Dark Sky Films // 1986 // 83 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // October 10th, 2005
Horror, in your own backyard.
We all remember the 1980s. For this reviewer, it was the golden age of horror. Movies like John Carpenter's The Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Return of the Living Dead flooded movie theaters like a torrential downpour. Slasher movies were all the rage. Zombies ran amuck. Gooey aliens and guys in hockey masks stalked nubile teenagers. It was a glorious time at the movies. Then director John McNaughton made Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in the mid-80s, and it ended up being one of the most disturbing and scariest horror movies ever made. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer celebrates its 20th anniversary in a new two disc set from Dark Sky Films.
Meet Henry (Michael Rooker, Cliffhanger, Mallrats), a drifter who has wandered into Chicago and taken up residence with Otis (Tom Towles, House of 1000 Corpses), a creepy lay-a-bout, and Otis's baby sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold). In a dirt poor section of the city, Henry spends his days working construction and drinking beers with Otis. But underneath Henry's working class exterior lays a furnace of evil and rage: Henry is a serial killer. Henry has killed many people, and for him it's not just a hobby but also a horrible way of life. This chilling tale is an unflinching look into the mind of madness, deceptively shrouded in the veil of normalcy.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a very scary movie, but not for the reasons you usually associate with horror movies. When most patrons enter a horror movie they expect fun scares, a little light humor and blood and guts that wink to the audience, "hey, it ain't real -- we're just having a good time."
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has none of that.
Instead, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a movie of unbridled power -- it is like a fascinating record of human depravity. I don't think there are many people who will walk away from it feeling as if they just had a great night out at the movies. Director McNaughton has crafted what feels like a grueling documentary. Henry is gritty and terrifying because it's not based in aliens, zombies or fictional bogeymen -- it's based on what may be living next door to us. For Henry, killing and murder is a way of life, and that life may be our own.
TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation often portray serial killers in a very black and white light -- they're methodical predators who are twisted and insane. While there's no argument that Henry is also twisted, he's also normal and friendly. In fact, during half of the film I watched Henry, fully aware of what he does, but not really feeling much spite for him since we never see him commit the crime. It's a rare film that makes you see the killer as a human and not just a monster, much like the far more optimistic Tim Robbins film, Dead Man Walking.
Michael Rooker is eerily persuasive as Henry (based on the real life case of mass murderer Henry Lee Lucas). There are moments when Rooker makes Henry the guy next door -- nice enough, quiet and normal (at least that's what you're led to believe). Then Henry flies into a rage that lets you know he isn't playing with all 52 cards in his mental deck. It's a mesmerizing, powerful performance; Rooker takes what should have been a one-dimensional character and turns him into a frightening, haunted and tragic figure.
The other two main cast members are equally as memorable, if not as prominent, in the film. Tom Towles (recognizable to genre fans from such films as Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses and the 1990 remake Night of the Living Dead) is downright icky as Henry's redneck roommate Otis, all crooked black teeth and vile smile. Tracy Arnold (in one of her only major film roles) plays Becky as a pretty, bittersweet woman whose fate has already been decided -- she's a girl who has made all the wrong decisions in life (including her attraction and flirtation with Henry).
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is disturbing; don't go into it lightly or rent it with your sweetheart on a Saturday night. The violence is plentiful but never grotesque -- much like John Carpenter's Halloween, it's more what you feel than what you see that makes the film a fright fest. On the back of the DVD case the New York Post is quoted as saying "Now this is a horror movie!"
I couldn't have said it better myself.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is presented in 1.33:1 Full Frame, transferred from the original 16mm film negatives. Overall the movie has a grainy, dirty look, though that works in the film's favor. The colors are often washed out, though the transfer looks better than I expected (and better than the VHS copies floating around out there). Overall, this is a fine image, considering the film's age and budget.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround in English. There isn't much to say about this audio mix -- it's all front heavy with little-to-no surround sounds or directional effects. Once again, this works to the film's advantage -- you get the feeling you're really watching a document of evil. No alternate subtitles are available on this set.
The extra features on this set are good, if not great. The commentary by director John McNaughton is informative and gives insight into what the filmmakers were trying to achieve (they were making something disturbing, not entertaining). I watched only half of this commentary -- while it's informative, I just couldn't bring myself watch this movie a second time around in such a short period of time. A few theatrical trailers and a gallery of stills round out the first disc.
The second disc includes a documentary titled "Portrait: The Making of Henry" which features interviews with much of the cast and crew, including director McNaughton, actors Rooker, Towles, and Arnold, and a few other folks who worked on the film. It's a rare glimpse into what everyone thought of the script, story, and the shoot. "The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas" is a look at the real life killer that Henry was patterned after. Lucas's only troubled story makes for a riveting watch -- interview footage with those who caught him -- as well as Lucas himself -- shed just a little light into the mind of a real life maniac. Finally there are a few deleted scenes and outtakes with commentary by the director, and original storyboards from the shoot.
A film of undeniable power, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a horror movie without the fun or excitement of your usual slasher fare. If you want to see something that will really chill your bones, rent or buy Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer; it's powerful stuff, but certainly not the kind of movie I need to watch over and over again. Dark Sky's work on this two-disc set is good, and fans of the film will find the extra features to be interesting and informative.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is free to go, though you'd better watch your back!
Review content copyright © 2005 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Commentary Track With Director John McNaughton
* Theatrical Trailers
* Stills Gallery
* "Portrait: The Making of Henry" Featurette
* "The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas" Documentary
* Deleted Scenes and Outtakes With Commentary By The Director