Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 29, 2009)
Though it didn’t perform particularly well in 1986, Manhunter earned greater prominence after the success of 1991’s Silence of the Lambs. The two projects share 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 Lambs.
On the original DVD case of Manhunter, we were repeatedly reminded that the 1986 film showed Lecter first, and allegedly did him better. According to the package, Entertainment Weekly declared Manhunter to be “superior to Lambs”. The case also “warns” us that “fans and critics alike consider Manhunter to be far superior to Lambs… 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 Lambs. 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 Lambs. 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 18 years ago, but Manhunter strongly resides in its era. Few flicks scream “Eighties!” like Manhunter. Sure, many others include some dated hairstyles, clothes and music, but not many 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 Lambs 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.
When I reviewed the film of The Odd Couple, I encountered a similar problem. I knew the TV version of the movie’s characters so well that I had trouble any other actors in the roles as anything but wrong. Manhunter shares two characters in common with Lambs: Hannibal Lecter - played here by Brian Cox - and FBI agent Jack Crawford. Dennis Farina played the latter here and Scott Glenn portrayed him in Lambs.
Perhaps inevitably, I prefer the performances in Lambs, though not to the degree with which I favor Tony Randall over Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple. Glenn presents 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 seems more memorable than Farina’s somewhat laid-back agent.
The fan arguments about Hopkins and Cox seem to be more heated. Cox provides 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 think Cox’s Lecter is too subdued. I realize many feel the buddy-buddy tone offered by Cox makes his horrible thoughts and actions that much creepier, but I’m not 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 Lambs 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 Lambs, 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 Lambs, but few films match up to that level.