Manhunter (1986)

JULY 11, 2010


As I sat in a drive thru line at McDonalds for nearly 20 minutes (the 4-5 cars in front of me were not visible until after I ordered, and then I was stuck as another guy pulled in behind me), I tweeted that my HMAD for Sunday (as it was after 12 am) would be Manhunter at the New Beverly, which a couple of folks questioned, more or less with the “that’s not horror!” response (which I had time to reply to, still waiting for my goddamn burger). Some also pointed out that I had earlier dismissed the notion of reviewing Predators, as I didn’t consider it (or either of the first 2) to be a horror movie, saying it was more of a horror film than Manhunter.

See, here’s the thing - I’ve watched the original Predator a dozen times since I was a kid, and to me it was never anything but another Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick, albeit with an alien villain instead of some foreigner. Never once did I look at it as a horror film, and the same goes for its sequel. So despite qualifying under a few of my “rules”, I never considered Predators as a potential review movie (especially when I heard that it was practically a remake since it spent so much time paying homage to the original). My argument is, if you replace the Predator with some dude, it’s just an action flick, as nothing is played for scares.

Manhunter, on the other hand, may be closer to a crime/procedural thriller than the other Lecter films, but it’s still part of a franchise starring one of the most lauded horror villains of all time (a list the Predator does not appear on, at least not the ones I’ve read). And I will challenge anyone to find a single more creepy opening shot of a film than the one here, in which we watch a woman sleep, wake up, and realize that the “Tooth Fairy” is in her room before cutting away. Long story short - to me, Manhunter is more of a horror film than any Predator film.*

It’s also a damn good film, and I say that as someone who is not really a fan of the Lecter series (I had seen the film shortly after Silence of the Lambs, which would make me 11 or 12, but like all others in the series, I only watched it once and thus didn’t remember anything about it beyond “something with Iron Butterfly”). I know Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture while Hannibal Rising is considered a terrible flop, but to me the four post-Manhunter films are about equal, each with its own pros and cons sort of evening things out (if I had to pick a favorite of those it would probably be Hannibal, simply because it was the most batshit of them all). But, perhaps ironically, Manhunter works better for me because it’s more concerned with the procedure than chills or action (of which it practically has none). Even though it’s not presented as a whodunit, Michael Mann keeps the focus on William Petersen working the case, instead of a three ring circus like Silence (Clarice, Lecter, and Buffalo Bill). Having not read the books, I don’t know if this is something Mann changed or not, but I like that Lecter’s role is kept to a minimum here, keeping the case at hand the main priority, unlike the other, Hopkins-led films, where they’d spend so much time with him it started to feel like the killer wasn’t really a threat. The 2002 version, in fact, had the opening scene of Graham originally arresting Lecter, something this movie just talks about - it’s about Tooth Fairy, not Lecter.

Also I love Bill Petersen. It’s sort of interesting that his most famous role would be another genius investigator (on CSI), 15 years after this film. Especially when you consider the bulk of the movies he did between (Fear, The Skulls...), it’s almost like he realized that this sort of thing was his calling. He has a few unfortunately cheesy moments in the film (not helped by the dated - but still enjoyable - 80s synth score), like many of his outbursts when he’s “getting into the head of the killer”, but it’s still a terrific performance. And I love how he doesn’t beat around the bush when his kid asks him about his job; right in the middle of a grocery store (one that apparently re-arranges its shelves instantaneously), he goes on and on about Lecter killing college girls and how he tries to think like a killer. It’s the type of scene that you’d usually see in the child’s bedroom, with a bunch of fairy-tale esque dumbing down (“Once there was a bad man who did bad things”), but there’s no such pretending here. Awesome. Kid’s gonna have nightmares. As will the little girl on the plane next to him, who he scars forever by leaving his crime scene photos visible after dozing off. It’s a unique scene in these sort of “cop gets too close and begins to effect others” moments, which are of course a trademark of the genre. Usually its his own kid or something, and not in a public place (I love the dude sitting behind him, trying to see the photos for himself).

On the other side, we have the great Tom Noonan as the killer. He doesn’t appear until the halfway point, but he makes up for “lost” time with a truly chilling performance. His “red dragon” stuff is a bit ridiculous (maybe it works in the book, but when there’s a guy standing there with panty hose on his head, I’d rather he was less chatty), but his quieter moments with the Joan Allen character (especially the afore-remembered Iron Butterfly sequence) are creepy as hell. And I think Mann made the right call to eschew the full body tattoo shots (which you can see in production stills and such - a few were shot before Mann decided to drop it), because it keeps him from being too outlandish - the fact that he’s a regular guy, working at a film lab, is part of what makes him interesting. If he was running around shirtless and yammering about dragons the whole time, it would be ridiculous (and, at a midnight screening, damaging - folks were laughing at some non-funny moments as it is).

As for Bryan Cox as Lecter, he’s only in three scenes, but he makes an impact. And there’s no sympathy for the character here, he pretty much exists in the film just to upset our hero: the first time around he breaks him down mentally, and in the second he obtains Graham’s home address in order to give it to the killer. Charming! It’s not really fair to compare him to Hopkins - he had three movies instead of three scenes, and of course the one you see first is always the one you compare the others to, regardless of who played him first (I lucked out with Bond - I SHOULD have seen a Dalton or Brosnan film first, but I caught Diamonds are Forever on TV as my first Bond experience). And Hopkins or no, in the context of this film, he’s just one of many minor characters that Graham deals with - I think Stephen Lang (as the slimy reporter) has more screen time.

Another thing I like how they build suspense scenes around what is otherwise boring evidence (hair, writing samples). They find a note in Lecter’s belongings, and have a limited amount of time to put it back before he catches on. So Petersen and Dennis Farina race around from lab to lab, trying to get something on the guy before they have to put it back. Good stuff. And also a stark contrast to the other films - they would have cut to Hopkins doing whatever he was doing and built suspense that way (perhaps they even do during Red Dragon - I can’t remember much about it anymore). And any scene of Petersen watching videos or walking around the crime scene is equally appealing - I love watching stuff like that. I bet I was a detective in another life. Or a fan of one.

Last but not least, it’s nice to see a Michael Mann film ON film. Now he uses the ugliest goddamn digital video I’ve ever seen. I’m not exactly a die-hard fan of his (I like about half of his movies, but none are all time favorites), but I’ll be the first to admit all of his 35mm films look amazing. I’m still sort of baffled why he uses such inferior camera systems on his recent work - someone get this man a good Red setup!

I’ve owned the DVD for years, and just opened it today (exhibit #472 in my “Why I’m in debt” file) to take a look at the extras (and yes, re-watch the 15 or so minutes that I missed when I nodded off). They’re kind of slim on the one I have (there have been a few, including multiple different “director’s cuts”; this appears to be the theatrical. All that’s here is a nice chat with DP Dante Spinotti (who also shot Red Dragon, though this interview was recorded prior), talking about the usual DP type stuff (colors, lights). Good if you like the technical side of things. If you don’t give a rat’s ass what an Arriflex is, there’s also a retrospective with Petersen, Allen, Noonan, and Cox, talking about the production, Mann, and a bit about Hopkins (from Cox). Apparently Noonan stayed in character and didn’t meet Petersen until they shot the scene where Graham smashes through the window at the end. It’s about 15 minutes long, and there’s enough interesting anecdotes and trivia to make up for the lack of any input from Mann. Apparently he did a commentary on one of the other editions, but I’m not going to go out of my way to find it (especially since Blockbuster and Netflix never bother to identify which release of a particular movie is the one they are sending - I might end up renting the disc I already own). I’m sure someday someone will make a documentary and/or a book about the series, I’ll just check that out to get my complete behind the scenes look at the film. In the meantime, if time allows I will take another look at Red Dragon while Manhunter is fresh in my mind. I wouldn’t mind giving all of them another look, actually, as I haven’t seen any of them since their theatrical releases (or in Silence’s case, VHS - it’s now the only one of the five I haven’t seen theatrically) and with the exception of Hannibal Rising my taste has matured considerably since those times. Marathon!

What say you?

*I know I reviewed AVP: Requiem, but that was half an Alien film (and I would count at least Alien and Alien 3 as horror as they are played for scares more than action). It was also Christmas and I didn’t want to watch TWO “horror” films. I had my new copy of Modern Warfare to play!

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  1. It is certainly easy to argue that Predeators is not a horror film because it's an action film, it's equally easy to argue the other way. I certainly don't want to tell you how to run your blog. I think people just want to hear your review of Predeators. I'm certainly disappointed.

    However, it sure does ease the blow when I get to read your review of this fine film instead. This thing is very creepy. I just watched Roman last night and was impressed with how creepy Lucky McKee was. But Tom Noonan was ten times creepier. I'm pretty sure that God created Tom Noonan specifically to act creepy. He always adds a sliver of sympathy, though, which I think is his secret weapon.

    I'd love to get a review of Lambs.

  2. Horror movie or not, who cares? What a great film? The shot of the wheelchair on fire has always stuck in my head as one of those great WTF moments in film. And yeah it's cheesy, but I love Petersen screaming to himself while watching the video about the Dog. I am a huge Mann film, and consider both Collateral and Miami Vice to be two of the most underappreciated films of the last decade, but the digital love can be a tad annoying at times. But I would argue that "Collateral" is the best looking film shot on digital. Not an expert like yourself on the different formats, but it's the best looking one in my opinion.

  3. @Miskatonic
    I didn't love the movie, nor hate it, so writing a review would be even less interesting to me, as I don't feel the need to pimp it or drive people away from it. It was a fun movie but it also was remarkably "safe" and moved from A to B to C in the exact manner I expected. I was also pissed that the trailer flat out lied about how many Predators would be in the film.

    No I agree, Collateral looked good. But I believe (might be wrong) that he used a mix of digital and film on that one? But then switched to all digital for Miami and Public Enemies (which looked so ugly just from the trailer and clips I saw that I never even bothered to see it). Plus to me it just seems odd to have a period piece with such a modern looking format - would he shoot Last of the Mohicans that way if he could?

  4. BC - Fair enough. In fact, I felt exactly like you do about it. What made me curious was if you might have a different view than mine. There's something very wrong about ripped Adrien Brody.

    Also, I saw Public Enemies in the Theater and I was astonished at how bad it looked. That digital video look is appalling. It was so sad to see that hamper an otherwise effective Mann "film". It's still worth watching.

  5. I completely agree about the look of "Public Enemies." I keep forgetting he directed that one since it feels absolutely nothing like a Mann film; kind of the same reason I forget Oliver Stone made World Trade Center or whatever it was called. I actually thought Miami Vice looked good, but I seem to be one of three people that liked that movie. The shootout at the end is brilliant imo. Could have done without Farrell's mullet; that aspect of the film did look horrible.

  6. I think all of Collateral was shot digitally, it all has the same look.

    Funny, I always thought Predator was basically a slasher movie with guns. It's almost a Friday the 13th movie. The only difference is the victim is a burly guy with a gun in the woods vs a skinny dipping girl in the woods.

    Isn't that what they say is the difference between a horror movie an a thriller? In a thriller the killer uses a gun, in a horror the killer uses a knife. Everything else can be exactly the same but that makes the difference.

  7. I had seen parts of this movie maybe 15 years ago, and wanted to see again, because some of the scenes had stuck in my mind. I particularly liked the dialogue where Will says this guy is what he is because he was abused, but I still want to kill him. Later, when I watched Red Dragon, I realized it was the same story, because I remembered the discussion about the bible. So found out about Manhunter.

    So I searched on Netflix and decided the movie was just as good as I thought. I did miss that piece of dialogue about the killer's childhood abuse, however. Now it turns out that the conversation is absent BOTH from the Netflix version (the "theatrical") and of the DVD version you used! It apparently was present only in a VHS release.

  8. As an aside: in my memory, I had thought it was a miniseries, because the pace seemed so slow it didn't feel like a movie.


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