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The psychological thriller that's creeping out viewers on Netflix

Netflix is helping viewers beat the heat with one of the most chilling screen villains of all time.

Red Dragon, the prequel to the 1991 horror classic Silence of the Lambs and its sequel Hannibal, has made its entrance onto the streamer's Top Ten list for movies in the U.S. Many fans of the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter consider Red Dragon to be a classic in its own right, 

Adapted from Thomas Harris' 1981 novel of the same name and directed by Brett Ratner, 2002's Red Dragon is the second silver-screen take on the chilling story centered around cannibalistic killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Director Michael Mann first made a film adaptation of Red Dragon in 1986; that film, entitled Manhunter, marked the first screen appearance of Lecter (although the spelling of his last name was inexplicably altered), portrayed by Scottish actor Brian Cox. While Mann's film is very good, Red Dragon hews slightly closer to the novel's story (due in large part to writer Ted Tally's deft work), and benefits mightily not only from its audience's assumed familiarity with Lecter, but also from its stellar cast.

Red Dragon stars the great Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter; Edward Norton as FBI agent and profiler Will Graham; Ralph Fiennes as Francis Dolarhyde, a serial killer known in the press as the Tooth Fairy; Harvey Keitel as Graham's boss, Jack Crawford; Emily Watson as Reba McClane, a kindly blind woman who becomes the object of Dolarhyde's obsession; and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as sleazy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds.

What's the plot of Red Dragon?

As Red Dragon opens, the troubled but brilliant FBI profiler Will Graham is hot on the trail of the "Chesapeake Ripper," whose M.O. involves the removal of various body parts that can, erm, be eaten. Graham, whose gift and curse is a seemingly innate ability to get inside the heads of the criminals he investigates, believes the culprit to be a cannibal and pitches this theory to his friend — the eminent psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter. During their visit, Graham comes to suspect Lecter himself is the cannibal. Of course, he's right, leading to a confrontation in which both men nearly kill each other but survive.

Years later, Graham — severely traumatized by the experience — is retired from the FBI, and Lecter is institutionalized in a facility for the criminally insane. Graham's old boss Jack Crawford comes to him with a new case: the so-called "Tooth Fairy," who has slaughtered two entire families in their homes during consecutive full moons. Although his wife protests, Graham reluctantly agrees to consult on the case, but quickly comes to feel that he's in over his head. Then, Graham decides on a novel strategy: He'll bring Lecter, who has personal insight into the workings of the minds of murderers, in on the case.

Meanwhile, viewers are invited into the life of the killer himself: Francis Dolarhyde, a severely emotionally traumatized man who suffered horrific abuse as a child. Dolarhyde is obsessed with the William Blake painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, and believes himself to be "becoming" the Dragon (which is tattooed across his entire back) with each killing. When Dolarhyde begins developing genuine feelings for a kindly co-worker, he becomes conflicted, and his already fragile mental state is sent into a tailspin. Can Graham stop him before another family, already in the murderer's sights, meets a grisly fate?

After you watch Red Dragon, Netflix has more Hannibal Lecter on tap

Red Dragon ends (minor spoiler) with Lecter's handler Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald, reprising his role from The Silence of the Lambs) informing Lecter that he has another visitor. It's a young woman — a green FBI agent — and Lecter inquires as to her name; the movie wraps before Chilton can answer, but The Silence of the Lambs fans know that it's Clarice Starling who has come to pay the doctor a visit.

Those fans will probably feel like firing up the 1991 flick as soon as Red Dragon ends, and fortunately for them, that movie is also currently streaming on Netflix. If Red Dragon gets you in the mood for more prequel action, though, there's even more good news: Netflix also has all three seasons of the acclaimed NBC television series Hannibal, which focuses on the relationship between Graham and Lecter during the former's early years in the FBI. The series stars Black Hawk Down's Hugh Dancy as Graham, the great Laurence Fishburne as Crawford, and Doctor Strange's Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter. 

Between all of these offerings, Netflix has a veritable smorgasbord of psychological terror waiting to be served up, perhaps with a nice Chianti. Start with Red Dragon, a tasty, underrated treat, and a worthy prequel to one of the greatest horror films ever.