Review: Manhunter (1986)

So, after enjoying Collateral and Heat so much, I’d made a conviction to check out the rest of Michael Mann’s slick filmography. I watched and loved Thief, then found The Keep to be such a drag that I decided to skip over it. I did, however, watch Mann’s follow-up film, another in the horror genre, but leaning more towards the thriller type of film. I am of course talking about the oft-forgotten Hannibal Lecter film preceding The Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter, starring William Petersen.

Manhunter could be called the red-headed stepchild of the Lecter films, in the same way that Hannibal Rising is the cousin who’s never invited to family gatherings. Largely ignored, both critically and commercially, upon release, Manhunter has received a fairly recent turnaround in popular opinion, gaining a cult following.

Manhunter was adapted from the novel Red Dragon, which would later be re-adapted into the Anthony Hopkins Lecter series in 2002, with Brett Ratner’s, well, Red Dragon. The 80’s film was not titled Red Dragon because the filmmakers feared it would be mistaken for a martial arts film, a concern I well understand. But enough prattling on about useless information, how about the film itself?

It’s good. Like, really good. It features a phenomenal central performance from Petersen as Will Graham. Like many Mann characters, he is a man whose life is (or was) centered around his career. Graham is a recently-retired criminal psychologist who specialized in profiling serial killers through his innate ability to get inside their heads, a thought which terrifies him. He quit shortly after being assaulted by Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox). He’s called in for “one last job,” to help catch the “Tooth Fairy,” a recently-emerged serial killer who leaves bite marks on all his victims. The film then plays out from there.

Manhunter is a sublimely simplistic suspense thriller. Petersen is brilliant in the central role, deftly portraying a man who fears his own madness when he enters the ultra-violent world he is all too familiar with. At one point, he falls asleep while viewing photographs of “Florida’s most violent crime scene” on a commercial air liner. A small child sitting next to him is subsequently traumatized. Graham has become so embroiled in this case, in the killer’s mindset, that he has difficulties relating to the views of the ordinary world.

William Petersen as Dr. Will Graham

As a Hannibal Lecter film, there is of course the requisite scene wherein Dr. Lecter himself is consulted for his views on the killer. And in this film, it is not an at-times excessively campy Anthony Hopkins, but a brilliantly subdued Brian Cox in the role. He’s terrifyingly ordinary, while also projecting an air of arrogant intellectual superiority. His performance was so sublime that I was let down by his minimal screen time, given that this performance would never be seen again, being replaced with Anthony Hopkins’s infamous turn in the role. The difference between Cox’s Lecter and Hopkins’s Lecter is visible even in their cells. Take a look:

Here’s Cox, in his minimalistic plain, white, barred cell, an ordinary mental asylum cell:

And here’s Hopkins, in his practical dungeon. Notice the irregular brick sizes, meant to create an air of unease. Notice the out-of-place classical art, the cluttered desk. By comparison, Hopkins’s cell is practically stuffed with detail.

The same can be said about their performances. While Hopkins tended to go all out, the hissing, the flickering tongue, the weird slurping thing—Cox goes for a far more subtle performance. He fully utilizes his incredible voice to create a character who is simultaneously familiar and alien, known and unknown, domestic and foreign. Neither is necessarily better, but Cox’s Lecter is one far more rooted in the real world, the Hannibal, the cannibal, that could (and would) actually walk among us, making his subtleties all the more horrific.

The antagonist (don’t worry, no spoilers) is highly effective, and hidden for much of the film, creating a genuine air of investigation. Will Graham is a joy to behold as he pieces together the puzzle. I’ve always been a fan of problem-solving through good old-fashioned logic and intuitive thinking in films, and that is present here in spades.

The film is beautifully shot, as can be expected from Mann, and the score is typical 80s synthesizer junk, as can also be expected from Mann, though it does have a certain charm to it. The soundtrack, however, can be a bit overbearing, taking away from scenes instead of adding to them. There is the disappointment of course of only getting a few minutes from Dr. Lecter, though wanting more of something in a film isn’t really a flaw. Overall, Manhunter is a thouroughly fantastic film, an entertaining suspense thriller and a fascinating forgotten pop culture gem; a prelude on Silence of the Lambs. An easy A-.


Hopefully you enjoyed reading this. I hope to continue my streak of reliable posting through the next few months, during which we’ll see the advent of 2016’s Great Villain Blogathon. If you wish to sign up, check it out here. Otherwise, just look out on May 15-20 for a lot of great content and also some shit I hopefully didn’t throw together at the last moment. I kid you, I’ve already started it. Sort of. Maybe. Kind of. [Insert winky face here]

But until next week, I bid you adieu. Bye!


4 Comments Add yours

  1. A charming synthesizer soundtrack?! I’m in.

    I’ll keep an eye out for this one – thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jay says:

    red-headed stepchild – that’s well-put
    Nice review,and comparisons.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. emmakwall says:

    Thanks for a great spoiler free review! I’ve been interested in watching this for years, mainly for Brian Cox (who I think is marvellous). I’m going to buy this soon!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I absolutely love Brian Cox in whatever he’s in-he’s an incredible villain no matter what type of movie, be it thriller (Manhunter), action (Bourne), superhero (X-Men 2), etc.
      I’m waiting to purchase until the Scream Factory collector’s edition blu-ray comes out this May.


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