Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
By: Julian on July 25, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Paramount (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 4:3. English DD 2.0. 82 minutes
The Movie
Director: John McNaughton
Starring: Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold
Screenplay: Richard Fire, John McNaughton
Music: Ken Hale, Steven A. Jones, Robert McNaughton
Tagline: He's not Freddy. He's not Jason. He's real
Country: USA
Yeah… I killed my mama

Henry Lee Lucas has long been considered one of the most cryptic serial killers of the United States, having confessed to up to three thousand murders. Lucas eventually retracted these claims in most part and dozens more were deemed untrue after it was revealed that the murderer was a pathological liar. Lucas was eventually convicted of eleven murders and, having been absolved of the death penalty, eventually died in a Texas prison, aged 64. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is the audacious second feature of John McNaughton, and vaguely chronicles Lucas' life. Henry uses a low-budget quasi-documentary aesthetic, powerhouse performances and short, sharp bursts of violence to craft what has arguably become one of the most disturbing pictures ever filmed.

After a vignette of murder set pieces, we are introduced to Henry (Rooker), a disturbed, quiet young man living with his ex-con friend Otis (Towles). Henry's life is drastically changed when Otis' beautiful young sister Becky (Arnold) comes to town looking for a job, prompting an uneasy love interest. When Otis discovers Henry's dark secrets, he is at first scared, then excited as he participates in murder after murder, gradually spinning out of control. If Henry is cold and calculating as a killer, then Otis is the opposite – deranged, messy and unorganised, a closet necrophiliac and homosexual who harbours incestuous feelings for his sister. Their crimes as a duo eventually culminate into utterly unprovoked attacks – Otis kills a Good Samaritan to vent anger and, in a thoroughly disturbing and reprehensible scene, they invade the home of a young family, killing them all and worse. The audience isn't positioned to view Henry as being immoral, but amoral – after each heinous crime committed, screenwriters McNaughton and Richard Fire throw in a little epitaph that makes us feel for the killer, particularly during his infantile defences of Becky. This undoubtedly adds an uneasy element of sympathy for Henry, despite the crimes we see him commit.

As Alfred Hitchcock once said, 'always make your audience suffer as much as possible'. And McNaughton does. There's no easy way out here – the nihilistic tone of the entire picture makes for a thoroughly uncomfortable movie experience. Furthermore, the killer is no suave, sophisticated anti-hero type ala Hannibal Lector, or even American Psycho's Patrick Bateman. Nor is he a supernatural entity like Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers or most other slasher antagonists. He appears to be a normal guy. And, in this respect, it was said that McNaughton and Fire's portrayal of Henry, as an Average-Joe-cum-serial-killer, was scarily accurate.

Henry received a lukewarm reception by critics and pretty much every censorship body in the Western world reviled it – the film was given an X-rating in the US and was banned in the UK, Australia and New Zealand upon its initial release. However, the industry impact Henry has had is profound: aside from being one of the best serial killer films of all time, the downbeat atmosphere and portrayal of both Henry and Otis as pure, unadulterated evil has paved the way for similar film verite ventures, including a 1998 sequel, the Belgian mockumentary Man Bites Dog and the August Underground films, among others. Today, Henry is accepted among echelons of horror fans as being something of a cult masterpiece, however its notoriety has unfortunately brought the film the unwarranted reputation of being a 'silly exploitation movie'. There's nothing exploitative or gratuitious about its content – every scene of murder and mayhem has its place, and each drives the story along. Interestingly enough, McNaughton hasn't made a great deal of quality work post-Henry and his best film since was the 1998 neo-noir sleaze fest Wild Things. Henry also helped McNaughton get the job of directing Haeckel's Tale in 2006 for the Masters of Horror series.
Presented in the 4:3 aspect ratio, Henry doesn't actually look too bad. There's a bit of grain here and there, but I feel it adds to the general atmosphere of the film. Generally, though, everything is clear but there's no sharpness to the picture.
One English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack. This one isn't so good – I found myself turning the volume up during scenes of dialogue, then frantically turning it down when things became nasty. This didn't add to the atmosphere, it only succeeded in pissing me off. Chances are, though, that a better soundtrack to a cult horror film isn't at the top of many distributors to-do lists.
Extra Features
A poor set of features considering what other discs Paramount could have sourced, including the R0 Dark Sky 2-disc edition. R4 have been treated to a 30-minute interview with McNaughton, as well as a theatrical trailer.
The Verdict
A chilling look at the life of a serial killer, Henry is one of the most successfully executed (no pun intended) films of its genre. This is far from a Friday the 13th-esqe beer-and-pizza, popcorn slasher. It takes a lot to get through this, and prepare to be positively shattered if you're of a weak disposition. Hitch was right: while this isn't necessarily an overly violent picture, the amoral tone indeed makes the audience suffer, and Henry is a far better film for it. Henry is a must see for the cult horror fan, though it's certainly not for pussies.
Movie Score
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