Sunday, October 26, 2014


Earlier this month, I discussed watching a Stephen King movie back before King became a brand name. Manhunter (1986), directed by Michael Mann, is the chance to go back in time to see Hannibal Lector (or as his name is spelled here, Lecktor) before he became embedded in popular culture as one of cinema's greatest villains and boogeyman, largely due to Anthony Hopkins Oscar-winning performance in The Silence of the Lambs.

Manhunter, like Silence, is based on a novel by Thomas Harris, in this case Red Dragon (which would later be remade with Hopkins). Its stars William Peterson as Will Graham, a retired FBI agent who is called back into service to track down a deranged serial killer, the Tooth Fairy, aka Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan). To figure where this psycho is going to strike next, Graham must delve into the mind of a disturbed killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), an incarcerated lunatic genius who scarred Graham physically and mentally when Graham stopped his serial killing ways.

While possessing the expected glitz and gloss one would expect in an eighties movie (this is from the creator of Miami Vice), Manhunter is curiously more grounded and gritty than the subsequent Harris adaptations featuring Lector. In Silence, Hopkins awaited Clarice Starling in the last cell in a line of cells that were seemingly carved into out of rock, and the atmosphere evoked resembled a dungeon of monsters; we enter the lair and share Starling's POV as the camera descends the stairs and moves through the corridor.

In Manhunter, Lecktor is seen in a single, isolated cell, with white walls. It's a very sterile, clean room that is probably a more likely location for a psychotic like Lecktor. This approach even extends to the performances. Hopkins would bring a theatrical element to his part, an intellectual gentleman who enjoys the power he has over others and didn't have qualms about showing it off. Cox is more restrained, his Lecktor almost bored with the inferior minds around him and more insulted to have to deal with them. Hopkins is an iconic monster, darkly charismatic yet capable of the most appalling atrocities, and he relishes his repulsive nature. His most memorable scene is his escape, where he mutilates a pair of guards and wears one's face as a mask. The details of Cox's crime are left unstated, the horror more understated, and his inspirations seems to be based on the type of sickos that are actually locked up in real-life insane asylums. His best scene demonstrates his calculating nature when he uses a phone that can't be dialed along with a stick of gum to get Graham's home address.

The success of The Silence of the Lambs inspired a whole slew of imitators and copycats that focus on criminology, pathology, criminology, and psychology, the sciences of the little physical details that identify a criminal as well as the behaviors and histories that lead to a killer's homicidal tendencies. Manhunter predates the trend, having the bad timing to come out in the decade of the supernatural slasher, but the focus is no different. Here, we see Graham figure out where the coroner should look for fingerprints on the corpses based on a type of power associated with rubber gloves, technicians examining notes with infrared filters to see the ballpoint pen ink that has been written over with a felt-tip marker and Graham trying to figure out the psychological reasons for the murder methods the Tooth Fairy uses.

The focus is more on the psychological effects the case has on Graham. Thinking like a serial killer and examining his work has a way of imprinting dark thoughts on the mind, and Graham feels it. He's burned out on the FBI, and he's found happiness and contentment with his wife and son. But seeing what the Tooth Fairy has done to entire families, watching their home movies and then seeing the photographs of their mutilated bodies, inspires him to stop this sicko. Both times the killer struck on the full moon, and the next one is only a few weeks away. But if he goes down that path again, finds that edge inside himself again, will he be able to get back?

Mann uses colors quite extensively throughout the film. He's a big fan of red, often in those labs as the investigators use examine evidence with different equipment, and it's a harsh, unforgiving red, which is fitting. Although ghastly acts of violence are implied or discussed, on-screen violence is relatively limited. The lighting scheme creates an unsettling, almost dream-like feel. Mann also uses cool blue, most notably in the oasis of Graham's beach house, while Lector's asylum is also completely white: walls, floor, ceiling, and outfits.

Mann also effectively utilizes slow motion, most notably in a long shot of Graham, using himself as bait, as he walks through an empty parking lot to draw out the Tooth Fairy, and the scene creates the sense that the killer could appear from anywhere. Even with all his fellow agents and officers standing by to swoop in, Graham looks so small, helpless, and alone. Another great shot like that occurs when Dollarhyde punishes a tabloid journalist, Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang, wonderfully sleazy with Joe Piscapo's haircut): Lounds, engulfed in flames and strapped to a wheelchair, as he is sent flying down the ramp of a parking garage. It's visual but not too graphic, and it shows how much he has to suffer before he dies.

Performances are good all around. Peterson is solid, although the scenes in which he figures something out and starts talking aloud to the absent Dollarhyde are distractingly over-the-top. Noonan is really creepy (when he tortures Freddy, it's really messed up). Joan Allen is also convincing as a blind photo technician who romances Dollarhyde, not knowing about his serial killing, even though the subplot comes out of nowhere and doesn't really go anywhere.

The ending is too routine for this story, wrapping things up with a shootout, and it plays more like an action movie climax than the result of careful detective work and confronting a disturbed individual. Plus, this whole genre has been done to death over the last twenty years or so, so Manhunter's uniqueness has worn off. Still, the journey along the way is worth checking out, though worshippers of the cult of Hopkins might cry blasphemy.

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