An Overlooked Hannibal Lecter Film Is Finally Available On Streaming

Manhunter, the first film adaptation of Hannibal Lecter, is streaming on the Criterion Channel.

By Charlene Badasie | Updated

Manhunter, the often overlooked Hannibal Lecter movie based on the 1981 Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, is available to stream on the Criterion Channel. Released in 1986, the movie was directed and written by Michael Mann. It stars William Petersen as FBI profiler Will Graham, Tom Noonan as serial killer Francis Dollarhyde, and Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter.

The story follows Will Graham, a retired former FBI profiler, living with his wife and son in Florida. One day, his former colleague Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) asks him to investigate a serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy. Since Graham, who previously captured Hannibal Lecter, possesses a unique ability to get inside the minds of killers, Crawford believes he will be crucial in solving the case.

Reluctantly, Graham agrees to help and begins investigating. He visits the crime scenes and analyzes the evidence, trying to reconstruct the killer’s thought process. Meanwhile, he is haunted by his previous encounter with the notorious cannibalistic serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who almost killed him before being captured.

Graham’s investigation leads him to believe that the Tooth Fairy targets families during specific lunar cycles. He enlists the help of forensic expert Dr. Frederick Chilton (Benjamin Hendrickson), who provides him with information about Hannibal Lecter. Chilton believes Lecter’s insight might be helpful in understanding the Tooth Fairy’s psychology.

Graham visits Hannibal Lecter, who is being held in a high-security mental institution. Lecter offers some cryptic advice and insights into the Tooth Fairy’s mindset. However, their encounter leaves Graham emotionally shaken, as Lecter manipulates and provokes him. Graham then travels to the first crime scene in Birmingham, Alabama.

Later, Warden Frederick Chilton contacts Graham after discovering a note in Hannibal Lecter’s personal belongings. They realize the note is from the Tooth Fairy, expressing admiration for Lecter and an interest in Graham. Crawford and Graham meet in Washington to analyze a missing section of the note to determine what Lecter had removed.

They uncover an instruction to communicate through the personals section of the National Tattler, a newspaper. The FBI plans to plant a fake advertisement to replace Lecter’s, but without the correct phrasing, the Tooth Fairy will recognize it as fake. They decide to let the advertisement run as is. In the same paper, Graham releases a derogatory profile of the Tooth Fairy to provoke him.

The FBI eventually decodes Hannibal Lecter’s encrypted message to the Tooth Fairy, revealing Graham’s home address and an instruction to kill him and his family. The FBI moves Graham’s family to a safe house. As Graham searches for a connection between the murdered families, he realizes that the killer must have seen their home movies.

With this breakthrough, Graham identifies the next potential victim and sets a trap to capture the Tooth Fairy. The film’s climax occurs at the killer’s home in St. Louis, where Graham confronts him. A tense and violent showdown ensues, with Graham narrowly escaping death multiple times. Ultimately, Graham manages to kill Dollarhyde, but not before sustaining severe injuries.

The film ends with Graham reuniting with his family. However, it is implied that his experience with the Tooth Fairy and Hannibal Lecter has taken a significant toll. 

Manhunter received mixed reviews from critics and didn’t achieve commercial success at the box office. The film’s stylized direction, visuals, and strong performances were praised, but its unconventional structure and dark tone limited its appeal.

Manhunter only grossed about $8.6 million at the box office, falling short of expectations. However, over time, the film developed a dedicated cult following and gained recognition for its influence on the psychological thriller genre. Its impact can be seen in the subsequent adaptations of Thomas Harris’s novels, particularly in the success of The Silence of the Lambs in 1991.

Over the years, Hannibal Lecter has left an indelible mark on popular culture. First introduced in Harris’ 1981 novel, the killer has been portrayed by several actors in film and television. Brian Cox played the role in Manhunter, but it was Anthony Hopkins’ chilling performance opposite Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs that catapulted Lecter to worldwide fame.

Hopkins’ portrayal earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor, despite having limited screen time. Hannibal Lecter is known for his refined taste, intelligence, and cannibalistic tendencies, making him one of the most memorable and enduring villains in cinematic history. You can catch Manhunter on the Criterion Channel.