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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (20th Anniversary Special Edition)

Dark Sky Films // Unrated // September 27, 2005
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted October 18, 2005 | E-mail the Author
There are two true faces of evil. Sift though all the permutations you want and argue over specific brands of sin, but the heinous and the hideous only come in one of two distinct designs. The first is painfully obvious and bears little discussion. After all, outward pronouncements of wickedness - actual thoughts, deeds, words or designs - are the clichéd calling card we come to associate with a darkening of the moral spirit. People are inherently good, if you are to believe philosophers and clerics, and it's only through commiseration with the baneful and the depraved that we anoint ourselves in iniquity. It is a mark we wear in blatant disregard to social standard or human graces. Call it the mark of Cain, or the Devil's stain, but we usually recognize evil people by their noticeable noxiousness - and they usually don't try to hide it.

Then there is the subtler brand of malevolence, the slow, simmering, silent type. It is the kind that is locked away in the secret rooms of the soiled human psyche. It is the horrible hatred and unethical itch that permeates through even inch of the human soul. The scary thing is, we usually don't view this demonic presence until it is far too late. Families are found roped, gagged and shotgunned to death, while fathers sit quietly by, nursing a cigarette, smoking barrel smoldering in their hand. Neighbors put on their mask of amused shock and argue over how "peaceful" and "humane" this sudden sinister force once was. As the death count continues to grow and the grizzly details are revealed, we end up with the most deceptive - and deadly - of dichotomies: the seemingly calm executioner, the man (or woman) who can take a life as easily as they can hold down a legitimate job. These are the modern monsters, not all noise and dramatics. These are the serial killers.

Twenty years ago, Chicago filmmaker John McNaughton rewrote the rulebook of horror moviemaking with his controlled, realistic look at a week in the life of mass murders Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole. Though highly fictionalized and filmed on a very small budget, the result was a revolution in true crime cinema. Where once the frenzied, frantic face of evil was plastered across the movie screen, part of the "good drama derives from a good villain" ideal, McNaughton decided to portray the other path that the atrocious can follow. What makes this movie so memorable is its plain, plaintive portrayal of Henry as a still, sober ball of seething hate. What makes it so frightening, even by today's big budget bonanza standards, is its attention to reality. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a classic because of the detail it imparts in its otherwise sensational story. It's masterful for how believable it renders is repulsive, redolent ideals.

The DVD:
They met in prison. Henry had killed his mother. Otis was...well, he was just Otis, a lazy, illiterate drug pusher with a penchant for perversion. As time passed, they were eventually released, and now they share an apartment in a very seedy section of Chicago. Henry works odd jobs, while Otis pumps gas - and sells a little weed - over at the local service station. They dwell on the fringes of society, and there is very little interaction between the two - that is, until Henry decides he needs to kill. It's not really that he's driven to destroy. It's more like a game between the man and the rest of the world. He is very good at what he does, and enjoys the sickening satisfaction of a 'job' well done.

When Becky, Otis's sister, arrives from down state to stay with the guys (she's escaping an abusive husband), it shakes up Henry's household. She's got eyes on the enigmatic loner - that is, if she can keep her disgusting brother out of her pants. Tensions mount and soon Otis is taking part in Henry's deadly deeds. But the Becky issue won't go away, and when he discovers just how far Otis will go to satisfy his needs, it's time for Henry to bring the bloodletting home to roost.

There are a lot of films and filmmakers who, whenever they get a residual check, or happen to catch a glint of their awards shelf out of the corner of their eye, owe John McNaughton a big fat gift basket of unbridled gratitude. Without his landmark motion picture Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the modern mass murderer movie would never have evolved. While Michael Mann's version of Thomas Harris's seminal novel Red Dragon (rechristened Manhunter and arriving the same year, 1986) was showing moviegoers how stylized and slick a crime story could be, McNaughton was turning a cinema vérité lens on the loathsome acts of real life psychopaths Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole.

No fancy pastel color schemes or sleazoid neon deathscapes for this Windy City auteur. Instead, McNaughton (along with writing partner Richard Fire) conceived their ode to the awful in realistic, rational terms. They tried to visualize, in a world filled with millions of people all going about their unseen daily lives, how a pair of demented killers go about their baneful business. The answer was simple - like everyone else does: unremarkably and efficiently.

McNaughton's major innovation here was the book ending of almost all the violence. There is a sole scene in the middle of the movie where an arrogant black market electronics merchant gets his just desserts, but overall, it's the beginning and the end that mark this movie and make it memorable. Setting up Henry's story by intercutting his crimes with the stalking of his next "victim", the director starts leaving important imprints on our mind. We see a woman covered in cigarette burns, or a whore with a broken coke bottle shoved in her mouth.

The scenes are graphic and gory, but they are surprisingly still. There is no motion, no thrashing or flailing, just the calm, considered corpse and the echoes of the crime committed fading away into the atmosphere. Equally, when we watch Henry's actual handiwork during the film's finale, the journeyman-like way he handles a hacksaw and cuts up a human being, the cruel connections from the beginning start to settle in.

Unlike other films that try to offer up some manner of sensationalized rationale for a serial killer's actions (they are 'becoming', they are playing God, they are preaching, etc.) Henry is not motivated by sex or salaciousness. He's not molesting the victims, eating parts of the body, or dressing up in their stolen skin. No, Henry just wants to take lives - and understands the composed and considered intricacies of not getting caught. There is never a scene where McNaughton explains his executioner (unless you count the single sentence "it's either us or them") and the best part of this pioneering film is matching the traumatizing tableaus from the opening, with their death and destruction, and creating your own concept of why Henry would hurt people so.

McNaughton does provide a smidgen of the psycho-logic psychology we need. Henry has a scene with Becky in which he recalls a childhood of horrible abuse and emotional neglect, and we can see the components of unbridled rage at his past being channeled into his present deeds. But just like the monster movie that leaves most of the creature to our imagination, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a vision of awfulness that requires us to fill in many of the mental misgivings.

The other major innovation McNaughton brought to the crime story is the lack of law. Indeed, police are nowhere to be found in this film. The closest we get to the criminal justice system is when Otis visits his preoccupied parole officer. This creates two interesting ideas. First up, we have no true "hero" in the film, no avenging cop or determined detective out to capture Henry. We learn rather quickly that our killers will more or less go undetected and that leaves us in an aesthetic quandary over whom we attach our emotions to. Certainly we can't identify with Henry's heartless acts, and Otis is so oily and grotesque that it's impossible to connect to him.

That leaves Becky, but she does nothing to endear herself to us. She plays victim so perfectly that when Otis attempts to kiss her, she acquiesces in a sleazy, sickening manner. So we end up back at Henry. He is by no means gallant or suave. He is not handsome or good humored. But we tend to tie into his way of thinking, an oddly moral coding that can take a human life, but will not tolerate incest or sexual abuse. Because of our disconnect to the victims, and the lack of real insight into the mindset at work, we almost forgive Henry his transgressions, and pray for some kind of rationale resolution. Of course, it never comes.

The other idea comes in how the story is presented. Without cops there is no need for fake action sequences, and this helps the movie a great deal. McNaughton's directorial style can best be described as a staged documentary. There are very few scenes incorporated for sheer shock value (the home video home invasion being the sole sensationalized bit in the entire film) and the overall tone is a day in the life of the deadly. The sets are white trash treasures, each one resembling the dregs of society in their happenstance and decor. The movie makes magnificent use of the less glamorized sides of Chi-town, turning the Second City into a dark and disturbing place.

He also keeps the actors in check. Anyone whose seen Michael Rooker (as Henry) and Tom Towles (as Otis) knows that these are two thesps that can really munch on the motion picture panoramas. Yet maybe because this was one of their first feature films, or maybe because of the onset atmosphere created by McNaughton, both men are terrific, expertly playing the two sides of the same evil coin. Indeed, the entire range of real maliciousness can be seen in these two performers. Rooker walks a fine line between banal and bad, while Towles is nearly a cruel cartoon. But in the film's many quiet moments, scenes where there isn't an emphasis on crime and criminality, we get the true sense of these men and their malevolent make-up.

In combination, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer becomes a chiller so stark that it nearly blinds you and so dire that despair permeates the air like the stink of rotting flesh. McNaughton's movie might not be out to entertain (though it definitely does disturb) but it does want to reflect our worst fears back at us. That is why the hidden evil is creepier than outright or obvious awfulness. Films like Se7en and Saw have taking the bleakness behind Henry to horrid, heinous extremes, and while gratifying in a Grand Guignol sense of the sinister, they don't achieve the level of vileness this movie imagines. After all Henry and Otis were real people and McNaughton never once lets us to forget it. After seeing this dramatized account of their exploits, it's hard to imagine we ever would...or could.

The Video:
Upgrading the previous versions of Henry in almost every category, the new 1.33:1 full frame transfer of the film is exceptional. The colors are purposely flat and dingy, just as the director envisioned, and the details are crisp and correct. We get a moment or two of grain near the middle of the movie (it falls during a couple of extended night scenes) and there is an occasional flaw here and there, but overall this is an exceptional version of this classic creep-out.

The Audio:
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer will never be mistaken for a sonic symphony, and the lack of any true atmosphere in the film's Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 soundtrack is not surprising, given the limited budget. Still, the dialogue is crystal clear and the John Carpenter inspired electronic score is sensational. While not a truly immersive aural experience, the auditory elements are professional and well preserved on this DVD.

The Extras:
A few years back MPI (the company actually responsible for producing Henry) released a DVD version that was pretty bare bones. Hoping to make up for this fact, the company's newest division, Dark Sky Films, gives this independent classic a great two disc digital makeover. On Disc 1, we are treated to trailers, a still gallery and a fascinating full-length audio commentary by director John McNaughton (and moderated by horror film scholar David Gregory). It is a real pleasure to finally get this elusive filmmaker down on the record about his fascinating first feature, and he does not disappoint.

There is obviously a little bad blood left over from the way the movie was initially treated by MPI (they shelved it), but now he has nothing but fond, fun memories. As Gregory spurs him along (doing a very good job of keeping the discussion focused and on point) McNaughton talks about casting, the critical decision to avoid an obvious handheld look of many independent films, and the lost seedy glamour of old style Chicago slums. Even after nearly 20 years, this director remembers lots of intimate and intriguing details, and it makes the conversation that much more contextual and complimentary.

Disc 2 holds another treasure trove of treats. We begin with a selection of deleted scenes and outtakes, which sadly come without sound. However, McNaughton steps up and delivers commentary over the cuts, giving us comprehensible indications as to why the material failed to make it to the big screen. Next is a selection of storyboards - individual images created to sell certain scenes in the film. It is interesting to note how Henry is portrayed in a kind of 50s greaser style while Otis and Becky are rather non-descript. Next up is a 22 minute segment from MPI's famous murderers DVD documentary The Serial Killers. This portion focuses on Lucas and Toole, and is hilarious, considering the number of Texas cattle baron good old boy lawmen who show up to wax poetic about Henry Lee and his love of the limelight. There are some interesting elements to the episode (Lucas speaks for himself a few times) and it's fascinating to note the similarities between real life and McNaughton's 'reel' life.

For those who are interested in how the movie was made, and the people involved in the production, the one hour documentary Portrait: The Making of Henry is the very best extra here. Everyone, from McNaughton and Fire to Rooker and Towles (along with Tracy Arnold - "Becky") appear to discuss their part in the picture and the impact it had on their career. It is interesting to note that several of the crew use Henry as the highlight of their resume (and the actors admit that their agents keep pushing it further and further toward the top of their credits).

Especially intriguing are the conversations with the actresses who played victims, as they describe the turmoil and the adverse physical and psychological effects of dying on camera. Every aspect of the production is covered - effects, music, editing and the post-production traumas that kept the film out of release for years. Though it can be a little dry at times, and mesh with material we learn from the commentary track, this is still an essential history of the Henry experience.

Final Thoughts:
Thanks to a 90s obsession with the serial killer, there will be those who claim that Henry has lost some of its impact. Indeed, other independent filmmakers have decided that the one thing missing from the otherwise failsafe McNaughton formula (matter of fact depictions of the demonic) is gratuitous gore, and today we see dozens of Portrait clones with the focus on blood as much as badness. But Henry proved that you could create tension and dread, horror and hideousness without the need for excessive grue or over the top performances. Indeed, this is one of the best movies of the 80s based solely on the fact that it achieves a level of concentrated authenticity that very few films can even attempt to match.

Besides, it deals with the more deceptively simple side of evil. Henry would be laughable if he were a foaming at the mouth freak who slobbered like a rabid hound as he took a life. But in the restricted, clinical manner in which he dispenses with victims, McNaughton reimagined movie macabre. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is horrifying because it could very easily be subtitled "Your Next Door Neighbor" or "The Delivery Man". Evil is not always obvious. As this amazing film points out, it can sometimes come in the must subdued - and deadly - of passive packages. And nothing is more threatening than that.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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