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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

MPI Home Video // Unrated // September 29, 2009
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ian Jane | posted September 23, 2009 | E-mail the Author

The Movie:

Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer is one of those films you've got to admire and appreciate, even if you don't necessarily enjoy watching it. One of the more notorious horror films to emerge out of the eighties, it's an ugly and uncompromising film that presents an all too real look at murder and those who commit the ultimate sin.

The story is amazingly simple. Henry (Michael Rooker) is a thirty something drifter who ends up letting his cousin, Otis (Tom Towles), come and stay with him for a while when he moves into Chicago and needs somewhere to hang his hat. Otis' sister, Becky (Tracey Arnold), is also along for the ride. Otis and Henry hit it off pretty much from the get go and they decide to head out into town one night and pick themselves up a couple of ladies of the evening for some entertainment of the carnal sort. Once they've had their way with them, Henry kills them and Otis, never having done this sort of thing before, starts to get in on it too, his enthusiasm obviously growing along with his depravity.

From here on out, Otis is a changed man. He and Henry begin a serious of murders across the area, each one becoming more and more vicious and perverted than the other. It becomes almost like a drug for Otis, while Henry remains calm and introverted throughout their escapades. The sicker these two become, the more intense their relationship gets, and poor Becky ends up caught in the middle of it all.

Loosely inspired by the real life exploits of mass murderer Henry Lee Lucas, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer is a refreshingly uncomfortable film in its unflinching portrayal of something that is, at least in genre movie circles, often times glamorized or trivialized. When Henry and Otis launch the infamous home invasion scene, where the record their deeds with a handheld video camera, which ends up being how we see the crimes committed, the movie switches gears and becomes some sort of perverse cinema verite.

The almost documentary look and feel of the film is a huge part of its success in that the film does not judge the characters - it provides no commentary at all over their actions and it doesn't preach or point fingers, nor does it really ask you to understand or symapthize with Henry and Otis. It offers no explanation for the reasoning behind their actions, we get little back story on Henry, we don't know why he is the way that he is, and, as is all too common an occurance in real life, we don't understand why he kills - he simply does because he is that way. The video tape scene has such a horrifying realism to it that it really does feel like you're watching a snuff film for a few minutes and none of the impact of this integral part of the film has been lost in the twenty odd years since it was first made.

We know what we're getting into with this film from the opening scene of the film, in which the camera slowly pans over a number of bodies, obviously murder victims, stashed away in swamps or ditches in rural areas outside of the city (dumping grounds, in a sense). The audio gives us a rough idea of what happened to each of the bodies, the sounds of their failed struggles coming out of the speakers, ultimately coming to a violent end.

One common criticism levied against the film is that it lacks characterization. We don't get to know the victims in the film at all - most of them don't even have names. The murderers themselves are never really explored as people very much at all, and we're thrust into the story not at the beginning, when Henry first kills, but in the middle, when he's already a seasoned professional and knows what it takes. That's a valid point - there really is very little characterization here, but at the same time, had a more dramatic element been added to the film, it would have been at the cost of some of the realism that it so effectively manages to create. In real life, we wouldn't know any more about these people than we do in the film and we wouldn't be there from day one watching them grow and develop as people. Obviously this type of thing is important when you're telling a story, but Henry doesn't so much tell a story as it does observe a series of events.

Shot in twenty eight days with a budget of just over $110,000.00, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer is still an ugly film to watch, and not at all a pleasure sit through but it is one that every horror movie fan or self proclaimed gorehound should check out once in a while, even if it is only as a sort of reality check. The film definitely makes you question your viewing choices and it does make you think about why you're sitting there watching it as it all plays out. It pulls no punches and the performances in this film are intense and, quite frankly, damned good. It's a very, very well made film - almost too well made in a sense - and it still remains a powerful and disheartening little piece of cinematic nihilism.

On a semi related and rather odd side note, director John McNaughton went on to make the Matt Dillon/Kevin Bacon big budget sexploitation romp, Wild Things in 1998 and has found some success as a director but for about five years after Henry was made, he didn't work all that much. Michael Rooker, on the other hand, has worked steadily ever since the film, his feature debut, came out and has been in everything from Mississippi Burning to Replicant. Tom Towles has shown up in both House Of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, while Tracy Arnold hasn't done a whole lot since aside from a few scattered supporting roles.

The Video:

Henry makes its Blu-ray debut in a VC-1 encoded 1.33.1 fullframe 1080p high definition transfer that presents the film in its original aspect ratio and which, according to the packaging, was taken from the original 16mm negative. Skin tones look nice and lifelike, and color reproduction is quite good when you take into account the film's low budget origins. There's a very surprising level of both foreground and background detail present in pretty much every frame of the movie (a few darker scenes are a bit softer but not very many of them) and edge enhancement and mpeg compression artifacts are never more than a very mild annoyance. There's virtually no print damage at all in this transfer and while there is some mild to moderate film grain noticeable at pretty much every point in the film (a slight bit distracting in the night time and darker scenes of the film) it is never once overpowering. You'll notice the increase in detail and definition over the standard definition releases almost immediately, but they really stand out in close up shots. Some noise reduction and digital scrubbing looks to have been applied in some spots but this is only a mild distraction, most probably won't notice if they're not looking for it. This is still a gritty, grainy, nasty looking movie and it should always maintain that low-fi tone that gives it such an effective appearance, but this Blu-ray release definitely does bring out more in the visual sense. Don't expect reference quality imagery, but really, would you want that out of Henry?

The Audio:

The English language Linear PCM 48kHz 1.5Mbps Stereo sound mix is clean, clear and free of any hiss or distortion. There are one or two instances where the levels bounce around just ever so slightly but never so much that anything gets buried or to make you reach for your remote to adjust the volume. Dialogue comes through nice and clear and the score sounds as good as it ever has and it packs just enough punch to build atmosphere appropriately. There's a bit more punch here and a noticeably stronger end on this Blu-ray release when compared to the standard definition releases that have come out from Dark Sky and Cult Epics in the past. You'll notice the difference, as the bass is stronger, the score is eerier and more effective for it, and the screams noticeably more piercing than they have been in past home video incarnations. Optional English subtitles are included.

The Extras:

Dark Sky have carried over all of the extras from the two disc special edition DVD release they put out a few years back, starting with a feature length audio commentary with director John McNaughton. Never at a loss for words when discussing the film he's best remembered for, McNaughton goes into quite a bit of detail about how certain scenes were shot and lit, how various performances were coaxed out of the key players, and how he as a director feels about not only the finished version of the film but about some of the content that he basically created for the film and the effects that it has had on viewers for the past two decades. While some more scene specific information might have been beneficial, McNaughton covers all of his bases in an informative and detail oriented manner which makes for what is ultimately a very educational commentary and one that easily holds your interest for the duration of its playback.

Clocking in at roughly fifty-two minutes in length is the excellent new documentary (produced by the fine folks over at Blue Underground, much like the documentary that adorned Dark Sky's release of The Manson Family) entitled Portrait: The Making of Henry. This documentary, through interviews and behind the scenes photos and clips, does an exceptionally good job of filling us in on the genesis and origins of the film and the evolution that it went through during production.

While it manages to overlap with the commentary track a little bit, it covers a lot of ground that McNaughton's solo discussion of the film does not as it manages to score on screen interviews not only with the director but with Michael Rooker himself, as well as co stars Tom Towels and Tracey Arnold. It also covers the film's unusual soundtrack through some interviews with the three men responsible for creating it and it gets some input into how things went down on set from the producers' standpoints as well.

Up next is a documentary that runs roughly half an hour in length entitled The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas. Part of the Serial Killers series that played on TV a few years back (and also available in the three disc set that compiles all of the episodes of this series, also available from Dark Sky Films), this obviously low budget production suffers from some poor and sometimes misguided production values (do we really need to hear the sound of someone typing on a keyboard every time some text appears on screen???) but does offer up a startlingly honest glimpse at the real life inspiration for the film, Henry Lee Lucas, who claims to have murdered over three hundred and fifty people (this is a very debatable claim, and at one point he claimed to have been involved in over three thousand murders in roughly eighteen years of activity).

Through recreation footage, interviews with some of the men involved in bringing Lucas to justice and interviews with Lucas himself, this is a morbidly fascinating look into the mind of a true lunatic. It also does a nice job of covering some of the details of not only his killing spree but also his trial and the circus that it eventually became.

After that we find just under twenty minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes from the film. The sound elements for this material have been lost but they are available for playback with a running commentary by director John McNaughton who explains to the best of his recollection what was going on in each of the clips and why they were excised from the final version of the film. A lot of this material was trimmed for pacing reasons and this isn't the most exciting material you've ever seen salvaged from the cutting room floor but it's still nice to see it included in this set even if it really is mainly for the sake of completion. It also serves to gives us some insight into the editing process behind the film.

Originally made for the MPI 1998 DVD release of the film, the 1998 Interview With John McNaughton doesn't cover much that the commentary and other extras don't bother with but it's still worth sitting through this half hour segment to get inside McNaughton's head as he talks about horror films that he liked. He also covers making Henry, the picture's legacy, and working with the various cast and crewmembers involved in the shoot - he also, of course, talks about the impact that Sony's Port-A-Pack had on the world by giving the everyman control of the media - obviously something that plays a big part in the film's most infamous scene.

Rounding out the extras are the film's original theatrical trailer, and a wealth of original storyboards drawn up before filming took place. It's interesting to compare these to how things play out on screen, sometimes they are amazingly accurate. Animated menus and chapter selection are also included.


One of the horrordom's most beloved bastard children gets the respect it deserves on Blu-ray from Dark Sky Films. Very strong (relatively speaking) audio and video quality and a plethora of high quality extra features combined with the grisliness and realism of the film itself makes Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer one of the finest horror offerings on the format so far. Highly recommended for those able to appreciate it.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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