Dark Sky Films // 1986 // 83 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // October 9th, 2009
You or them.
After a documentary on Chicago professional wrestling fell through, the heads of MPI decided to use the $100,000 alloted for it to make a horror film. They gave the helm to first-timer John McNaughton (Mad Dog and Glory) who used a 60 Minutes piece on serial killer Henry Lee Lucas to create something very different from what the producers expected. Without teen sex, stupid jokes, or a masked killer, they didn't know how to market the film and shelved it. When it finally did see the light of day, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was met by an X-rating and an audience that was deeply disturbed by the uncompromising immediacy of a film that only barely resembled the horror movie they were led to expect. A truly harrowing, Henry is scary because it's so real.
Henry (Michael Rooker, Sea of Love) has just moved to Chicago to stay with his old prison buddy Otis (Tom Towles, Night of the Living Dead (1990)) and make a little money before moving out to his sister's ranch outside of San Bernardino when Otis's sister, Becky (The Borrower), moves in as well. As a flame starts to smolder between Henry and Becky, things start to get complicated because Henry and Otis aren't your average odd couple. Otis is a perverted sociopath and Henry is just about as dark a person as could exist. In between going to work and peeling Otis off of his sister, Henry must mask that he brutally slaughters whoever he might come across before walking home to Becky with a nice new guitar he "just came across."
The film opens on a tableaux of dead bodies, each more viciously slaughtered than the last, and immediately, the expectations of the audience are both met and subverted. Sure, we have mutilated bodies that we're supposed to see in a horror movie, but where is the satisfaction in the clinical crime scene photography in these images? The screams of the victims we hear in the soundtrack make the opening even more unsettling. It doesn't take long to realize that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer isn't your average horror movie, if it even belongs in the genre at all. Instead of the feeling of terror we expect, these image inure us to the violence in much the same way as has happened to Henry himself; violence which Henry will surely bring to us. Henry isn't so easily identifiable as evil. He doesn't have a burned face, a mask, or a razor glove to time us off, but there's no mystery for us. When we meet him, he's finishing some lunch and complimenting the counter girl on her smile. We know that he'd kill her right then if he could, but she's not afraid at all, and that's what makes it so scary. Luckily, there's a hitchhiker on his way home. Well, not lucky for her, but for him, and plus he gets that guitar out of the deal. Every action Henry makes is an act of war on all of society; he doesn't kill for revenge, he kills because his philosophy dictates it.
Such is the hero that McNaughton and co-screenwriter Richard Fire have presented us with. Like it or not, we have to deal with it. Henry is not a pretty film. It is a raw, mean, bludgeoning piece of work that you experience more than you watch. There is no moral compass and don't expect the character to see any comeuppance for his actions. The film, at times, is extremely difficult to watch and, while I can easily say that it's one of the best films made in my lifetime, the reward you get for making it through is pretty hard to take. We are implicated in the brutality, especially so in the harrowing home invasion scene, with its camera perspective that predates and bests anything else like it. McNaughton isn't playing the kind of game with us, however, that Michael Haneke does in Funny Games. Henry doesn't try to trick you by constantly increasing the violence and degradation just to see how much each individual audience members can take and judging them for it. Henry opens at its darkest and maintains that tone for the entire run time, some of the longest 83 minutes you could spend. This film doesn't have the aspect of fantasy that most horror has; this film feels real. It sits with you and eats at you, leaving you with feelings of hopelessness and despair that a regular horror movie can't match.
The film is shot with immediacy in an almost documentary style and the performances reflect that realism, as well. Michael Rooker is pitch perfect as the title character. His normality makes him scary. It's easy to see his neighbors describing him as "nice, but quiet," and in disbelief at the horror that he's cause. The way he describes his action is ice cold. Rooker shows no emotion and his lack of either remorse or joy is remarkably disturbing. Tom Towles and Tracy Arnold, who came with Richard Fire from Chicago's Organic Theater Company, show a lot of bravery and skill in their performances, complimenting Rooker perfectly. Otis is a buffoon, but a dangerous buffoon. He is Henry's lapdog and, if it's possible, is more morally repugnant than even Henry. His performance lends an unwelcome comic relief to the film that makes you feel even worse, because the jokes are kind of funny. Becky is a sad character and Arnold's performance makes you sad along with her. She is the only person in the film worth rooting for and the way she's treated is depressing. To her, Henry is more a lifeline than a monster and you can feel her ache with love for him. Her life is so screwed up that a guy like Henry can seem like a safety net.
I'm unsure how I feel about the Blu-ray of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Admittedly, the picture looks amazing, as clear and crisp has it ever has or ever could, but what does that do for a film like this? Damaged as the old versions of the film may have been, the grittiness gave it more of the verisimilitude that made the film so scary, giving the deep discomfort of a snuff film. In this form, it looks more like a movie and that, though this is odd to me, diminishes the film. Still, it does look crystal clear, with near perfect color and detail, a huge improvement over the 20th Anniversary Edition in every way (except for overall effect, of course) The sound is great as well, certainly one of the best stereo mixes I've ever heard. Every word is clear and there isn't a hint of noise, but more than anything, I'm struck for the first time by the strength of Tom McNaughton's score, an aspect of the film that has never been made prevalent in any previous edition that I can remember. The discordant piano melody is iconic, but the mixture of field recordings, samples, and spoken word is reminiscent of Goblin's superb score for Suspiria. If the clarity in the image diminishes the effect of the film, the improved sound enhances it which, I suppose, makes the whole thing a wash.
The extras, while a comprehensive look at the background and making of Henry, are all pulled from that 20th Anniversary Edition with nothing new to add. These include an excellent commentary from John McNaughton, a lengthy making-of documentary, a television special on Henry Lee Lucas, deleted scenes, storyboards, and interviews. It isn't that they aren't high quality, they are of the highest. We've just seen them all before.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and something I can't recommend to just anybody. Using a horror backdrop, McNaughton has created one of the scariest character studies of our time. As a Blu-ray release, this is a marginal recommendation for an upgrade, based on the vastly improved sound mix. It looks and sounds better than ever, but the rehash of extras takes away from its value.
Dirty as it makes me feel, Henry is, once again, free to walk the streets.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
* Full Frame
* DTS HD 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Television Special