Manhunter (1986) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

A couple of decades ago, Thomas Harris wrote a couple of very similar books which featured a certain now-famous fictional genius and psychopath named Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

In both books an FBI agent comes to Dr Lecter for help on a case involving a serial murderer. In both cases, the murderers see themselves as students of Lecter's own murderous designs. In both cases, Dr Lecter uses his involvement to extend his own reach beyond his jail cell. The two books are called Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. I think we all know about the movie which was made from the latter book, but the obscure "Manhunter" is the film version of Red Dragon. (The director thought that there were other films around at the time with titles too similar to Red Dragon, and also that Red Dragon sounded like a karate flick)

Manhunter was made before Lambs, and the action also takes place earlier.

Manhunter is in many respects a more interesting story than Lambs, because it features a killer who is much more like Dr Lecter himself. He's intelligent and literate, possessing refined tastes and a certain insane spirituality of his own. The Red Dragon itself is a character originally created by the man who would likely serve as Hannibal's own favorite poet and painter - the spiritual and wildly imaginative genius, William Blake. Blake himself created deeply disturbing images, and this one was from his "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun". Blake's Dragon needs to consume women, so we can see than Lecter might find this amusing, indeed.


Kim Griest is very briefly bottomless during a blue-filtered love-scene with Petersen, with minimal exposure. (All but invisible without stop motion)

Two of Blakes' Red Dragon paintings

The style of the meeting between the FBI agent and Lecter is quite different in Manhunter. In this version, Dr Lecter sits in a small white cell, barely large enough for his bed and a toilet, everything totally devoid of color, with all clinically white appointments except for some offsetting gray.

Lecter: Why should I help you? You think you are smarter than me.

agent: I know that I'm not smarter than you

Lecter: Then how did you catch me?

agent: You had disadvantages.

Lecter: What disadvantages?

agent: You're insane.

This Doctor Lecter is far subtler than Hopkins' version, far more restrained. No remarking on the proper wine to eat with FBI flesh, no strange facial expressions, no violence. He is a master manipulator, shown as staying above the violence he is supposed to be capable of. A man with a god complex. Hopkins went for over-the-top to create a memorable character. Brian Cox skipped all the grandstanding and went for icy calculation, never saying or doing anything except to direct his own agenda. One of his vicious tricks was to find a way to send the FBI agent's home address to the killer!

The crimes are also portrayed in a very subtle way. The FBI agent sees the crime scene after the bodies have been removed, and our imaginations conceive far greater grotesqueries than any which the filmmaker could have pictured.

There are also scenes where we see the killer being compassionate and gentle with his blind lover, and then we feel his pain when he sees her with another man, imagining love glowing from their embrace. Extraordinary depth of characterization for the bad guy.

Graham, the FBI agent, is assigned to the case because of his unique talent to project himself into killers' mind-sets and recreate the way the killers think. He dictates his notes into a tape machine as the film progresses. He says of the killer, "my heart bleeds for him as a kid. Somebody took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult he's irredeemable. He butchers entire families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blast the sick fuck out of his socks."

Agent Graham is played intensely by a guy who should have become a star somewhere along the way, but never did, William L Petersen.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Double disks. Two widescreen versions, the theatrical release and a never-seen director's cut with three additional minutes. Anamorphic, 2.35:1, enhanced for 16x9.

  • Featurette on the design of the picture, an interview with the cinematographer.

  • Another featurette featuring the stars talking about it 15 years later.

It is a moody, ultra-creepy movie in the hands of Michael Mann (The Insider, Miami Vice). You may have noticed that Mann's favorite stylistic audio device, besides spooky rock music, is to let a single musical chord linger beneath a scene until its sound disappears from the ears. The sustained chords lend a special eerie quality to nearly every scene, even the scenes that are not superficially supposed to be creepy, like the lovemaking between the FBI agent and his wife. By doing this, Mann lets us feel the tension that the agent cannot ever escape while he dwells inside a killer's mind on the one hand, while being terrorized by Dr Lecter on the other.

Many film lovers wonder why this brilliant, ultra-stylish film faded into obscurity while Demme's became a cultural landmark.


Here is a list of the real people upon whom these characters are based.

The Critics Vote

  • Maltin 3/4

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it a near-classic 7.2
  • With their dollars ... uninspiring. $8 million domestic
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B.

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