Manhunter (1986) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?


Manhunter (1986) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

The episode of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? covering Manhunter was Written and Narrated by Mike Holtz, Edited by Joseph Wilson, Produced by Andrew Hatfield and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.

How cool would it be to wake up in an alternate universe where bizarre versions of your favorite movies existed and you could experience them all over again for the first time? That’s exactly what I can offer to The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon fans who have never experienced Manhunter (watch it HERE). The forgotten and abandoned stepchild of the Hannibal Lecter film series. How in the fava bean f*$& does a movie that has the twisted murder weirdness and fascinating serial killer storytelling of a Silence of the Lambs or Mindhunter paired with the coolness of a movie like Heat and flair of a Nicolas Winding Refn film go this unnoticed? Let’s find out together. We’re going serial killer hunting with just WTF happened to Manhunter?

Well, for starters it wasn’t supposed to be called Manhunter. The book (and later remake) were both titled Red Dragon. The reason for this name change that has us more confused than Buffalo Bill’s toy poodle watching him get dressed for the day ahead is actually a pretty sound one. Producer Dino De Laurentiis (who you’ll hear mentioned many, many times in the lore of the Hannibal Lecter franchise) decided that A) He didn’t want the film to be called Red Dragon because he feared people would confuse it with one of Bruce Lee’s Martial Arts movies and B) He saw the box office flopping of 1985’s The Year of the Dragon as a bad omen. Dino had been bullish on the title Manhunter despite pushback from multiple folks including Brian Cox who later called the chosen title “bland” and “cheesy”. I have to agree. No one has ever made something cooler by taking the word “Dragon” off of it. The book itself was named after artist William Blake’s painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun. The painting was meant to depict a battle of good and evil and faith overcoming darkness. The book’s killer was fascinated with the work and clearly misinterpreted its message as “wear pantyhose on your head and murder families” but they can’t all be first-round picks.

After going to classes and researching serial killers with agents at the FBI Behavioral Science Unit, Harris wrote the book over a year and a half while in near seclusion in a house resembling the one where the final scene of Manhunter takes place. Finally, Red Dragon was released in 1981 to some pretty great feedback from the world including Stephen King himself who called it “probably the best popular novel to be published in America since The Godfather”. Holy Hell. One of the greatest writers of all time citing your work alongside one of the greatest books of all time? Sounds like something a compulsive liar would brag about. Like, if Steven Seagal ever wrote a book he would tell people, “Stephen King said it was the greatest American Novel since The Godfather. Which, I also wrote and directed but had to put someone else’s name on it because I was working undercover for the CIA at the time. Are you gonna eat that chili dog?”

Except this was true and De Laurentiis was set to turn it into a feature film that would release just a few years later in 1986. De Laurentiis attempted to scoop up a pre-Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet director David Lynch as the pair had just worked together on the sci-fi classic Dune but Lynch found Manhunter to be “violent and completely degenerate”. Alas, they would turn to director Michael Mann, two films removed from directing James Caan in the super stylish crime drama Thief. And believe me, you can tell. It’s wild to see the cinematic stylings of movies like Thief and Mann’s yet-to-exist classic Heat draped across a twisted Thomas Harris story. For that, we have, in part, to thank the work of cinematographer Dante Spinotti who would go on to work with Mann on multiple other projects, including Heat.

Spinotti and Mann would create a visual masterpiece that was (as we’ll get to in the critical reactions to Manhunter) far ahead of its time. Lingering shots with polarizing blue or green lighting may have thrown viewers off at first but looking at it a bit deeper, they all had a purpose. Spinotti uses blue lighting for the safe spaces of the film such as Detective Will Graham’s home with his wife and son but uses other colors such as green or purple for the darker moments of the film such as those featuring our killer. As Spinotti says “There is nothing in Manhunter which is just a nice shot. It’s all focused into conveying that particular atmosphere; whether it’s happiness, or delusion, or disillusion.” You’ll also notice strange little camera tricks such as vast frame rate changes to make the film feel just a bit “off”. The kinds of things that may not be celebrated upon a first-time watch but add to the mystique that turned Manhunter into a cult classic.

Back to the alternate reality concept, the strangest part about Manhunter for the majority of folks who had seen The Silence of the Lambs first (like me) is the casting of Brian Cox as Lecter ahead of Anthony Hopkins. Cox, whose longevity and filmography in the industry the stuff most actors dream of… was put in the strange position of playing a fascinating character in a movie that bombed, and then later having to watch someone else portray the same character in a wildly successful project in which the other actor even won an Oscar for. When asked about this later, Cox said, “Well, you know, it would be nice to win an Oscar. I wouldn’t necessarily want to win an Oscar for Hannibal Lecter quite honestly. I have very strong views about what happened to Hannibal Lecter. How Tom Harris kind of fell in love with his character. Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are both really good stories and wonderful books. I think Hannibal is a bit risible and a bit ridiculous. I think that Hannibal lost his mystery. “ This was in no way a knock on Hopkins however, as he would go on to say as well, “Tony did this extraordinary performance which everybody went for but the interesting thing is subsequently people become aware of the film before that and subsequently it’s become this great thing. That’s sort of plagued both our careers…..I’m very happy with the way things turned out.” And that it was “Not difficult at all. Never ever affected me. I don’t feel proprietorial about things.” Now, just imagine all that was said in the eloquent yet manly voice of Brian Cox instead of my voice. He’s like the grandpa you always wish you had CURRENTLY. Not in Manhunter. Nobody wants a cannibal who looks like Clive Owen as their grandpa.

As is the case with most of these things there are multiple other universes out there where Cox never played the role at all. It is said that at one point Michael Mann originally wanted The Exorcist director William Friedkin of all people to play the role. At another, he was interested in actor Brian Dennehy who actually insisted Cox would be better for the role. Other actor’s names at one point in the running for Lecter included Bruce Dern and John Lithgow. Cox himself based his portrayal of Lecter off of serial killer Peter Manuel. Manuel was a conniving serial killer who had wiggled himself out of trouble several times. He’d been so convincing that he defended himself at his trial and according to the judge had done so “with a skill that was quite remarkable” though he was eventually hanged for multiple murders.

It’s hard not to compare the initial scene between Detective Will Graham and Lecter to the initial meeting of Lecter and Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. Though there are vast differences, this is ultimately the first time we’re introduced to a character whose reputation precedes him and both involve a game of wits from the opposing sides of a prison cell. There are many differences between the two Lecter performances and a few similarities as well but the best scene of Cox as Lecter comes from another scene entirely. When Lecter negotiates phone privileges and uses his genius to dial the operator MacGyver style, using the foil from a piece of gum before employing his manipulation skills to achieve Detective Graham’s home address in a matter of minutes. This is where Cox truly shines as Lecter in his own right, in my opinion and like Hopkins, managed to do so with limited screen time. Mann had the desire to feature more of Lecter in the film but said, “I wanted the audience to almost not quite get enough of him”.

Instead, the film mostly focuses on Detective Will Graham who is portrayed by William Petersen. An actor that many will remember from his famous character in CSI. Personally, my brain goes directly to him facing off against Marky Mark in 1996’s Fear. In Manhunter, Petersen’s character Will Graham plays a hunter of serial killers who had a mental breakdown after putting Lecter behind bars years previous. Lecter not only put Graham in the hospital with physical injuries but also caused a mental breakdown. This is ultimately what led Graham to where we find him at the start of the film, retired and living on a beautiful beach, spending his days hatching sea turtles with his wife and son. When he’s lured out of retirement to stop a new serial killer, we learn that the reason Graham struggles mentality is that he is somewhat of a method actor when it comes to catching serial killers. He puts himself so deeply in their point of view or “dreams” as he calls it that he loses himself. Something that Lecter uses to try and convince him that they are the same. We watch as Graham slips deeper and deeper into madness, eventually fully giving himself to the cause, even separating from his wife and son until the job is done. This self-destruction of the character gives Petersen a lot of space to go for broke in the role in a bevy of wild ways. Whether working himself into a frenzy in a hotel room, power bombing a reporter into a parked car, or passing out on an airplane with crime scene photos spread across his lap, scaring the children. A scene that, by the way, that they didn’t even have enough money to actually shoot on a set featuring an airplane. So, Mann booked a flight of nearly a hundred crew members and then shot the scene on an actual airplane mid-flight, pissing off the pilot and stewardesses. Personally, I would have just set the scene on a train or maybe even a Hertz Rent-A-Car lobby but I admire the guerilla filmmaking spirit.

All that aside, Peterson totally nails the role of Will Graham and all the wild and awkward moments it encompasses. I think it’s the five o’clock shadow personally. Dudes with a good five o’clock shadow can do anything. There are not a lot of men out there who can pull off talking to themselves while staring out of a rain-soaked window in public like Petersen but that wasn’t without trying. Everyone from James Bond himself, Timothy Dalton, to Jeff Bridges and Don Johnson were considered for the role at one point. Petersen won the role in the end but not before it took its pound of flesh. The actor would later admit that he was so lost in how emotionally exhausting the role had been that he eventually cut and dyed his hair blonde and shaved his beard just so he could shake the character of Will Graham. Probably grew a handsome and cool five o’clock shadow afterward though. Bastard.

Another role that has to this point only been portrayed by fascinating actors is that of ole’ Jack Crawford. A part that has been portrayed by acting greats such as Harvey Keitel, Lawrence Fishburne, and Scott Glenn. But the first to ever do it was Manhunter’s Dennis Farina. Farina had previously worked with Mann on Thief but the fascinating thing about Farina is that Mann actually discovered him while Farina, a real-life cop, had been acting as a police consultant on one of his sets. I’m sure he was a great actual cop in real life but it’s clear here he also had the talent for acting. Just check out this massive “Fuck you” stare he gives a couple of suits after they tried to get cute with him. That’s the kind of look that gets the kids in the backseat to shut the hell up without a single word being spoken. Farina just had one of those presences that stood out in everything he was in. In this case, Crawford’s character was both that of an old-time close friend and bureaucratic badass. He knows what a toll this takes on Will and is haunted by what he has to do to his friend by luring him out of his peaceful retirement to a place that is so dangerous for his well-being. But he also knows that innocent families being brutally slaughtered would be his price to pay for being a good friend. So, he has to ask for his help, knowing what it will do to him. This dynamic is played expertly throughout the film by both characters and is just one of the many interesting layers of Manhunter.

There are many unsung heroes in the production of Manhunter but none more so than actor Tom Noonan. Noonan was cast to play serial killer Francis Dollarhyde and holy shit did he ever. Dollarhyde is a character who doesn’t show up until deep into the film but steals the show with one of the most unforgettable serial killer aesthetics of all time. We’re introduced to him through the eyes of asshole reporter Freddy Lounds (who we saw Will power bomb earlier) played by acting great Stephen Lang in yet another chameleon-esque performance by the actor. I mean you hate this jerk, which is exactly the point. Lounds wakes up to Francis towering above him wearing pantyhose in the creepiest way anyone has ever worn pantyhose. And I’m willing to bet there are a lot of creepy ways to wear pantyhose. Noonan then delivers a haunting monologue about the red dragon and what he does to his victims. Noonan going through slides and asking, “Do you see?” will be burned into my brain for eternity. It’s like your parents reading a bad report card to you, teacher comments included. In a shot that not enough people talk about, in a movie that not enough people talk about, Francis has tied Lounds to a wheelchair, lit him on fire, and sent him careening to his intended receivers.

As if it wasn’t enough for Mann and Harris to show us this horrific side of Francis or the aftermath of the families he slaughtered… they decide to show us his romantic side as well. Something we definitely weren’t asking for. We witness Francis in all of his “oh my god this guy definitely has dead hookers in his basement” glory interacting with a blind woman named Reba played amazingly by Joan Allen. Reba is someone who really needs a friend to have a nice sit down with her and explain to her she can’t go home with strange men just because she likes the sound of their voices. For a second there, the thought that a guy named Francis whose idea of a first date is to take a blind woman to pet a sedated tiger while he cries in the corner can still get laid makes you feel like the universe might be ok. It’s not.

By placing us at all possible ends of the spectrum, Thomas Harris and Mann paint a broad story around the simple serial killer versus detective drama that feels just as messed up as it does fresh. It also takes a deep dive into the psyche of the victims and men and women tasked with stopping these psychos. Everything in the film feels authentic, deeply thought out, and intentional. There are no tropes or regurgitated scenarios from other films. Manhunter is truly an underrated classic of a film that’s earned its cult status. So authentic that after spending days and weeks working on a detailed red dragon tattoo to go across Noonan’s chest further adding to his intimidating physical presence (for more like it see Dee Snyder in Strangeland… My God, he’s frightening) they decided to nix the tattoo entirely, feeling as though it trivialized the struggle of Noonan’s character. They ended up re-shooting multiple scenes that featured the tattoo, which you can still see in all of its glory on certain home media cuts of the film.

Noonan was a huge part of this culture of authenticity. He decided to stay away from all the other actors during his time on set. During his audition, he noticed the person reading the lines across from him became frightened. He used this to, in turn, frighten them even further. Which is what he believes won him the role. Legend has it Noonan would also sit in his trailer in the total darkness between scenes and would even be joined by Mann at times. I mean, that’s deep and cool and I admire the tenacity but could you imagine how awkward it would be to be in that trailer? Just silent next to Francis Dollarhyde sitting crisscross applesauce in the darkness? No thanks, Jim.

The point is that everything on Manhunter was made with intent and crafted with authenticity. Mann took this a step further by corresponding with a convicted killer named Dennis Wayne Wallace. In full nutbar fashion, Wallace had told him that Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida had “spiritually connected” him to a woman he killed. You’ll notice this song is used to perfection in the final confrontation at the end of the movie. The entire soundtrack, featuring moments from The Prime Movers, Shriekback, and multiple tracks from The Reds is heavily important to the film’s ambiance and again… very much ahead of its time.

There are so many aspects of Manhunter that we would see come back to life in the future in multiple ways. Whether it be Nicolas Winding Refn with Drive or multiple David Fincher projects like Mindhunter on Netflix or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. An amazing thought considering the film was written off by many at the time for being “too stylish”. Manhunter would be released in August 1996 and rack up a lowly 8 million dollars. Further troubled overseas by an international issue with De Laurentiis Entertainment Group that kept the film from releasing in the UK until over a year later. This, mixed with meddling critical reviews led to the film being often forgotten about until The Silence of the Lamb’s success years later. It’s a damn shame because I can’t help but think if this film were released today it would be lauded, appreciated…..and may have even been able to win a few Oscars itself.

And that my friends, is WTF happened to Manhunter. I couldn’t recommend Thomas Harris, Fincher, horror, and crime fans check it out more. Thanks for watching and please let us know below how you felt about Manhunter and also who you’d be more afraid to wake up and open your eyes to see hovering above you… Ole’ panty hose headed Francis or Buffalo “puts the lotion on its skin” Bill from The Silence of the Lambs? I’ll just leave you with that thought. Sweet dreams, Clarice!

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? can be seen below. To see more, head over to our JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

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