Why 'Red Dragon' Is An Underrated Unintentional Comedy Horror Classic

You owe him AWWWWW.

Artwork by Rafael Hidalgo for Zimbio | Universal

"Why are they sending this to me? I'm not a dark guy. I'm a comedy guy!" 

The above quote by Red Dragon director Brett Ratner can be heard on the DVD commentary. But you don't need to listen to him to appreciate the 2002 horror film's value in unintentional comedic gold. Brett Ratner made a Hannibal Lecter movie. It's still incredible to me. This is a guy who came from directing Mariah Carey videos. He made the Rush Hour movies. He had never done horror before and he hasn't done it since. It's like Michael Bay directing a remake of The Godfather. Something's just off.

Ratner is the number one reason Red Dragon is so unintentionally funny. By trying to make a serious movie, he did the exact opposite.  The film has some genuine thrills (especially the end), don't get me wrong, but most of it is camp comedy at its best. Close-ups are hilariously close up. The editing is flashy and overcooked. And the tone is wildly all over the place. 

Ratner collected many of the people who worked on The Silence of the Lambs to work on Red Dragon as well. But some of the big jobs were given to people like composer Danny Elfman, most famous for creating The Simpsons theme and working with Tim Burton. Red Dragon has a decidedly Burton-esque score which adds a touch of silliness to the proceedings, especially the opening credits. But Ratner gets the most credit. 

Why 'Red Dragon' Is An Underrated Unintentional Comedy Horror Classic

The performances are the second through tenth reasons why Red Dragon is hilarious, however. Led by Ralph Fiennes, the funny is helped along by everyone in the all-star cast: Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Harvey Keitel, Mary-Louise Parker, Ellen Burstyn, Frank Whaley, Anthony Heald, and Bill Duke. Imagine Brett Ratner telling all these talented people what to do. Also on the DVD commentary, Ratner remembers the cast wanting to do their own thing with the script and he was constantly being asked "Why?" The director wanted to simply stick to screenwriter Ted Tally's pages and told his actors he didn't know what their motivation was most of the time and just to read the lines. That should tell you how much Ratner knows about acting.

Let's take a closer look at the performances:

Anthony Hopkins

Red Dragon is a prequel so Hopkins should be younger than he was in The Silence of the Lambs as Hannibal the Cannibal. That CGI anti-aging formula wasn't available in 2002, however, so Ratner just painted Lecter's hair and hoped no one would notice. Hopkins looks especially ancient during the film's cold opening, which takes place well before the events of the movie so Lecter is supposed to be even younger than he appears later. Maybe that's why he has a ponytail! Ponytails being so young and hip after all... So yeah, Lecter looks ridiculous. But Hopkins makes him hilarious.

Why 'Red Dragon' Is An Underrated Unintentional Comedy Horror Classic

Hopkins's strange Grand Guignol performance as Dr. Lecter is such a ham and cheese sandwich it's almost unbelievable. As threatening and genius as he was in Silence, he's just as laughable in Red Dragon. When he goes to murder Will Graham (Norton) in the opening, he hisses, "I think I'll eat your heart." Then he slowly attacks like a cartoon villain, giving Will time to counter and defeat him. Lecter spends most of Red Dragon in his famous plexiglass cell where he gets to vamp even more. Newly imprisoned, this is a much angrier Lecter than we meet in Silence. Ratner tries to duplicate the original's intimidating atmosphere, but it just comes off forced. A very funny scene finds Lecter leashed in a psychiatric exercise room where he lunges at Will, who barely notices. It's all very goofy.

Edward Norton

Norton, unlike Hopkins, plays it pretty straight as FBI consultant Will Graham. However, the script calls for some serious self-conversation and Edward goes all out. Graham is a empathy queen who can imagine serial killers' motivations, thus making him a great agent. So when he studies the crime scene photos, Ratner assaults us with memory flashes and heightened music that are so B-movie, it makes even Edward Norton look ridiculous. Cut to the below shot of Graham realizing something terrible and we're fully into soap opera territory. Alone in his room, he yells at the killer, "You took your gloves off didn't you, you son of a bitch!?" It's like sketch comedy. He even climbs a tree in one scene and he continually talks to Dolarhyde in the second person when he's alone. 

Why 'Red Dragon' Is An Underrated Unintentional Comedy Horror Classic

Harvey Keitel

As Jack Crawford, a character based on FBI profiler John Douglas and played by Scott Glenn to perfection in Silence, Harvey Keitel does absolutely nothing. He's there to move the plot forward and little else. Gone are the deep thoughts and sense of "FBI Guru" that made him such a presence previously. Crawford simply ushers Graham around, and says sarcastic Jewish grandma stuff like, "You're the light of my life!"

Philip Seymour Hoffman

As Freddy Lounds, the late great PSH was the one actor with an actual comic relief role. Lounds is written to be an unapologetic dick who only bows to the paparazzi gods. He and Will have history and, when Graham grabs him by the collar and calls Lounds' paper The Tattler "an asswipe," Lounds reacts in the only way he knows how: wiseass. "How about an exclusive?" Hoffman is great in the scumbag role, and he boasts the movie's best death scene when Francis Dolarhyde (Fiennes — who we haven't even gotten to yet) eats his face in the nude, sets him on fire, and rolls him down the street. Hoffman's scenes with Fiennes are glorious horror comedy, and have already been immortalized on South Park for all time. "Do you see!?"

Why 'Red Dragon' Is An Underrated Unintentional Comedy Horror Classic

Ellen Burstyn

The Oscar winner doesn't appear in Red Dragon, but her voice does. She plays Dolarhyde's abusive mother, who haunts his demented mind while he bench presses. "You filthy little beast!" The Hitchcockian callback to Psycho notwithstanding, Burstyn gives the film a touch of madness that comes off very silly. Ratner had planned even more voice over, but, sadly, scrapped those plans. Dolarhyde was supposed to have conversations with the Dragon throughout the film.

Frank Whaley

The great character actor appears as Ralph Mandy in Red Dragon, a winking schmuck who hits on Reba (Watson) unapologetically and generally carries the vibe of harmless stalker. He gives the film's one true performance, and it's funny because Whaley is so good at being awkward. He fumbles his interactions with Reba badly and his hunt for sexual conquest costs him his life. 

Why 'Red Dragon' Is An Underrated Unintentional Comedy Horror Classic

Emily Watson

As a blind woman and the object of Ralph and Dolarhyde's affections, Reba has no idea what kind of freaks are attracted to her. This makes everything much better since Dolarhyde, especially, can be himself in her presence. Watson is a much better actress than this movie deserves and she's great much of the time. However, Ratner's influence creeps in and she's not immune from going overboard like everyone else. Surprisingly, Reba is very game and allows herself to believe Dolarhyde is some kind of hunk. She even makes the first move when they're alone, leading to this Brazzers moment:

Why 'Red Dragon' Is An Underrated Unintentional Comedy Horror Classic

Reba the Blind is just as horny as the killer and they have sex, although we don't get to see it, unfortunately. We do get to see Dolarhyde's subsequent freakout though. He nearly kills poor Reba in a fire, but she lives, and her hair gets really messed up.

Ralph Fiennes

Finally we come to the most hilarious character in Red Dragon: Francis Dolarhyde. As the film's main villain, Fiennes carries the movie's most intense (i.e. hilarious) moments. Dolarhyde is a maniac haunted by an abusive past and a voice in his head called the Dragon. He wants to transform from a hair-lipped psycho into a glorious Red Dragon and he has a scaly full body tattoo to prove his dedication. He also has jagged false teeth, a military flattop, and a body like a football player. He's intimidating to look at, and Fiennes adds to the formula by giving Dolarhyde a perpetual scowl. He's very emo and tends to freak out.

Why 'Red Dragon' Is An Underrated Unintentional Comedy Horror Classic
Images: Universal

Dolarhyde is also the rare movie killer who's given a romantic subplot. His interest in Reba is meant to show his humanity — the Beauty and the Beast story. This is a guy trying to live normally who just can't get past the voices in his head. We get it, but that doesn't make it any less funny seeing this ball of rage take Reba out on dates. One scene shows them at the zoo where Reba pets a tiger — a typical date night. Inbetween, Francis (the perfect name) tries to stave off the Dragon so he doesn't have to kill his love. Dolarhyde even seeks out the William Blake painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun and proceeds to eat it, something Fiennes actually did on set. The scene is amazing as Dolarhyde rips the painting and scarfs it. And that's far from his only moment. His dragon transformation speech to Lounds is amazing. "You owe me AWEEE!" And, please, consider, if you will, the following scene, which I edited in 2011 for maximum comedic effect:

Red Dragon is a classic — an unintentional comedy classic. This happens to many horror films as they age, enhancing their already huge worth in pop culture. It's a movie of camp performances, silly dialogue, corny jokes, stock footage, overacting, over-directing, over-everything... In trying to make a movie that lives up to The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps the greatest thriller ever made, Brett Ratner falls wonderfully short. But he's made another kind of classic I think we can all appreciate. Well, most of us anyway.

Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.
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