version appearing in SotL – he’s exotic, charismatic and exceedingly polite (well, mostly). Many differences can be reconciled with other portrayals by the fact that “Hannibal” takes place largely before anyone knows about Dr. Lecter’s criminality. He’s free to practice as an elite psychiatrist, enjoying an aristocratic lifestyle and socializing with upper class nitwits that salivate in anticipation of the next spectacular dinner party that he hosts.

In an interview Mikkelsen described his portrayal: “To Hannibal, psychopaths are banal, as they all have a reason for killing: a f*cked-up mum, a dad that hit them, whatever. For me, he’s the fallen angel: Satan on Earth, a man who sees beauty where the rest of us see horror.” This kind of sums it up for me. The dapper, cultured intellectual Dr. Lecter is not merely a facade – he actually is those things while also being a remorseless, cruel, cannibalistic murderer. Satan on Earth.

  1. The rest of the cast

As I said, narrowing my list to a mere five favorite things is tough with Hannibal. I could easily fill out the remaining fours favorites with other cast members, but because I have so much ground to cover I’ll begrudgingly lump them together here.

Starring opposite Mads Mikkelsen is Hugh Dancy as FBI special investigator Will Graham. Dancy gives us a Will Graham who is Hannibal’s intellectual equal – brilliant but dysfunctional. Will immediately intrigues Hannibal because, while Will is a fundamentally good person, he also demonstrates the instincts of a killer. He can not only eerily reconstruct a psychopath’s mind to aid the FBI’s investigations, he can unleash his inner savage when he must. Dancy deftly treads a near perfect path through the tricky territory of his character.

Laurence Fishburne is Jack Crawford. After Hannibal I can’t even remember who else has played Jack Crawford. This is probably my favorite Fishburne portrayal – his Jack Crawford is supremely pragmatic and quietly tortured by his failings. He’s a great leader but, like almost everyone at the FBI, he falls under Hannibal’s spell. Hannibal’s dealings with Jack are some of the most harrowing of the series, as he pretends(?) friendship with Jack whilst secretly tormenting him.

Will’s allies at the FBI include Jimmy Price (Scott Thompson of Kids in the Hall), Brian Zeller (Aaron Abrams of Blindspot) and most notably Hettiene Park as Investigator Beverly Katz. Beverly becomes Will’s friend and offers him help when he is at his lowest point, and the outcome of her investigation on his behalf changes the way we, the viewers, see Hannibal Lecter.

I would be remiss in failing to mention the really funny portrayal of the infamously pretentious Frederick Chilton by Raul Esparza (Law and Order SVU). He gets some of the best lines of the series and just kills it with his animated expressions of fear and exasperation.

Gillian Anderson delivers an icy Bedelia Du Maurier, Hannibal’s psychiatrist and sometimes-ally. Caroline Dhavernas is Alana Bloom, a psych professor that literally and figuratively hypnotizes Will. I could go on and on – the cast and characters are terrific.

  1. The Gorn

The bizarre and horrifying visuals in Hannibal set it apart from anything that has ever been broadcast by NBC – or any other major network. How to describe it? Well, Unk recently posted about Salem’s Lot, broadcast in 1979 on CBS. Scary stuff! Remember that scene where Barlow materializes in Mark Petrie’s house and bonks his parents’ heads together? Well, imagine instead that Barlow slams his parents’ heads together so hard that their skulls explode in slow motion and their brains erupt in a black fountain superimposed against a psychedelic, stylized portrait of Barlow’s face. That’s Hannibal.

Hannibal’s highly stylized title sequence exemplifies some of the phantasmagoric visuals that appear in nearly every episode – usually these are depictions of Will’s visions or hallucinations. Will is haunted by a dark stag-man representing the “Chesapeake Ripper”, a serial killer that the FBI has hunted for years. In a memorable sequence, psychologist Alana Bloom transforms into an undulating, black seductress.

But of course what most people remember is the gore. Sure, Hannibal slashes, bashes and dismembers people in graphic detail, but that’s just beans compared to the escapades of the other creative maniacs that tangle with the FBI. They carve victims into “angels”, sew them into a “mural”, twist them into string instruments or – good grief, the Totem Pole – you just gotta see it for yourself.

  1. Those other maniacs that I mentioned…

Hannibal starts out in an episodic format, featuring a new lunatic for Will and Hannibal (yes, he helps Will and the FBI) to hunt each week. Later, as the plot thickens, the need to introduce new crazies diminishes – we spend more time with recurring foes.

Some of the killers are memorable for their crimes. Hannibal is a gothic horror, so the killers don’t just leave victims by the roadside – they transform them into symbols of their psychopathy. The Muralist selects victims for their interesting skin tones, The Angel Maker delivers “divine” punishment, the Bee Lady “cures” her patients by transforming them into zombie beehives. The bizarre visuals follow, of course.

Some of the killers are also memorable for the portrayals. Eddie Izzard recurs as Abel Gideon, an imprisoned killer surgeon whose mind has been so scrambled by Chilton’s “treatment” that he is undoubtedly far more dangerous for it. Izzard goes a bit over the top, but he’s funny and charming enough to smooth it out in the end. Jonathan Tucker, great at portraying villains, is Matthew Brown, the Chesapeake Ripper’s #1 fan, who is anxious for approval. Lance Henriksen makes a brief but memorable appearance as a retired but prolific serial killer.

Spoiler Alert! Skip to the next section if you have not yet seen Hannibal and plan to.

Now that’s out of the way, allow me to praise Richard Armitage as Francis Dolarhyde (The Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon). This is the third portrayal of this character that I have seen and I would put it up next to Tom Noonan’s unforgettable Dolarhyde in Manhunter (1986). Like Noonan’s Dolarhyde, Armitage’s character is both utterly insane and simultaneously sympathetic. It’s a great performance.

  1. The story – particularly the first half of Season 2.

The stories in Hannibal are well executed and, most importantly, carefully woven together into a narrative arc that spans all three seasons. The writers respect the audience, subverting our expectations and allowing us to make connections without exposition. For example, the first episode starts with a murder that is never mentioned again in the series, but careful watching leads to the conclusion that it ties directly into the last half of the third season.

I liked all three seasons of Hannibal, but the story in the first half (six episodes) of Season Two stands out. The opening minutes are probably the most shocking season opener ever. Will and Hannibal are kept at distance from one another and wage a deadly psychological war by proxy. Hannibal narrowly escapes death and then commits his most unforgivable crime. Will gains ground in convincing his allies that Hannibal is not what he seems, while imperilling his friends in his quest for evidence. Through it all, Hannibal maintains the upper hand through his careful manipulations, effecting Will’s liberation and Jack’s torment by materializing a ghost from his past. The end of episode 6 concludes with a shocking revelation and Hannibal’s symbolic conclusion of his latest harpsichord composition. Great stuff.