Horror has not been historically well-served by television. Network TV rules for edgy content, and the simple fact that the people making these shows often just don’t get it, have made it difficult for horror franchises to successfully transition to the small screen.
And it seems the time is right for scary films to make the move to television, as evidenced by not one but two current series that have successfully been adapted from iconic horror films to the boob tube.
Hannibal, based on the Hannibal Lechter films, and Bates Motel, inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho, both struck a chord with viewers in their debut seasons, are now both out on excellent Blu-ray sets.
Both series are prequels and, in a sense, reboots of their respective storylines.
Hannibal: Season One(Lionsgate) fills in the missing years alluded to in Thomas Harris’ first Hannibal Lechter novel, Red Dragon, during which FBI investigator Will Graham (previously played on the big screen by William Petersen and Edward Norton) was a patient of noted psychologist Hannibal Lechter. Thing is, this was the period during which Lechter was secretly killing and eating people.
One of the delicious appeals of the first season is that, while we know what Lechter’s up to, none of the characters in the show do. Cleverly, the series emphasizes Lechter’s penchant for cooking and serving his “delicacies.” There’s even an interesting bonus feature about the preparation of the food for the show, which never explicitly shows that he’s serving people but certainly implies that those delectable dishes he’s serving may not be pork or lamb.
Throughout the season’s 13 episodes, Lechter is shown butchering, prepping and sauteing his culinary creations. It’s witty and deliciously depraved—the Food Network meets The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
The series has a distinctly X-Files-like feel—most episodes are devoted to tracking down the serial killer of the week, with Graham (Hugh Dancy) frequently consulting with, and seeking counseling from, Lechter (Mads Mikkelsen). But there are overarching storylines at work here, and like in The X-Files, a grander mythology—that of Lechter and his path of diabolism.
The cast in excellent. While Graham was pretty stoic and straight-arrow in both movies the character was featured in, Manhunter (1986) and its remake Red Dragon (2002), Dancy channels his inner demons, actually dialing him in more faithfully to his characterization in Harris’ book. Mikkelsen, of course, has the unenviable task of following Anthony Hopkins in his definitive, iconic performances in three films. Mikkelsen’s Danish accent may be hard to understand at times, but he actually is a more accurate casting of Lechter, who, according to Harris’ books, was a Lithuanian Concentration camp survivor. The cast also includes Lawrence Fishburne, who turns in a solid performance as FBI man Jack Crawford.
The writing is consistently on-point. The stories are smart and quietly scary. Production values—photography, music, sound—are top-notch. This is a show that can stand with the Anthony Hopkins films on your Blu-ray shelf.
The show is audaciously edgy for a network TV show. Clearly the networks are toughening up their act in the face of competition from cable dramas with unrestricted content. The episodes have some pretty explicit violence and imagery—never exploitative, but definitely pushing the boundaries of what TV can show.
As showrunner Bryan Fuller (Heroes, Pushing Daisies) relates in a bonus feature, he envisions the show running for seven seasons—four of prequel, and then one each to remake Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. The show has already been renewed by NBC for a second 13-episode season. I do hope the series gets to continue and fill that prophecy.
Bates Motel is another attempt to provide backstory for a familiar classic story, and it takes a leap in time to reboot its story. This tale of young, pre-Psycho Norman Bates and his mama is set in modern day, complete with smartphones, social media and other staples of modern teen life.
This choice doesn’t hamper the show in the least, and goes a long way in making it more relatable to a 2013 viewership. And the beats of this story are still consistent with what we know of the Psycho storyline: Norman’s dad dies in mysterious circumstances, and he moves with his mother Norma to run a middle-of-nowhere hotel in Oregon.
Certainly, his mother plays a large role in that development. Vera Farmiga is an Emmy-worthy revelation in the role, simultaneously sympathetic and creepy, and playing it with just a little hint that her feelings for Norman may go beyond that of a mother to her son.
As Norman, Freddie Highmore (the young brit from Finding Neverland and the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake) is utterly believable as a confused young man who is as much a victim of his upbringing as a slave to his urges. The show parses out little inklings of his tendencies, but wisely doesn’t veer him into serial killer land.
The storylines for the show’s first season delve into Norman’s formative years as a student—his interactions with other teens, especially young women. And there are plenty of challenges that Norma has to deal with, including Norman’s half-brother and some other complications that arise.
This isn’t the first time this story’s been told—there was a 1990 made-for-Showtime Psycho prequel/sequel, Psycho IV – The Beginning, in which an adult Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, in his final performance as his defining role) recounts his traumatic upbringing with his mother (played by Olivia Hussey). That version was a bit over-the-top; this version of a Bates prequel actually hits the mark, even though it’s not canon with the movie storyline due to the shift in time period.
Still, there’s plenty of darkness here, from the themes to the strange relationship between Norman and his mother. And under the guidance of showrunner Carlton Cuse (best known for his work on Lost), Bates Motel also boasts well-honed scripts and production values that approach movie-level.
So there you have it: Two television series from beloved horror classics that are—quite surprisingly—actually good, and worth a binge-viewing. Long may they chill!