Re-viewing Hannibal Lecter: Changing contexts of horror performance and reception

Sarah Thomas

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


This paper takes its starting point from the positive critical responses ‘which routinely enjoyed’ Anthony Hopkins’ first performance as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991) (Staiger 2000: 165). This appearance became an iconic horror performance that won Hopkins a Best Actor Academy Award and became part of the contemporary cultural landscape, in spite of – or perhaps partly due to – Hopkins’s short screen time. Despite Staiger’s brief acknowledgment of the actor’s importance in her study of reviews of the film, analyses of the respondent pleasures of Lecter tend to emphasise character and narrative over performance (Smith 1999). Following Toles’s (2011) study of film critic Pauline Kael’s ability to assess and re-project film performances in her reviews, this paper aims to re-consider the ‘perverse’ pleasures of Lecter through connections between film criticism and performance analysis. It will investigate Hopkins’s and other performances of ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’ in order to explore the relationship between horror, performance style, star status and cultural value through the reception discourse constructed around public analyses of this example of ‘horror acting’. It will consider the different performative and reception contexts that exist around screen performances of Hannibal Lecter: firstly through reviews of Hopkins’ three performances in The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal (Scott, 2001) and Red Dragon (Ratner, 2002), paying attention to the increasingly mixed critical reception of the films and Hopkins’ growing star status, screen time and the character’s narrative function. Secondly, it will draw comparisons with reviews of other actors’ performances of Lecter -- Brian Cox’s version in the cult film Manhunter (Mann, 1986) and Mads Mikkelsen in the TV series Hannibal (2013) -- and consider how these have been valued (or re-valued) within critical discourse around the texts they appear in and in comparison to Hopkins’s culturally dominant performance.

Smith, Murray, ‘Gangsters, Cannibals, Aethetes, or Apparently Perverse Allegiances’ in Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith (eds.), Passionate Views: Film, Cognition and Emotion (New York: Johns Hopkins, 1999), pp. 217-238.
Staiger, Janet, Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception (New York: New York University Press, 2000).
Toles, George, ‘Writing about Performance: the Film Critic as Actor’, in Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan (eds.), The Language and Style of Film Criticism (New York and Oxford: Routledge, 2011), pp. 87-106.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2014
EventSociety for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) - Seattle, WA, Seattle, WA., United States of America
Duration: 26 Mar 201428 Mar 2014


ConferenceSociety for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS)
Country/TerritoryUnited States of America
CitySeattle, WA.
Period26 Mar 201428 Mar 2014


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