Hannibal Lecter: the early years

It's no coincidence that Anchor Bay Entertainment has timed the release of "Manhunter," in two VHS and two DVD versions, to coincide with the new film Hannibal. Although the reviews for "Manhunter" (1986) were uniformly good, the filmic introduction of nasty serial killer Hannibal Lecter was initially seen by very few people and eventually dwarfed by Anthony Hopkins' Oscar-winning, scene-stealing performance in 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs."

All three films are based on the fiction of Thomas Harris, who first unleashed Hannibal Lecter with his crime novel "Red Dragon." The film's producer, Dino De Laurentis, thought that audiences would get the wrong impression from that title, so he opted for the arguably cheesy "Manhunter."

After finally capturing Lecter and suffering serious emotional torment in the process, FBI agent Will Graham (William Petersen, currently enjoying episodic television success with CBS's CSI) is called in once again to help find the identity of "The Tooth Fairy" (Tom Noonan), an insidious killer of entire suburban families who leaves his mark by biting the bodies of his female victims.

Director Michael Mann builds a gripping cat-and-mouse tale concentrating chiefly on the horrors of the human psyche and downplaying the gore. And while most people are surely convinced that Anthony Hopkins is the definitive Lecter, Scottish actor Brian Cox is possibly even more creepy in his brief but mesmerizing role in the film. Hoping to find some insight into the mind of the killer, agent Graham pays a visit to Lecter. With little more than a look and sinister inflection, Cox oozes the evil lurking just barely under the skin of the not-so-good doctor.

Approximately an hour into the film, the identity of The Tooth Fairy is revealed, providing a fascinating peek into a man consumed by madness yet at the same time revealing his much more "normal" attraction to a blind co-worker (effectively played by Joan Allen).

Unlike the mainstream Hollywood approach used by Jonathan Demme in "Silence of the Lambs," Mann takes plenty of chances -- from the evocative lighting and cinematography of Dante Spinotti to the exploration of the light and dark sides of humanity -- and the discovery of how blurred these two often become.

Anchor Bay's release puts both the original version and a director's cut on VHS. The more substantial material can be found on DVD. Anchor Bay offers up a single-disc standard edition and also a double-disc limited edition that features the director's cut on a separate disc. Both DVDs contain two featurettes. The first, titled "The Manhunter Look," is an interesting 10-minute conversation with cinematographer Spinotti, who discusses the look and feel of the piece, and adds insight into the symbolic and extremely effective use of lighting.

In the second featurette, the 18-minutes "Inside Manhunter," actors Petersen, Allen, Cox and Noonan reflect on the making of the film with some interesting anecdotes. Noonan, for instance, kept his distance from the rest of the cast and did not even meet Petersen until their ultimate confrontation was filmed. Cox also addresses his comparison to Hopkins.

The most glaring absence is that of director Mann. While the entire film bears the stamp of the Academy Award-nominated director, he provides no insight on any of the features.

But we do get his director's cut disc with the limited edition. Only three minutes have been added, with the chief difference being an ambiguous closing sequence that opens itself to some disturbing interpretation. "Disturbing" can also describe the poor quality of the director's cut. With muddy sound and poor picture quality, it looks as if it were transferred from video tape as opposed to the original film stock. A neat little dossier including plenty of pictures and essays is also included with the limited edition, but for the extra chunk of change, it's not really worth it.

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