Manhunter Revisited: The 80s Have Never Been So Thrilling

Manhunter is interesting as an early Michael Mann film and the first attempt to bring Thomas Harris’ world of serial killers to the big screen, predating Silence of the Lambs. It is an adaptation of Harris’ first book to feature Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lector (here spelled Lecktor). The name was changed from the book title, Red Dragon, due to the earlier failure of the Mickey Rourke movie Year of the Dragon (1985). This is therefore often overlooked as a Hannibal movie. It is also not an action movie and so is often overlooked by casual fans of Michael Mann.

Will Graham’s Manhunter Review

The story concerns the hunt for a serial killer derisively named “The Tooth Fairy”, who is killing families every full moon. FBI agent Will Graham must hunt down the killer, competing with his PTSD from two previous run-ins with serial murderers, his deepening obsession with the serial killer mind-set, and the less than helpful intervention of his old mentor Hannibal Lec(k)tor.

The film is also very much an 80s movie. So we get to see a Michael Mann movie and a Hannibal movie through an 80s lens. Tanned white men with short blonde afros wear obscenely short pink cutoffs on the beach in this version of Red Dragon. Occasionally the sheer audacity of this decade’s eccentricities strained the credulity of my audience. The woman sitting behind me in the theatre was snorking derisively so frequently that she pushed the boundary between self-satisfaction and a respiratory condition.

So is Manhunter dated?

The risk of making a movie that is: A) straight-faced, B) stylish, and C) incredibly modern, is that you run the risk of your efforts seeming absurd just a few short decades later. A slow-motion shot of Will Graham in his best denims running towards a window you just know he’s going to jump through, even though he has a gun and a clear line of sight to his target, does force you to question if this was not hilarious in the first place.

Aspects of Manhunter have dated, but there is still so much that makes it a classic of the genre. As a serial killer movie it has Thomas Harris’ incredible plot. A constantly twisting story that luxuriates in the minutia of forensic investigation and constantly allows for action and horror set-pieces. There are some wonderfully disturbing moments of horror. The most provocative being the flaming wheelchair which comes as the payoff to a sequence of sublime escalating tension.

Michael Mannn’s fimography

The film is also a valuable entry in the Michael Mann filmography. Fans of his later work will appreciate the cynical, stressed-out characters who just need five Goddamn minutes to break this case wide open. He lovingly shoots beaches at sunset, cities at night, and man-perms at play. The plot may have more room to breathe in Brett Ratner’s 2001 remake but it’s the characters that drive Manhunter. Fantastic performances are offered by William Petersen, Joan Allen, and Tom Noonan.

Mann, as always, takes his time to let his characters inhabit this world. A sequence of Graham explaining his history with Hannibal in a seemingly endless shopping mall aisle establishes what is at stake for Graham if he continues to lose himself to his ability to empathise with monsters. Another sequence in which Joan Allen’s Reba comes face to face with a tranquilised tiger is also tremendously powerful. The film finds plenty of time for such moments.

Mann also brings some lovely surreal touches to his work that foreshadows the work Bryan Fuller (Hannibal TV series showrunner) will do in this universe thirty years later. One particularly haunting image follows Will Graham finally realising why the killer insists on using pieces of mirror in his murders. In a pre-CGI world, I’ve no idea how they realised the utterly convincing effect of a living, moving woman with glowing eyes and mouth.

The action is also extraordinary. Will Graham’s slow-mo dive through the window kicks off one of the strangest action sequences ever shot. Skipped frames and more time trickery create an eerie effect reminiscent of Taxi Driver. It’s certainly exciting and also cathartic as it closes off the thrilling cat and mouse chase.


A lot of the discussion around the film focuses on Brian Cox’s portrayal of Hannibal Lec(k)tor, especially as it contrasts with Anthony Hopkins’ performance. I admire Cox a great deal and found his performance unsettling. He’s playing Lec(k)tor as the everyman psychopath. You might not think anything was wrong right up until he serves you as an aperitif. It’s a very subdued performance, but full of menace. However, I feel that Hopkins really invented the serial killer iconography with his performance. With his Peter Lorre stare and unplaceable accent, I find Hopkins Lector more frightening and definitely more charismatic.

As a fan of Silence of the Lambs and of course the TV series Hannibal, it’s interesting to hear names like Bloom, Crawford, Chilton and even Hobbs casually mentioned. It reminds me that all of these stories that have been told originate from these original two masterful texts in the crime thriller genre. Manhunter is one of the most successful adaptations of one of these texts.

Manhunter would work best as a double feature with William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA (also starring Petersen). It cannot escape the garish trappings of the decade of its conception. If you are able to embrace the occasional melodrama and unintended hilarity then you will discover a true classic of the genre; a serial killer thriller with masterfully crafted tension, horror, and action. Turn your collar up, roll up those sleeves, and slip on your shades, there’s a manhunt on.

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