Even from the corner seat in the very front row of a stifling auditorium, Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon” — the much-awaited prequel to “Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal” — is worth watching.

Anthony Hopkins, despite being back behind bars after spending last year’s “Hannibal” on the loose, gives a spontaneous and unreserved portrayal of arch villain Lecter. “Red Dragon” brings back the unlovable Dr. Frederick Chilton (played expertly by the returning Anthony Heald) and adds a slew of fantastic supporting actors. The cast also includes the excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Magnolia”) and Emily Watson (“Breaking the Waves”).

Will Graham (Edward Norton ’91) is a former FBI agent. Hannibal Lecter’s original nemesis, he is the first to capture the evil and erudite psychiatrist after almost being torn apart and eaten himself. Retired from the traumatic and harrowing life of forensic investigation, Graham is called away from his idyllic family home in Florida by his bureau head Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel). A strange killer christened the “Tooth Fairy” has gruesomely massacred two families. The murderer synchronizes his slaughters with the full moon.

In reality, the Tooth Fairy is Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), a fully tattooed video mechanic who believes he is an incarnation of an apocalyptic god he calls — surprise, surprise — the Red Dragon, after a famous print from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Investigating the murder scenes brings back haunting memories for Graham, who is almost driven to insanity by his own imagination, with the clock ticking and no real leads. He ultimately looks to his old acquaintance Hannibal Lecter, now incarcerated, to help him with the case.

After reporter Freddie Lowndes (Hoffman) splashes this visit all over the pages of his tabloid, The Tattler, Dolarhyde contacts Lecter (of whom he is an obsessive admirer), who urges him to attack Graham. Thus begins a suspenseful, violent minuet. As Graham develops increasing insight into the killer’s methodology and psychoses, the killer plans his next murder and Hannibal pulls strings in the dark background.

The movie provides fascinating detail on the FBI, and the inventiveness of the crimes dreamt up for the script is genuinely disturbing. The most interesting part of the plot deals with the delicate mental balance that Graham has to maintain in order to think like the killers but still remain sane.

Norton, with his intense gaze and brilliant stage presence, brings youth, intelligence and magnetism to the screen. He plays off Lecter as skillfully as Jodie Foster ’80 in the original. Fiennes gives an an Oscar-worthy performance of power and depth, thankfully minus his sultry Hungarian “English Patient” accent.

The notable musical score to this film is very similar to that of “Silence of the Lambs,” but Danny Elfman takes over for Howard Shore as composer. Dark, ominous tones infiltrate the action and lend the film an audible chill — the soundtrack alone is worth buying. Perhaps the movie’s only Achilles heel is occasional bad dialogue. Notable among these hackneyed moments is the scene of Lecter’s soiree at the beginning of the film, where one of the guests states with an awful lot of superfluous emphasis, “I cannot help feeling bad that a member of our orchestra is still a missing person.” Even Agent Graham sounds trite when talking to himself at crime scenes, as part of his “getting-inside-the-killer’s-head” process.

“You took your gloves off, didn’t you?” he declares rhetorically as the screen flashes with images of the slaughter of a suburban family to make sure you get it.

A combination of superb acting and cinematography allows “Red Dragon” to achieve the rare feat of living up to its hype.