Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Manhunter (1986)
Studio Line: Anchor Bay - Hannibal Lecter's Legacy Of Evil Begins Here

FBI agent Will Graham (William Petersen) has captured the diabolical Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox), nearly losing more than just his mind in the process. But when Graham is called out of retirement to hunt the psychopath known as "The Tooth Fairy" (Tom Noonan in a role Entertainment Weekly calls "one of the freakiest madmen Hollywood has ever given us") he must once again confront the horrors of "Hannibal The Cannibal." If Will Graham enters the mind of the serial killer, can he ever come back?

Joan Allen (The Contender), Dennis Farina, Kim Greist and Stephen Lang co-star in this shocking thriller directed by Michael Mann and adapted from the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. But be warned: Fans and critics alike consider Manhunter to be far superior to The Silence Of The Lambs, as well as one of the most unnerving serial killer movies ever made.

Director: Michael Mann
Cast: William L. Petersen, Kim Greist, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Stephen Lang, Tom Noonan
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1; THX; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 30 chapters; rated R; 121 min.; $24.98; street date 1/30/01.
Supplements: Featurette: , A Conversation with Cinematographer Dante Spinotti; Featurette: Inside Manhunter With Stars William Petersen, Joan Allen, Brian Cox and Tom Noonan; Theatrical Trailer; Talent Bios; THX Optimode.
Purchase: DVD | Limited Edition DVD | Red Dragon - Thomas Harris

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B/C

Caution: marketing hyperbole off the starboard bow! Just in time for the highly-touted theatrical release of Hannibal, we get a DVD edition of 1986’s Manhunter. The two projects are connected by the same writer - Thomas Harris - and a few characters. Most prominent among these is the infamous Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, the role made immensely famous by Anthony Hopkins in 1991’s smash hit (and Oscar-winning) The Silence of the Lambs.

On the DVD case of Manhunter, we’re repeatedly reminded that this film showed Lecter first, and allegedly did him better. According to the package, Entertainment Weekly declared Manhunter to be “superior to TSOTL”. The case also “warns” us that “fans and critics alike consider Manhunter to be far superior to TSOTL… as well as one of the most unnerving serial killer movies ever made.”

What a crock! As a critic and a fan, I take serious exception to the awfully-broad brush with which these folks painted. Although Manhunter is a fairly solid thriller in its own right, in no way does it compare favorably with a sublimely creepy and memorable experience like TSOTL. The latter was nearly unique, whereas the former comes across as little very out of the ordinary.

Manhunter also has aged much more poorly than TSOTL. It’s tough to believe that only five years separates the creation of the two films. The 1991 offering seems as contemporary as the day it was released 10 years ago, but Manhunter strongly resides in its era. When I think of the movies from roughly the same period that I’ve watched recently - a list that includes Wall Street, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and Children of a Lesser God, none screams “Eighties!” like Manhunter. Sure, each of those films includes some dated hairstyles, clothes and music, but none seem stuck in the era as severely as Manhunter.

For the most part, I could forgive the visual issues, though - as with the ridiculous haircuts seen in 1992’s Juice - their goofiness occasionally took me out of the story. However, the combination of Michel Rubini’s silly synthesizer score and a mix of forgotten - and forgettable - cheese-rock songs was much harder to ignore. The vast majority of the music heard in this film was absolutely terrible, and these works actively detracted from the movie’s power.

Despite my complaints, I will acknowledge that Manhunter has some good moments, and it makes for a fairly interesting and effective look at the pursuit of a serial killer. However, I found it virtually impossible not to compare it directly to TSOTL as I watched it. Part of the reason for that stemmed from the many comparisons like the ones I’ve already quoted, but others came from my much-more-intimate familiarity with the later film. I’ve watched TSOTL at least ten times over the last decade, but I’d only seen Manhunter once: back when it debuted on VHS in the 1987.

When I reviewed the film of The Odd Couple, I encountered a similar problem; I know the TV version of the movie’s characters so well that I have trouble any other actors in the roles as anything but wrong. Manhunter shares two characters in common with TSOTL: Hannibal Lecter - played here by Brian Cox - and FBI agent Jack Crawford. The latter was portrayed by Dennis Farina here and by Scott Glenn in TSOTL.

Perhaps inevitably, I preferred the performances in TSOTL, though not to the degree with which I favor Tony Randall over Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple. Glenn presented more of an authority figure compared to Farina’s chummy portrayal, which is probably appropriate, since the character a) is secondary in both films, and b) relates to the main characters differently in the two movies. Glenn’s Crawford tests Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and uses his position to keep her off-guard, whereas Farina’s Crawford is just trying to keep up with friend and super-detective Will Graham (William Petersen). Both actors do well in the role, but Glenn seemed more memorable than Farina’s somewhat laid-back agent.

The arguments about Hopkins and Cox seem to be more heated. Cox provided a much less mannered and more casual portrait of Lecter, a manner that many seem to find scarier than Hopkins’ scenery-chewing monster. Perhaps I feel this way because of my familiarity with Hopkins’ work, but I thought Cox’s Lecter was too subdued. I realize many feel the buddy-buddy tone offered by Cox makes his horrible thoughts and actions that much creepier, but I wasn’t wild about his work. Granted, Hopkins’ performance has been in my head for so long that it’d be hard to dispel it in any case.

Despite my preferences for the TSOTL portrayals of Crawford and Lecter, I’ll leave those two as a draw; your pick may depend on your taste. However, I definitely favor Foster’s Starling over Petersen’s Graham. No, they aren’t the same role, but both function in the same manner in the films. Foster was a little forced at times, but nowhere near as artificial and phony as Petersen. Some of the movie’s creepiest scenes - theoretically, at least - show Graham as he tries to get into the mind of the killer. Petersen tries to force himself into a rage as he calls the villain names and works up a fine froth, but I found his hysterics to seem laughable. The scenes don’t work for me, and Petersen creates a less-than-formidable detective.

I probably shouldn’t make so many comparisons between Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs since they don’t try to do the same things. The former tries to play it straight for the most part, while the latter is grander and more operatic. Despite my strong preference for TSOTL, Manhunter has something to offer as well. It provides a moderately creepy and compelling look at a serial killer that kept me generally involved and interested. It’s not a classic like TSOTL, but few films match up to that level.

Error alert! I rarely notice goofs in movies because I tend to go with the flow. However, I did pick up on one odd mistake. A phone number in Chicago is listed with a 301 area code. As one who works in the state, I can state without question that 301 works only for the parts of Maryland. Chicago uses 312 area codes, thank you very much!

One note about the version of Manhunter found on this DVD: although it’s touted as the original theatrical cut, that doesn’t appear to be the case. According to a variety of sources - including this thread on the Home Theater Forum - some lines of dialogue have been edited from the movie. These apparently appeared on prior VHS and laserdisc incarnations of the film but they can’t be found here. They also don’t seem to pop up in the “director’s cut” available with the 2-DVD version of Manhunter. If Anchor Bay issue any word about this problem, look for it on the front page.

The DVD:

Manhunter appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though the picture displayed a few concerns, as a whole it seemed quite good.

Sharpness usually appeared crisp and accurate. Some wide shots offered slight fuzziness, and interior scenes could look somewhat murky, but these issues were not extreme. As a whole, the image came across as well-defined. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns. Print flaws manifested themselves in the forms of occasional grain, grit and white speckles, but these were very minor. At no time did any of these concerns appear significant; the majority of the movie looked clean.

Colors usually appeared nicely saturated and vivid. Red lighting seemed slightly heavy, and fleshtones showed some periodic concerns; skin could look pinkish at times. However, most hues were accurate and strong. Black levels came across as slightly gray but they generally were deep and dark. Contrast could be a little weak, mainly due to those hazy interior shots; whites seemed less bright than they should. Shadow detail was generally good; most scenes offered appropriate thickness but not excessive opacity. All in all, Manhunter has aged well, at least in regard to image quality.

Also quite solid was the film’s remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. For the most part, the soundfield seemed largely anchored to the front. The forward speakers offered occasional use of the sides and could provide moderately effective directionality at those times. However, most of the audio seemed fairly centered, as the sides didn’t kick in with many effects. The score received strong separation, though, and the music also was boosted by good reinforcement from the rear. Other than the score, the surrounds did not seem to feature much activity; some ambient noise appeared from that area, but not much.

Audio quality seemed somewhat dated but was generally positive. Speech appeared slightly flat at times and also displayed a few instances of edginess, but dialogue usually sounded distinct and acceptably natural, with no problems related to edginess. Effects betrayed similarly thin and tinny qualities but they seemed relatively strong for the period; gunshots lacked much heft but they were decently clean and robust.

Music fared best of the bunch, as the score and various pop/rock tunes sounded fairly bright and rich for the most part. Some songs came across as mildly muddy, but these were exceptions, and the track occasionally boasted some loose but acceptably deep bass. The soundtrack didn’t compare to recent efforts, but it worked well for material from 1986.

Apparently Michael Mann doesn’t care for DVD extras, so don’t look for many here. However, compared to other efforts like Last of the Mohicans and Heat, Manhunter seems relatively stocked. Actually, it compares most closely with The Insider, another Mann DVD that tossed in a few minor supplements.

The bulk of the disc’s materials appear in two featurettes. “Inside Manhunter” runs for 17 minutes and 15 seconds and includes new interviews with actors William Petersen, Joan Allen, Tom Noonan and Brian Cox. It’s a very interesting affair that is a little short but it covers a lot of ground. The participants discuss a variety of topics that include their experiences on the set, their thoughts about Mann and his style, and reactions to the film and The Silence of the Lambs. Interspersed with the interview shots are a few film clips, but these are refreshingly brief and non-intrusive; I hate it when documentaries created for a video product waste time with extended scenes from the movie since we already have access to those segments. Ultimately, this is a very entertaining little piece.

Also good - thought not quite as strong - was “The Manhunter Look”, a 10-minute talk with cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Not surprisingly, this piece focuses on the technical aspects of making the film. Spinotti provides a nice overview of the techniques used in the movie and explains what he and Mann tried to do. It’s not as fun a program as the prior one, but it merited a viewing nonetheless.

One odd aspect of the two featurettes: for reasons unknown, they present severe black bars on the sides of the screen. Fullscreen shots go to the top of the set, but they have these bars on each side, and letterboxed segments are totally surrounded by black stripes. As I watched these, I feared that my WEGA had gone kablooie, but since the programs show the same concerns on my computer, I don’t think it’s the fault of my hardware. In any case, the featurettes remain watchable and interesting, but this weird set-up confused me nonetheless.

Manhunter contains a couple of other minor extras as well. We find the film’s theatrical trailer plus “Talent Bios” for Mann and actors Petersen, Cox and Noonan. These were actually surprisingly excellent, as the texts provided nicely detailed and interesting notes about each of those participants. I must note that I found the selections odd, however; it seems strange not to learn more about Allen, the film’s most successful player, and it also was weird that they chose a screenshot of Dennis Farina to grace the section since we learn nothing about him. Nonetheless, the biographies definitely merit your attention.

Another addition to this DVD is the inclusion of the “THX Optimode” program. As also found on other Anchor Bay DVDs like Supergirl and Santa Claus , this is supposed to be used to set up your home theater to best present the movie on the disc in question. Apparently the Optimode is unique for each DVD on which it’s included; unlike programs such as Video Essentials; the Optimode should tweak your set-up differently every time. Frankly, I’ve been very happy with my already-established calibration and I’m afraid to muck with it, so I’ve never tried the Optimode. If you lack calibration from Video Essentials or a similar program, or if you’re just more adventurous than I, the Optimode could be a helpful addition.

Although I found it to be inferior to The Silence of the Lambs in almost every way, Manhunter offers a fairly interesting and scary look at the same issues. The movie suffers from some age-related problems - hate that Eighties look and sound! - but it generally overcomes these concerns and is moderately compelling. The DVD provides largely positive picture and sound plus a small smattering of extras. If you can only own one Hannibal Lecter movie, go for TSOTL, but you may want to check out this earlier flick as well.

Final note: Anchor Bay offer Manhunter in two versions. This review covers the single-DVD release, and another article will discuss the 2-disc “limited edition”. The latter includes everything found on the solo package plus some paper inserts and a second DVD with the movie’s “director’s cut”. That version adds three minutes to the film.

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