Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Review

Horror provides a conduit for the blackest, bleakest escapism, enabling violence and gore as entertainment in the safe surroundings of the viewing location of choice; it's difficult to think of another medium of entertainment which lends us the opportunity to legitimately enjoy such dark fantasy. This tentative premise becomes especially problematic when you consider the substantial back catalogue of films documenting (to varying levels of accuracy) the lives and activities of some of the most appalling serial killers, and suddenly, we can't sit so comfortably whilst viewing the depiction of savagery and brutality which has been committed against real people. How can we reconcile our value base and humanity with such films, films which have been created for our entertainment?

There are two important scenes to consider in John McNaughton's overwhelmingly desolate document, based upon the dreadfully depraved American serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. The first is the segment where the eponymous serial killer and his loathsome sidekick, Otis, visit a local 'fence', with the intention of purchasing a decidedly 'warm' television set from the dubious dealer. Armed with a barrel of hilarious put-downs, the fence soon meets the wrath of the murderous duo, and as they drive a hot soldering iron into his hand and smash a television set over his head, it's difficult not to revel with grim glee in the supposed comeuppance of the foul-mouthed criminal. Indeed, the sensation is virtually identical to that which we experience during countless accessible, big budget Hollywood films as the bad guys suffer at the hands of the morally righteous.


There's another scene in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer which is particularly sickening, even by the standards already defined by McNaughton in his profoundly disturbing debut. During the infamous sequence, we witness the despicable pair tormenting, brutalising, and sexually assaulting a family whose house they have broken into. The devastating emotional impact of the depiction of Henry and Otis assaulting and murdering the family is initially accentuated as we discover that Henry is videoing the events. Yet in terms of forcing us to examine our own reactions - positive and negative - to the depiction of brutality and violence, McNaughton still has a card left up his sleeve; we finally discover, to our horror, that Henry and Otis have actually been watching the distressing events retrospectively on videotape, and worse still, we have been sitting alongside them, simultaneously absorbing all of the graphic and disturbing details; we are complicit as fellow voyeurs to their atrocious, murderous activities. It is this confrontation of our common understanding of our reaction to violence which makes Henry... such a disturbing, provocative, and intelligent picture, a document of a real life serial killer which pales its competitors (of which there are many) in a way which few other genre standouts can do.

McNaughton's brutally bleak debut - an unusual springboard for a filmmaking career which has included Mad Dog and Glory and Wild Things - is remarkable for a variety of additional reasons. The minimal budget, for example, drives a certain efficiency of film construction that McNaughton and his crew utilise cleverly to only heighten the depiction of the grimy, tawdry sphere that Henry and Otis inhabit. The sub-month filming schedule makes the gruesomely realistic effects, superb framing and composition, and sharp, incisive editing all the more jaw-dropping. Wrangles and disagreements over censorship and the artistic merit of the film meant that though the production was finished in 1986, the film wasn't officially released until 1990. And most astonishing of all is the performance of the lead players under McNaughton's direction; Tom Towles, resplendent with a set of fittingly dodgy teeth, is suitably reprehensible as the easily led Otis, and Tracy Arnold plays the role of the vulnerable and almost childishly innocent Becky brilliantly. Yet the most stunning performance is that of Henry himself, a characterisation which Michael Rooker adopted throughout the entire filming schedule - whether on set or not. Rooker portrays the eponymous murderer with an intensity which is profoundly chilling, and his performance ensures that the film is utterly convincing throughout.


Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is bleak, distressing, nihilistic, and upsetting, and the fact that McNaughton uses the real life depravity of one of America's most disturbed mass murderers to generate the framework of this picture forces you to question your own perception of on-screen violence. Yet since this bleak yet remarkable picture remains - unlike its numerous rivals and copycats - resolutely non-exploitative throughout its efficient running time, it remains a challenging, important, and compelling document of the dynamics of cold, brutal, and unremittingly arbitrary violence which is as powerful today as it was upon its creation in 1986.


The Disc

Studio Canal (Optimum) release Henry... in uncut form as a double-play pack with a Blu-ray and DVD version of the film. I only received a check disc for the Blu-ray, so I can't comment on the DVD transfer. In terms of the transfer for Blu-ray, it's challenging to assess the quality since a film produced in 1986 using a 16mm camera is never going to look stunning in high definition; indeed, it's more likely that the format will expose the limitations and time-worn nature of the source material.

Studio Canal have made a decision to ensure the authenticity of the film is carried forward on the Blu-ray, and with a 1.33:1 presentation on this BD50 disc using a resolution of 1080p, the picture is actually very good, in light of the aforementioned caveats. Modern viewers beware; your modern television will display the film with black bars to the left and right to maintain the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but as a result, we are seeing the movie in the format in which it was originally produced.

Grain levels are inevitably high, and the colours are similarly washed out to some degree (although occasional shades are surprisingly rich, such as the greens of the grass in the grisly opening shot), though this is surely the best example of a film which benefits from such a stripped down presentation. The most important aspect is that the film looks consistent and clean, and since it pays a great deal of respect to the authenticity of John McNaughton's original work, this really must be regarded as a strong visual transfer, despite the expectations of a spoilt modern audience.

English subtitles are available for the hard of hearing.


Audio is unlikely to excite a spoilt modern audience either, but once again, the reproduction here - presented in 2.0 Stereo LPCM - fits the grimy movie rather well. Dialogue is clear enough throughout, and there is no level of background noise or hiss that I could detect. The disturbing and strangely listenable score by the unrelated Robert McNaughton is reproduced in perfectly acceptable fashion, inevitably lacking bass, but compensating to some extent with a clear delivery which enjoys solid delivery of the middle range.


There are plenty of meaty extras here to get your teeth into, but note that Henry... stalwarts will have seen much of this material before.

You can watch the movie with Commentary with Director John McNaughton, and although it's quite a solitary experience with the director talking alone about the film, it remains a solid accompaniment to the feature. Note that this section lays out a number of themes and stories which are subject to repetition during the generous extras on this disc.

Portrait: The Making of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer runs for almost an hour, and brings a comprehensive view of the film and its history to the screen. Those who are not aware of the minutiae surrounding the film will learn about Michael Rooker's obsessive approach to becoming the lead character, the fact that Otis's teeth are not the native teeth of Tom Towles, and that the film was made for a $100,000 budget. It's a stimulating and informative piece which traces the history of the film right back to McNaughton's early experiences making short documentaries for the Ali brothers.

A slot entitled The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas is a typical 'Crime Channel' style production running for 26 minutes, and featuring footage of the killer himself, and those who knew him, such as a Sheriff and other members of law enforcement. Unlike the film, which chillingly depicts Henry's constantly shifting explanation of his background but never gives us any genuine answers, this segment presents an analysis of the motivations behind the man, and some of his dubious activities which were not presented in the film. It's worth noting that the real Henry is considerably more distasteful than the murderer portrayed in the film - which is quite some feat.

An Interview with Director John McNaughton runs for almost half an hour, and is pleasingly absorbing, but does encompass some further repetition, and a more modern piece, John McNaughton in conversation with Nigel Floyd, features an engaging discussion between the two men, with McNaughton explaining how the film was a springboard for his career, and how the crew dealt with many of the challenges they faced in producing the low budget shocker.

The Deleted Scenes and Outtakes with Commentary by John McNaughton segment displays a set of deleted scenes and outtakes without any sound accompaniment, since the sound portions are gone. McNaughton lends his thoughts to the scenes and answers various questions, but note that once again there is some repetition with some of the other extras on the disc.

A fairly pointless Stills Gallery runs for just under a minute and a half, but the following extra uses the same format for five minutes to present the Original Storyboards, and this featurette is well worth a look.

A particularly murky and untreated Trailer rounds up a decent, if not entirely modern, set of extras.


Studio Canal (Optimum Releasing) offer you the opportunity to own John McNaughton's bleak masterpiece in high definition, with a healthy quotient of extras. There's some recycled material and a level of repetition too, but with an authentic transfer for this Blu-ray and DVD double play, this is the best way to experience an unsettling slab of cold and indifferent brutality which has lost none of its power today.


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