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''Hannibal'' will feast on the weekend box office

The sequel to ”Silence of Lambs” could outgross the original — in more ways than one

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Julianne Moore, Anthony Hopkins, ...

No one doubts that moviegoers have an appetite for ”Hannibal.” The question is, how much of the film’s stomach churning antics can audiences endure? The sequel to ”Silence of the Lambs” — adapted from the book by Thomas Harris in which the cannibalistic antihero, Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins), returns to haunt his FBI foe, Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore) — opens this weekend amid the sort of fevered anticipation that ensures a blockbuster debut. ”Everybody’s heard of ‘Hannibal.’ It’s probably the most anticipated sequel since ‘Star Wars,”’ says Robert Bucksbaum of box office tracking firm Reel Source. ”The opening is going to blow ‘Silence’ away,” concurs Dan Marks of ACNielsen. ”It’s not even in the same ballpark.”

Analysts predict that audience awareness will help the sequel devour $30 to $40 million in ticket sales in its first three days of release — more than triple the money earned by the original film when it opened over 1991’s four day Valentine’s weekend. What’s less certain is whether ”Hannibal” can sustain enough momentum to top ”Silence”’s $130 million total sales. ”It has all the earmarks of a film that will gross $100 million,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations. ”But to predict whether it will outsell ‘Silence’ overall is tough.”

Several factors might work against ”Hannibal.” For starters, it lacks the Oscar allure of ”Silence,” which is one of a handful of films to have won five statuettes, including Best Picture. ”There’s no way ‘Hannibal’ is going to win an Academy Award, or even get nominated in any major categories,” says Bucksbaum. Likewise, the absence of Jodie Foster (who won Best Actress for her turn as the original Starling) and director Jonathan Demme (who was replaced by ”Gladiator”’s Ridley Scott after declining to helm the sequel because of its violence) could turn off potential viewers. ”If you had Foster, Demme, and Hopkins together, that would be a sure thing,” says Dergarabedian. ”People look for consitancy in a sequel.”

Others might be frightened away by several lurid — and much publicized — scenes involving human sweetmeats and face eating swine, as well as ho hum reviews. (”’Hannibal’ lacks the rounded emotional elegance of ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ –that was a great film; this one is merely good,” says EW’s Owen Gleiberman, who graded the film a B+.) ”It’s just too gory,” says Reel Source’s Bucksbaum. ”That’s the image projected in the trailer and the ads. We have a theater and no one wants to close up alone at night if [the ‘Hannibal’] poster is staring at them. They don’t want to be left alone in there with that poster.”

But analysts agree that word of mouth about the film’s cringe inducing moments could end up drawing more folks than it repels. ”People will want to see what really happens, what those scenes are about,” says Dergarabedian, who adds that no one should be too surprised by the film’s shocking elements. ”Everyone knows they’re going to be getting Hannibal the Cannibal. They’ve got to figure it’s not going to be a walk in the park.” Has he ever strolled though Manhattan’s Central Park at night?