Quite possibly one of the bleakest and most powerfully disturbing serial killer films ever made, Alan Daly has reviewed the R2 release of Henry Portrait Of A Serial Killer. Now available uncut, John McNaughton’s cult shocker offers scary movie fans a (rancid) taste of some real horror.
When first-time director John McNaughton was offered $100,000 to make a horror film in 1985, he made no bones about his ambition to re-define the genre. But even setting aside the deficiencies of such a minuscule budget, the filmmaker almost immediately hit a stumbling block. The problem was that by the mid-eighties audiences had – shock! horror! – grown tired of the bogeyman and the horror film genre itself was looking more than a little worn out. Originality seemed a thing of the past – endless (and for the most part inferior) sequels to earlier successes like Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday the 13th were the order of the day. Former horror movie icons were being turned into parodies of themselves. McNaughton realised that viewers no longer feared the indestructible terror figures of the fantasy world as they once had and so set about creating a different kind of monster altogether: the kind living right next door. Basing his story loosely on the real-life exploits of notorious serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, McNaughton’s Henry Portrait Of A Serial Killer offered a terrifyingly believable insight into the everyday horrors of the real world. In doing so, the filmmaker also demonstrated (as others have) that scaring audiences does not necessarily mean resorting to fantastical special effects and/or supernatural madmen. Coincidentally, by the time the film started to attract serious international acclaim (and indeed equally widespread controversy), the phenomenon of the serial killer/mass murderer had begun to give rise to a whole new film subgenre. From the darkly comical, low-budget Belgian shocker Man Bites Dog to the Oscar-winning The Silence Of The Lambs, audiences, it seems, were fascinated by the appalling lives and crimes of these all-too-human monsters. Henry remains possibly the most uncompromisingly bleak and disturbing entry in the serial killer genre, indeed, such is the potency of this documentary-like shocker that the film has only recently been finally passed uncut for viewers in the U.K. and Ireland. (Henry has had a chequered history with the censors over the years, particularly in Britain [more on that below], and still remains censored in many other parts of the world.)
The opening minutes of the movie set the tone. In between scenes of blue-collar workman Henry (Rooker) going about the mundane routine of his daily life, we are shown various grisly tableaux of his many victims, some shot, others stabbed or strangled. We see him sitting in a car park observing women go to and from a shopping mall, watching and waiting for the right one to cross his path, the predator stalking his prey. He takes after one potential victim in his car, following her all the way home but proceeds no further when he notices her being greeted by a man, perhaps a husband or boyfriend. She will never know how close she came… Next, we are introduced to Otis (Towles), Henry’s roommate (and former cellmate), and his sister Becky (Arnold), who has come to stay for a while to avoid her abusive husband. She plans to get a job in Chicago and save up enough money to allow her young daughter to come and live with her away from her brutish spouse. Henry is courteous but distant towards Becky, and she quickly becomes attracted to him for his perceived gentlemanliness towards her, this despite her learning of his sordid past, which includes a horrendous childhood that led to the murder of his own mother. Otis is no angel either – selling dope on the side and making lewd sexual advances toward his customers – and, in spite of his own wariness around Henry, he soon finds himself enthusiastically partaking in his buddy’s sickening crimes. Indeed, Otis is shown to be even more depraved than multiple murderer Henry himself. However, he is nowhere near as cunning and his recklessness and downright stupidity, not to mention the unhealthy interest he is showing in his own sister, is making Henry increasingly agitated. To quote another serial killer flick, this is not gonna have a happy ending.
Unlike typical serial killer movies like the ultra-successful The Silence Of The Lambs or the flamboyantly downbeat Se7en or even the granddaddy of them all, Psycho, Henry makes no effort to render its story more palatable or entertaining – if that’s the right word – than its subject matter would suggest. This is gritty, harrowing stuff, its unnerving, hard-to-shake-off atmosphere and cinéma vérité realism placing it more in line with other grimy, low-budget cult favourites such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Man Bites Dog. There is nothing sexy, glamorous or charming about the individuals portrayed in Henry – the characters are dreary, desperate and/or despicable, and despite its reputation, the portrayal of violence is not intended to satisfy the appetites of the voyeuristic vultures in the audience. Quite the contrary, in fact. Although McNaughton has said that Henry was made according to the dictates of the exploitation movie genre, as the film progresses he cleverly undermines the audience’s presumably heedless expectations of that genre by subtly implicating them in the horrors they are watching. Henry only contains a few instances of actual onscreen violence – for much of the time we only see the gruesome aftermath – but what is represented is ugly, brutal and grim. When Henry and Otis murder the TV salesman, the audience is encouraged just to sit back and enjoy, even to see the funny side to the victim’s bloody demise (“Otis, plug it in”), since he is painted as such a loathsome figure that he essentially deserves his fate. Such sly directorial manipulation will, however, be used against the viewer in the film’s most notorious sequence: the home invasion.
Director Brian De Palma once said that when it comes to attempts at realistic depictions of violence, the censors’ reaction is customarily to penalise the filmmaker for doing too good a job. Such an observation may account for Henry‘s unmerciful treatment at the hands of our moral guardians over the years, particularly their handling of the film’s aforementioned centrepiece scene of mayhem. In it, we observe that Henry and Otis have broken into the house of a suburban family and are recording their torment and violent death via the use of a camcorder. There is absolutely nothing even faintly amusing about this queasy, sleazy, just plain nauseating episode and we are made to feel even worse when it is revealed that we are not seeing the event ‘live’ but rather through the unflinching gaze of Henry’s TV set! That’s right, the deed has already been done and Henry and Otis are now watching the video playback of their shocking act of savagery for their own amusement so the question must be asked: what’s our excuse? McNaughton’s technique here is a startlingly effective kick in the gut to those viewers who regard violent movies as nothing more than ‘entertainment’ so it’s a shame that Henry has suffered more than most censorship-wise because of its refusal to soft-pedal the issue.
John McNaughton started out in television production and his background in documentary filmmaking undoubtedly informs the style of his debut feature; there is no prettifying of the images, no glossy stylisation and no self-consciously flashy camera moves or gimmicky editing here. Unusually for a low-budget picture of this kind, there is also little handheld camerawork in evidence (aside from the camcorder scene) but the ‘true crimes’ documentary approach is unmistakable. The film firmly refuses either to glorify or vilify its subject, instead observing its characters with detached objectivity, a philosophy that has probably done more than anything to alienate the film from both the censors and the audience. Henry has been described as “morally blank” and certainly the sense of casual amorality, the randomness of death, and lawlessness evident in this film is one of the most disturbing things about it. Never are we made to feel that the reassuring hand of justice is closing in – there will be no last-minute rescue by the police and no punishment doled out to the guilty. When Otis asks Henry what will happen when two of their most recent victims are found, Henry simply replies: “Nothing”. As a matter of fact, the film hardly discloses even the smallest sense of an outside world beyond the lives of its three central characters. The many victims featured in the film have no rights, let alone proper character introductions – they are there simply to be slaughtered. The audience is thus granted no reprieve, and it is this relentless moral desolation – played right to the end credits – that gives Henry its considerable power to unnerve.
Unquestionably, the film only works as well as it does because McNaughton found the right people to fill out his cast. Michael Rooker gives a compelling and scarily convincing performance as Henry, a character in whom the viewer may occasionally detect the barest hint of sensitivity and compassion (directed toward the emotionally scarred Becky) but with whom we are never encouraged to identify or sympathise. Henry is a psychopath, pure and simple, incapable of ever giving or receiving love, and although the many abuses and degradations suffered by him as a child may help us to understand him, there still remains much uncertainty about his past and, by extension, his true nature given his unreliability when it comes to telling the truth. When Becky asks about his childhood, Henry seems more than a little confused about how he actually killed his mother. First, he claims he stabbed her, then he says he shot her, then he reverses himself again. Is he lying or does he just not remember? Is it a little of both? There is no way of knowing for sure. As played by Tom Towles, Otis is an even more repulsive figure than Henry, both in appearance and in his behaviour. Although the character is rendered with a certain (not quite redeeming) streak of black humour, Otis is nevertheless an utter degenerate who thinks nothing of sexually molesting a dead woman or even attempting to rape his own sister. Both he and Henry make for one of the most despicable double-acts ever seen on screen and unlike, say, a character like Hannibal Lecter, the audience will never grow to love these white-trash monsters. This only leaves Becky, played by Tracy Arnold, the one sympathetically drawn character in the film whose life, we learn, has been almost as harsh as Henry’s but whose biggest mistake is to assume both she and he might be kindred spirits. Make no mistake – life at its absolute lowest is what Henry is all about.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Henry is not for everyone; it’s not a conventional serial killer movie by any means, with its unglamorous characters, unrelenting pessimism and unobtrusive filmmaking style, and cannot be recommended as your typical Friday night popcorn film. Henry deals with dark subject matter – the anonymity of violence, the banality of evil – and indeed, the film’s portrayal of pure evil as a kind of alleviation of boredom, a release from the monotony of existence, is both shocking and deeply depressing. This is definitely a downer, a nasty little shocker, and although I don’t believe John McNaughton has made an exploitative picture, that is not to say it cannot be perceived as such – its long, besieged walk to (scissor-)freedom from the censor’s office is a testament to that. Nevertheless, if you are a hardcore horror fan or at all interested in low-budget, blunt-force filmmaking, then this might just chill your soul (or at least convince you to invest in a better home security system).
Henry was shot on 16mm film and is presented here in the correct 4:3 ratio. There is little to be said about the picture quality except that it accurately reflects the film’s low-budget origins. Consistent grain is to be expected but there is also some print damage in the form of reel-change marks and the occasional thin vertical line. However, the image is perfectly watchable and the drab colours of the film look to be accurately depicted. This is pretty much the best one could expect from the transfer.
The same goes for the sound. Presented in 2.0 mono, both the music – a crudely effective use of jagged, sporadically riotous digitally sampled sounds – and the dialogue are conveyed with reasonable clarity and intensity but not much else. Dynamic range is non-existent, of course, but this gets the job done.
The film is presented on 16 chapters. The disc contains suitably sinister moving menus (and menu transitions) featuring images, music and dialogue from the movie. Unfortunately, neither the film nor any of the extras contain any subtitles, which is a shame. [Incidentally, although the film’s digipak packaging claims that the film is 85 minutes long, the running time is actually just over 79 minutes. Rest assured, however, that this is the full, uncut version of Henry.]
The extras are as follows:
Other releases menu: Trailers for other feature films from Optimum Releasing, including Nine Queens, The Devil’s Backbone, Amores Perros, Biggie & Tupac and Kurt & Courtney.
Theatrical trailer: Running time – 1 minute 50 seconds.
Stills gallery: Small gallery of 15 images, one or two of which are pretty bloody.
The true story of Henry: Some valuable background info on the real-life Henry Lee Lucas and his criminal history, including one very interesting titbit involving the current President of the United States, George W. Bush. (4 pages.)
John McNaughton in conversation with Nigel Floyd: The director discusses topics such as the notoriety bestowed on him after Henry was released, the influence of Thomas Harris’s novel ‘Red Dragon’ on the film, the assembling of cast & crew, the style of the picture and the filmmaker’s thoughts on the overall impact of the movie in retrospect. McNaughton also talks about his interest in the field of forensic psychiatry and how it relates to his understanding of a character like Henry. Illuminating. (22 minutes 13 seconds.)
Censorship history: Divided into two parts, the first (text-based) section is titled ‘Censorship History Timeline’ and it basically offers a brief account of the film’s long battle at the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) to receive an uncut release.
The other section comprises ‘a discussion of the altered scenes with John McNaughton and Nigel Floyd’. Here, three of the film’s most contentious moments (The opening sequence [7min 20sec], Otis and the broken TV [4min 40sec] and the home invasion scene [3min 10sec]) are displayed while the two men analyse why they were deemed so problematic by the censor. Just to give you some idea, the home invasion scene was considered so potentially damaging at one time that it was not only cut but also structurally re-edited by then chief censor James Ferman.
An interview with John McNaughton: A second (longer) interview with the director that looks to have been recorded a few years before the aforementioned Floyd conversation. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of repeated info across the two interviews (and indeed the audio commentary [see below]) but some new material is still to be found within. McNaughton describes the trajectory of his career before he came to make Henry, speaking about his previous jobs and referring to the kinds of movies that influenced him the most growing up before discussing the production of the film in greater detail. He also offers his thoughts on the differences between low-budget and big-budget filmmaking and tells of the public’s initial reaction to the picture. The filmmaker also seems keen to suggest that a comedic quality may be discerned running through Henry upon repeated viewing. (This is something of a moot point since if you’re the sort of person who can watch Henry over and over again, you’re quite possibly a total nutjob anyway so the laughs’ll come easily!) (30 minutes 31 seconds.)
Director’s audio commentary: Again, McNaughton reiterates much of what has already been covered in the two interviews, moreover, he spends rather a lot of time here pointing out people he knows who appeared in the film and locations in his home town of Chicago he wanted to shoot. However, it’s not all bad and McNaughton still provides some fresh and fascinating insights from time to time. For example, we do get a very real sense of just how little money the production team had to squander – many exterior shots had to be ‘stolen’ and tossing a $150 camcorder out of a car window turned out to be one of the most sweat-inducing decisions made during filming. The filmmaker is candid about errors brought about by his own inexperience and he also talks appreciatively of his actors, pointing out that actor Tom Towles has appeared in nearly all of his subsequent pictures. Mention is also made of how specific visual and sound effects were achieved and the difficulties involved in filming the controversial camcorder scene – the actress in the scene was pretty traumatised by her experience, we discover. (Trivial note: McNaughton states at the end that this commentary was recorded on 15 February, 1999.)
Considering its pedigree, it’s safe to say this is probably the best DVD of Henry Portrait Of A Serial Killer we can expect to see. The picture and sound quality is very acceptable, the extras both contextualise the film and deepen our appreciation of it, and best of all, the movie is now fully uncut. What other excuse do you need? If you think movies like Scream represent the pinnacle of cinematic terror, think again. This one’s the real deal – watch it and sicken yourself.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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