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MOVIE MONSTERS-LOVE'EM OR HATE'EM?

"Hannibal" grossed $58 million last weekend. To put that in some sort of perspective, that is the third largest opening weekend box office in movie history and the largest non-summer movie opening ever.

Ever.

Despite what is widely expected to be a major drop in this weekend's box office figures, here is an extraordinarily plush and elegant piece of horror that has utterly and completely captured the American imagination. It is "Phantom of the Opera" played out with sauteed brains and starved, flesh-eating pigs; a Grand Guignol meditation on "Beauty and the Beast." And, quite predictably, a box office smash.

Lay all that on the sideboard for a minute.

Go back to a man named Oscar Metenier and April 13, 1897. That's when he opened what critic and historian Walter Kendrick nicely calls "a theater with an agenda" in the rue Chaptal in Paris. "His theater wouldn't educate patrons; it would merely kick their hearts up and down the rue Chaptal. Above all he intended to shock."

Madness and revenge would reign. Limbs would be lopped off. Heads would roll - literally. And blood would flow, all to the accompaniment of omnipresent screams and shrieks.

Audiences reacted strongly but incoherently.

Albert Sorel wrote of the theatrical experience: "As soon as seated, the agony begins. One is afraid of everything, afraid to stay, afraid to leave, afraid to appear frightened, afraid not to seem so which would disqualify one's nerves, afraid not to be able to go home, afraid to go there alone, all the intoxication of folly."

It was a tiny theater which seems to be how it got its name. One use of the French word "Guignol" is the name of the marionette who gets pasted around the block in Punch and Judy shows. But another use of the word "Guignol" is French slang for a tiny changing room next to a theatrical stage with just a mirror and a sink. It was nothing if not irony then for Metenier to call his little theater "Le Grand Guignol."

For all its immense influence on ensuing generations, it was never a huge success. It closed in 1962 with the full force of that influence still to come.

Not surprisingly, a good part of its repertoire involved that staple and standby of Gothic fiction, the good Doctor (think of Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Van Helsing). Doctors of one sort or another were involved in the horror and blood carnival of Le Grand Guignol just as they've so often been involved in Gothic imaginings of all sorts.

What then to make of us being swallowed whole by Dr. Hannibal Lecter and his blood opera love for FBI agent Clarice Starling? Critics seem to find themselves reacting as chaotically as poor Albert Sorel.

"Less monster than monstrosity" said Jim Hoberman in the Village Voice. "There's no redemption here, just the quest for a paycheck."

Roger Ebert called it "a carnival geek show elevated in the direction of art. It tries with every fiber of its craft to redeem its pulp origins and we must give it credit for the courage of its depravity." On his TV show, that, believe it or not, translated to a thumbs down.

"The apotheosis of serial killer chic, the prestige version of a Manson T-shirt," wrote Charles Taylor in Salon Online magazine. "No longer a villain, Lecter is now the hero, the superior being given the power of judgment over all other characters - the serial killer as arbiter of taste. Even as guardian angel . . . Putting audiences on the side of the villain by making the victims repulsive is a trick that Kubrick employed in "A Clockwork Orange.' And here no one whom Lecter kills is shown the slightest sympathy. His victims are all thieves or killers or pedophiles or cops so motivated by greed that they're presented as indistinguishable from the bad guys."

Surely we've reached the heights (or depths) of depravity when a historic smash hit can be made out of a flesh-eating serial killer seen as lover and hero. Or so many feel. Moral outrage is commonplace in the Age of Information so there has, indeed, been a lot of that greeting "Hannibal" no matter how obviously it turns "Dracula" or "Phantom of the Opera" into Grand Guignol.

Much funnier was the great critic Alexander Woolcott describing a Grand Guignol playlet called "The Last Torture:" "A noisy violent sketch of a night in a French consulate during the Boxer uprising . . . machine guns firing, shrieks, maniacal laughter are heard with terrible descriptions of torture -- eyes gouged out, breasts torn off, nails plucked from fingers. One even saw one mutilated fellow run in with his hands cut off. Thereafter, the play began to be disagreeable."

Horror and the ultimate in flesh-devouring "disagreeability" is what "Hannibal" audiences wait nervously for. And after the bizarrely elegant and perverse romance, they get it in the dining room brain surgery of the film's ending.

Wisdom is clearly needed here. So let it be supplied by the retired University at Buffalo professor and enormously influential American critic Leslie Fiedler (who is currently engaged in writing a long piece on minstrelsy and Wild West shows). He's been defending popular culture from alarmists and finger-waggers since he wrote about comic books in 1955.

What doubtless sets off those who are most scandalized at "Hannibal," said Fiedler, was "that they had such a respectable cast to begin with. They weren't making self-declared open schlock."

But then, he said, "that's what they said about Shakespeare, too." As for cannibalism, said Fiedler, consider Euripides' "The Bacchae" with its large climactic gob of "cannibalism in the family." Elevate yourself one level above the fray and you understand Fiedler's nicely turned aphorism about this -- and any other -- artistic/literary wrangle: "Two things will always exist in the world -- literature and the attack on literature. They need each other."

All the hand-wringings about "Hannibal," thus far, are just modern versions of poor Albert Sorel, trapped in a tiny theater full of horror and completely unsure how to react, which may be the most unsettling thing of all.

That's an extraordinarily rare thing in modern movie houses that seem to have formulized slaughter of all sorts.

We're all back with Sorel at the Original Grand Guignol. Or back with the audiences of James Whale's original "Frankenstein" movie who yearn to love the monster despite the unforgivable fact that he tosses small children into the lake.

That's the function of Hannibal Lecter in a world that has defined social behavior as narrowly and constrictedly as any time since the '50s. He's both a shudder-producing monster and social liberation, all at the same time.

And it is the brilliance of "Hannibal," the fantasy film about him taken from Thomas Harris' third Lecter novel, that somewhere deep inside, FBI agent Clarice Starling knows it, even if she can't publicly accept it.

Clarice Starling, meet Albert Sorel -- and all the rest of us too.

We all seem to be in the same boat.

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