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Though it will always be remembered as the movie featuring the "other" Hannibal Lecter, Michael Mann's 1986 thriller Manhunter is nearly as good as The Silence of the Lambs, and in some respects it's arguably even better. Based on Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon, which introduced the world to the nefarious killer Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter, the film stars William Petersen (giving a suitably brooding performance) as ex-FBI agent Will Graham, who is coaxed out of semiretirement to track down a serial killer who has thwarted the authorities at every turn.
Graham's approach to the case is a perilous one. First he seeks counsel with Lecter (Brian Cox) in the latter's high-security prison cell--an encounter that is utterly horrifying in its psychological effect--and then he begins to mold his own psyche to that of the killer, with potentially devastating results. As directed by Mann (who was at the acme of his success with TV's Miami Vice), this sophisticated cat-and-mouse game never resorts to the compromise of cheap thrills. Predating Anthony Hopkins's portrayal of Lecter by four years, Cox plays the character closer to Harris's original, lower-key conception, and he's no less compelling in the role. Petersen is equally well cast, and as always Mann employs rock music to astonishing effect, using nearly all of Iron Butterfly's heavy-metal epic "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" to accompany the film's heart-stopping climactic sequence. All of this makes Manhunter one of the finest films of its kind, as well as further proof that Harris's fiction is a blessing to any filmmaker brave enough to adapt it. --Jeff Shannon
The Silence of the Lambs
Based on Thomas Harris's novel, this terrifying film by Jonathan Demme really only contains a couple of genuinely shocking moments (one involving an autopsy, the other a prison break). The rest of the film is a splatter-free visual and psychological descent into the hell of madness, redeemed astonishingly by an unlikely connection between a monster and a haunted young woman. Anthony Hopkins is extraordinary as the cannibalistic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, virtually entombed in a subterranean prison for the criminally insane. At the behest of the FBI, agent-in-training Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) approaches Lecter, requesting his insights into the identity and methods of a serial killer named Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). In exchange, Lecter demands the right to penetrate Starling's most painful memories, creating a bizarre but palpable intimacy that liberates them both under separate but equally horrific circumstances. Demme, a filmmaker with a uniquely populist vision (Melvin and Howard, Something Wild), also spent his early years making pulp for Roger Corman (Caged Heat), and he hasn't forgotten the significance of tone, atmosphere, and the unsettling nature of a crudely effective close-up. Much of the film, in fact, consists of actors staring straight into the camera (usually from Clarice's point of view), making every bridge between one set of eyes to another seem terribly dangerous. --Tom Keogh
Yes, he's back, and he's still hungry. Ten years after The Silence of the Lambs, Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, reprising his Oscar-winning role) is living the good life in Italy, studying art and sipping espresso. FBI agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, replacing Jodie Foster), on the other hand, hasn't had it so good--an outsider from the start, she's now a quiet, moody loner who doesn't play bureaucratic games and suffers for it. A botched drug raid results in her demotion--and a request from Lecter's only living victim, Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, uncredited), for a little Q and A. Little does Clarice realize that the hideously deformed Verger--who, upon suggestion from Dr. Lecter, peeled off his own face--is using her as bait to lure Dr. Lecter out of hiding, quite certain he'll capture the good doctor.
Taking the basic plot contraptions from Thomas Harris's baroque novel, Hannibal is so stylistically different from its predecessor that it forces you to take it on its own terms. Director Ridley Scott gives the film a sleek, almost European look that lets you know that, unlike the first film (which was about the quintessentially American Clarice), this movie is all Hannibal. Does it work? Yes--but only up to a point. Scott adeptly sets up an atmosphere of foreboding, but it's all buildup for anticlimax, as Verger's plot for abducting Hannibal (and feeding him to man-eating wild boars) doesn't really deliver the requisite visceral thrills, and the much-ballyhooed climatic dinner sequence between Clarice, Dr. Lecter, and a third unlucky guest wobbles between parody and horror. Hopkins and Moore are both first-rate, but the film contrives to keep them as far apart as possible, when what made Silence so amazing was their interaction. When they do connect it's quite thrilling, but it's unfortunately too little too late. --Mark Englehart