Henry, Portrait Of A Serial Killer (1986)
By: Drexl on June 28, 2003  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Optimum Releasing (UK).Region 2, PAL. 4:3. English, DD 2.0 Mono. 79 minutes
The Movie
Director: John McNaughton
Starring: Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold
Screenplay: John McNaughton, Richard Fire
Music: Robert McNaughton
Tagline: He's not Freddy. He's not Jason. He's real
Country: USA
As the tag line on the cover tells you: 'He's not Freddy. He's not Jason. He's real.' Henry could be the chap walking on the other side of the road from you. He could be your neighbour or a work colleague. This guy isn't a rampaging zombie or haunter of nightmares, he's an everyday Joe with an especially anti-social hobby, and he could well be in your neighbourhood - right now...

Henry is an ex-con who served time for savagely slaughtering his abusive mother. He shares a run-down Chicago apartment with a fellow ex-con, Ottis, and his sister Becky. Henry was released from jail a few months before Ottis and filled his spare time by killing people. No real motive for this, it's just what he does - prowling the city, selecting his victims at random and killing without remorse. Ottis soon falls under Henry's spell and begins to assist Henry in his acts of destruction. Becky, oblivious to the pair's criminal activities, falls in love with Henry. As soon as these three characters are thrown together you know that it's all going to end badly and, sure enough, the violence comes closer to home before the film reaches an especially downbeat finale.

Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer is an incredibly bleak film led by two characters who simply have no hope of anything approaching a normal and productive life. Henry, played by gravel voiced newcomer Michael Rooker (JFK, Cliffhanger, Days Of Thunder), is so far over the edge that he doesn't even remember the method of most of his kills. When questioned by Becky about the murder of his mother, he can't even remember how he disposed of her. Shot? Stabbed? It's unimportant and/or irrelevant to Henry. He does give an occasional hint of humanity though when protecting Becky from her brother's unwanted advances, ('No Ottis, she's your sister'). Ottis, played by Tom Towles (House Of 1000 Corpses, Mad Dog and Glory), on the other hand, is a piece of human trash through and through. Drug dealer, sex offender and, thanks to Henry's encouragement and coaching, he's now also added the title of murderer to his CV. Becky (Tracy Arnold) is the only likeable character in the whole movie; a pretty young woman who is separated from her husband and child, she is at least attempting to do something with her life. Unfortunately for her, she has Ottis for a brother and Henry for a roommate. Poor girl.

Photographed around the grimy back streets of Chicago (McNaughton's neighbourhood) during 1985 and 1986 (but not released until 1989) and wrapped up in a jagged, foreboding music score, Henry… is grim stuff indeed, with some stomach-churning violence contained in the second half and a downbeat atmosphere that is present in every single frame of the movie. Interestingly, McNaughton once stated that repeat viewings of Henry… would lead you to view it as a black comedy. I can't say I completely agree with him, (Henry… is a horror movie, make no mistake about that), but closer examination does reveal a streak of black humour running through the movie with most of the humour, bizarrely enough, coming from Ottis (Towles was trained as a comedy actor.) One especially amusing scene involving a broken video camera reminded me of a similar scene in Pulp Fiction, (you'll spot the similarity easily enough.)

Performances are excellent all-round, both in front of and behind the camera. The three leads are all outstanding in their roles - Rooker is superb as Henry - emotionless and chilling. Towles plays the human scum that is Ottis perfectly and Arnold effectively gets the viewers sympathy as the sweet and likeable Becky. McNaughton's direction is assured, especially considering the film's low budget (100,000 USD), with the early scenes of Henry's handiwork being a good example, (the aftermath of the murder is shown while the sounds of the act (screams etc.) play on the soundtrack - hugely effective.) Another example would be the infamous 'videotape' scene which I won't spoil for those who haven't seen the film, but it's a powerful and clever piece of cinema and, possibly the most important scene in the movie. The eerie music score is simply the 'icing on the cake.'

McNaughton (who would later land the choice gig of directing Denise Richards' breasts in 1998's superb Wild Things) mentions that the people who financed this movie were initially disappointed with the film he gave to them. They were expecting a straightforward slasher/exploitation picture, (this was the mid-eighties remember, the slasher heyday), but instead got something much better but less commercial. No happy ending and cheap shocks here, I'm glad to say. In fact, Henry… could almost be considered an 'anti-slasher' film, (for want of a better phrase), as all the clichés of that particular genre are noticeable only by their absence. That is why, in my opinion at least, this film so successfully achieves its aims of being (as one critic called it) 'a real horror film'. When the film is over and the disc/tape is ejected from the player, Jason, Freddy, Pinhead or pretty much any other splatter movie killer you care to mention disappear back into the imagination. Henry doesn't. He's (unfortunately) still out there…
Presented in its correct aspect ratio, this is probably as good as this film is going to look. Print damage is virtually non-existent and colours are as they should be. The film does carry some quite heavy grain though (think Grindhouse's Cannibal Ferox DVD and you'll get the picture). Viewers craving perfect picture quality may well grumble at what is on offer here, but in all honesty, I think it's somehow appropriate to the feel of the movie. A satisfactory video presentation.
A good quality, clear audio track. Some previous DVD releases of this movie were reported to have lip-synch problems, but no such problems were spotted with this release.
Extra Features
You want bonus goodies? Well, this disc has plenty to offer...

Firstly we have three bonus items featuring director John McNaughton - 'An Interview with John McNaughton', 'John McNaughton in Conversation with Nigel Floyd' and a commentary track from the director. All three cover the director's memories concerning the creation of this film, his aims when making it, his influences and his opinions on the film some 14 years after its completion. The commentary was recorded four years ago and, I would assume, is the same track that is featured on other DVD releases of this film. McNaughton is an interesting and intelligent speaker who never pauses for breath during the track and reels off numerous snippets of information. Some material is repeated throughout these extras but, besides that, these are three fascinating and very informative features.

Following the above, we have a text essay on the life and crimes of one Henry Lee Lucas, the inspiration for this movie (although the start of the film does carry a disclaimer of sorts.) A worthwhile addition.

Next up (and one of the most interesting extras I have seen in a long while) is a 14 minute feature concerning the censorship problems this film encountered, (it has taken 12 years to be granted an uncut release in Britain and is still heavily cut in Australia.) Three of the scenes which proved troublesome are presented with a voice over from the director, giving us a view on censorship from the filmmaker's side of things and how the intention of these scenes was ruined by the censor and/or studio cuts, (most famously during the 'videotape' scene.)

The films theatrical trailer is also included, as is a (very) short stills gallery, mostly consisting of on-set photographs.

To round off the bonus materials, some trailers for other films released by the distributor of this disc are also present, plus the menu screens are animated and scored. The cover art is also pretty neat and therefore worth a mention, as is the cute little box the disc is housed in. (The back of the case does list the usual 'cast and crew info' as an extra feature, but I'll be damned if I can find 'em on the disc.)
The Verdict
A brutal, chilling and unforgettable film which, alone, is worth the price of the disc. Add to this a comprehensive selection of excellent bonus materials and you have what can only be described as an essential purchase.
Movie Score
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