Serial killers have been such a part of modern culture (and life) for so long, it’s hard to remember that we weren’t always aware of them or even that we never always used to call them ‘serial killers’. There were, of course, the Manson murders and Son of Sam killings, but the point at which we really started to feature them in popular culture can be traced back – more or less – to one man: Thomas Harris. It was his book and the subsequent movie Silence of the Lambs that introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter and the fictional serial killer.
Silence of the Lambs was actually Harris’ third book, the first being Black Sunday, which was about terrorism and was itself turned into a movie. To research it, Harris visited the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, where he learnt about serial killers and how the FBI was trying to catch them. It was this research that formed the basis of both Silence of the Lambs and his second book, Red Dragon, which was filmed as Manhunter.
Manhunter sees former FBI adviser Will Graham (William Petersen) brought back from medical leave to apprehend a serial killer known as ‘the Tooth Fairy’. However, he can only do this by adopting the mindset of a serial killer, something he does by visiting one of the killers he caught and who invalided him out of the profession: Hannibal Lecter.
The movie was heavily auteured by the then Miami Vice supremo Michael Mann, and reflects many of his then obsessions, ranging from the fashions and MTV-friendly soundtrack through to its love of police procedure. But it’s its superb cinematography, the central performances (particularly Brian Cox as Lecter) and the film’s mimesis that ensure it remains to this day my favourite film.
Manhunter is less well known than Silence of the Lambs, but it is arguably as important since it was the first movie to detail three things:
- The importance of scientific forensics in capturing criminals
- The idea of psychologically profiling serial killers – working out how they think in order to capture them
- The idea that thinking like a criminal can ultimately make you just like them
The first gave us the likes of CSI (also starring Petersen), the second Profiler, Millennium et al, the last Luther and its ilk.
The serial killer craze is still with us, of course, but it arguably reached its zenith in terms of popularity and quality with Se7en, and the movie directorial debut of David Fincher, who would go on to direct Fight Club, The Game, The Social Network and other greats. He’s one of my favourite film directors and Se7en is my second favourite film.
As auteured as Manhunter, Se7en obviously has many things in common with its predecessor, but its biggest difference is its direction and cinematography. Fincher’s meticulously precise, calculated direction is the opposite of Mann’s flash. Everything moves at a slow measured pace, with minimal action, whereas Manhunter has frequent moments of adrenalin-rushing excitement. Mann (with the help of cinematographer Dante Spinotti) is all pastels and primary colours; Fincher’s love of black meant that he actually worked with cinematographer Darius Khondji to create a ‘silver retention‘ print of the movie to emphasis different levels of shade.
The two movies are both very similar yet hugely different.
And now, Mindhunter
As well as his movies, Fincher can also be credited with another important contribution to popular culture: the transformation of Netflix from a simple DVD library and streaming service into a prestige online TV network. For it was he who exec produced and largely directed the first season of House of Cards, Netflix’s debut in original programming. Had it been directed by a lesser person, it’s likely that Netflix would be thought of in very different ways right now and might not be anything like as successful.
Now for his latest Netflix project we have the answer to a question I never thought would ever be answered: what would have happened if the man who directed my second favourite film had directed my favourite film, too? Because we now have Mindhunter.
Yes, that was Mindhunter. Pay attention.