The trilogy was complete, but something was missing -- the distinctive, bone-chilling presence of Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Like a seven-course meal without the main dish, like a symphony orchestra sans violin, Manhunter -- the original film adaptation of the novel in which Thomas Harris first introduced Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter -- left a void in the cinematic serial-killer canon. 

Hence, Red Dragon, the prequel to the Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs and last year's blockbuster Hannibal, opening this Friday. 

Brian Cox, who played the epicurean psychopath in Michael Mann's critically praised Manhunter, is out -- and Hopkins slithers back into the role he was born to play. 

"That was a big [consideration], to complete the trilogy with Anthony Hopkins," director Brett Ratner told The Post

Red Dragon is not so much a remake of Manhunter as a "tonally true interpretation of what Harris intended," he said. 

"Brian Cox was good, but Anthony Hopkins owns this character, in my opinion, so that was a big part of the reason to do it." 

Of course, there was a mercenary element to the decision to film the book a second time. 

Dino De Laurentiis, producer of all three Hannibal films, is no fool: Ridley Scott's Hannibal broke records by taking a $58 million bite out of the box office on its opening weekend, and went on to gross more than $165 million. 

The veteran producer brought his famously persuasive powers to bear on luring his star back to play the diabolical doctor. And a $20 million paycheck sweetened the deal. 

"I had mild reservations in the beginning," says Hopkins, adding that De Laurentiis is already badgering him to sign up for a fourth installment. "I thought, well, I've done two, is there a third one in this? 

"I wasn't that reticent, I was just, let me think about it. I read the script and I said, 'Yeah, it's really good.' " 

From the opening scene of Red Dragon, it's clear why this movie was made. 

As the camera pans across a black-tie audience enjoying a classical concert, our eyes are drawn to one particularly rapt face in the crowd -- instantly recognizable as the pre-eminent villain of our times. 

Alongside Hopkins, Dragon features an extraordinary cast. 

Ed Norton plays FBI agent Will Graham, who puts Lecter behind bars in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. 

Lured out of retirement by the FBI chief (Harvey Keitel), Graham is forced to enlist the help of his arch-nemesis in tracking down a serial killer dubbed "The Tooth Fairy" (Ralph Fiennes). 

Hopkins watched The Silence of the Lambs again before filming, but decided against trying to play Lecter 12 years younger for the prequel. 

He did, however, want to make a departure from the hammy, almost camp, sensibility of the grisly gorefest that was Hannibal

"I said to Ratner, 'I think I'll do it differently this time,'" Hopkins says. "I'd like to play him with more menace, more danger, much more rage because, after all, [Will Graham] has put me in jail for life, and I'm not really very happy about it. 

"I also wanted to reveal to the audience that behind the mask of this charming man is this killer. I wanted to show that vicious, really horrifying side of him."

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