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Schlock & Awe: MANHUNTER

As hard as it is for people of my generation and younger to wrap their heads around, there was a time in the world, a very huge chunk of time, actually, where we didn’t know who Hannibal Lecter was. It truly wasn’t until the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay at the Oscars that everybody’s favorite erudite cannibal was a household name. In fact, in his first screen outing, his name wasn’t even Lecter. Hence, it’s weird to watch Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter now knowing how big a cultural icon Hannibal would become. He’s not even in the movie very much.

Mann had no idea the kind of impact of the Hannibal Lecter mythos would have on everybody for years to come when he decided to write, direct, and adapt. While we now have a TV show called Hannibal all about getting inside the head of a murderer and mutilator, Mann was just trying to make a good procedural drama. Dr. Lecter (in the film called “Lektor”) is merely a supporting antagonist in Red Dragon, and the story falls much more on the character of his greatest nemesis, FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen). This was one of the first, if not the very first, movies about profiling, which now is so common that eight out of every ten cop dramas are about profiling serial killers. It seems unlikely there’d be that many serial killers in the world. In Harris’ novel, and in Mann’s film, they’re certainly pretty prevalent, and ingenious.


Based on Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel Red Dragon, Manhunter starts with FBI mucky muck Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) coming to beseech his retired criminal profiler, and best in the game, Will Graham (Petersen) out of retirement to help track a serial killer who has been breaking into families’ homes and slaughtering everyone, leaving distinctive bite marks that were mainly caused postmortem. The slayings have happened in different states, meaning it’s a federal matter, and Crawford is stumped. Graham has a wife and family and lives on the beach and doesn’t want to come back, because the last serial killer he captured, the genius cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lektor, left him broken in both body and mind. But, the idea of helping (and nabbing another bad guy) is too much to pass up and Graham eventually agrees to help.


In order to help, Graham needs to get into this new killer’s head and to do so he’ll need the assistance of his former friend Dr. Lektor (Brian Cox) who agrees to help, but enjoys torturing Graham along the way. This torture manifests itself by Lektor, through trickery, getting word to the killer, known as “The Tooth Fairy,” that Will is looking for him, where he is, and where he lives. Hannibal’s a real asshole. This puts Graham in an awkward position, and he now has a ticking clock element. He decides to leak a fake story to the tabloid mag The Tattler and the hated sensationalist Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang) that the Tooth Fairy is probably a homosexual, believing it will draw him to Graham; it does draw him out, but it makes him abduct Lounds instead, showing him the home movies of the families’ he’s killed, along with a painting by William Blake called The Great Red Dragon.


We then get to spend some time with the killer, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), who is an imposing figure, a former military man with a slightly deformed face who believes himself to be the soul of the painting (sort of). He begins a relationship with a blind woman named Reba McClane (Joan Allen) with whom he begins to connect on a level he’d never experienced before, but we all know it probably won’t end well, all the while Graham and Crawford try to put together the pieces and find the Tooth Fairy before someone else gets killed and before Will loses himself in the process.


Now, this is a weird movie in retrospect, as I said. It’s pretty much the major plot points of Red Dragon, and Mann decides to focus on Graham’s family dynamic and how he deals with things now. Which is great for a movie. Mann understands that kind of lone hero very well and add obsession to that and you have a character he can really sink his teeth into. Petersen does a great job playing Graham and somehow manages to make scenes where he talks to himself or talks to the killer who isn’t really there seem not too crazy or out of place. The weird part comes from Lektor/Lecter being so marginalized after his initial appearance. Cox is wonderful as Hannibal; not quite as full of European sophistication as Anthony Hopkins would play him in five years’ time, but Cox definitely nails the intensity, the sense of playfulness, and the ability to out-think his opponents. That’s how he is in the book, but because of who we know the character is now, seeing him be little more than a cameo is strange.


Mann was a director that loved the 1980s and hoped it would never die. In the films he made during this period, he made sure they were absolute exemplars of the decade, from the fashion to the types of shots to the music, especially. And none of them were as ’80s-tastic as Manhunter, which is great for a piece of nostalgia, but it is certainly dated if you’re trying to watch it as just a film. There’s kind of too much else going on in the frame for you to pay attention to the story as much as you should, especially approaching the third act of the movie, which hurtles along to the final showdown quite fast indeed. It doesn’t really track how Will figures everything out, but it works well enough.


Mann’s directorial peccadilloes notwithstanding, Manhunter has three truly wonderful scenes that make it standout. The first is the conversation in the asylum between Graham and Lektor. This scene is so good that you want the whole movie to be the two of them talking. Naturally, Harris agreed since he made Silence of the Lambs have a lot more Hannibal in it. The second scene is the now-infamous “Do You See?” scene when we first catch a glimpse of Dollarhyde, with a stocking on his head, scaring the pants off of Lounds and showing him pictures before he lights the tabloid writer on fire and launches him into a parking garage. The third scene is actually the bombastic climax wherein Will Graham runs (in slow motion) toward Dollarhyde’s window as the killer is about to stab Reba. Our hero crashes through it in order to stop him, and it works. All the while, Dollarhyde has been playing the 20-minute 8-track of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” which gives the scene a really creepy feel. It’s a bit more of a shootout than it needs to be, but it’s a really great sequence otherwise.


Though Manhunter wasn’t as big a success at the time as it might have been, it is important in the history of the Hannibal legacy. Perhaps without it, Harris wouldn’t have written 1988’s The Silence of the Lambs and the legend wouldn’t have been born; no fava beans, no lambs, Clarice. The Red Dragon story proved to be a long-lasting one, though; it was remade, adding a lot more of Hannibal, by Brett Ratner in 2002 and is the basis for the NBC series Hannibal, which will finally tackle the Red Dragon plot beginning next week. None of it would be here without a funky ’86 crime movie made by people who couldn’t possibly have known what was to come.

UPDATE: 05/24/16

Scream Factory has put out a super lovely collector’s edition Blu-ray of the film which includes both the theatrical and director’s cut of the movie, with the theatrical cut getting a new digital transfer. It’s packed with extras, too, which feed your Tooth Fairy/Hannibal appetites. These include new interviews with William Petersen, Diane Lane, Tom Noonan, and Brian Cox. Each of them gives insight into the strange production and all praise Mann’s drive and vision. Noonan also explains that they ran out of money before they could shoot the book’s infamous second ending and so just ended with the first. The Cox interview specifically is my personal favorite with the veteran thesp speaking very eloquently about his role of the pre-fame Lektor (spelled differently, of course.) and how he was approached to be in Silence of the Lambs before the project went to Jonathan Demme.

There are also brand new interviews with the film’s director of photography Dante Spinotti, and an entire featurette about the film’s unique and indelible music including interviews with composer Michel Rubini, Barry Andrews (Shriekback), Gary Putman (The Prime Movers), Rick Shaffer (The Reds), and Gene Stashuk (Red 7). These too are fascinating looks inside the production.

This is another great set from Scream Factory and another in a long line of them giving movies the treatment they deserve.

Images: MGM/Scream Factory

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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