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Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer: 30th Anniversary
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 sympathize 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 occurrence 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 fan of stronger, more extreme horror pictures 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 and more recently The Walking Dead and Guardians Of The Galaxy. 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.
Henry makes its 30th anniversary appearance on a 50GB Blu-ray disc in a new AVC encoded 1.33.1 fullframe 1080p high definition transfer that presents the film in its original aspect ratio taken from a new 4k scan of the original 16mm negative. The previous Blu-ray, also put out by Dark Sky Films, looked pretty solid but this is a definite upgrade. Detail and texture benefit quite a bit from the new transfer, to the point where you can spot every craggy line in the actors' faces and every speck of dirt in the rundown apartment where much of the movie takes place. Colors look nice and natural here, never artificially boosted or oversaturated, while black levels remain strong and deep. There are no noticeable issues with compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction, so the grainy look that is inherent in the 16mm photography is nicely retained. At the same time, there's very little print damage aside from a few small white specks now and then. Flesh tones appear nice and natural as well. This is a really solid improvement over the previous release.
The original English language LPCM 2.0 Stereo sound mix is included here. It sounds clean, clear and free of any hiss or distortion and the levels are properly balanced. Dialogue comes through nice and clear and the score sounds as good as it ever has, packing just enough punch to build atmosphere appropriately. The disc also includes a newly created DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track that does a nice job of spreading out the score and some of the effects work used in the picture to the various channels throughout the mix. Optional English subtitles are included.
Lots of new extras on this release to talk about, starting with a twenty minute piece called In Defense of Henry: An Appreciation. Here we get interviews with Joe Swanberg, Kim Morgan, Jeffrey Sconce, Joe Bob Briggs and Errol Morris, all of whom discuss the film's themes and offer their thoughts on why it is such an important and effective film. It's an interesting piece full of what is essentially critical analysis and insight rather than history and trivia (which is covered really well in a lot of the other supplements). The ten minute Henry Vs. The MPAA: A Visual History gives us a quick overview of the evolution of the ratings system before then going on to document the trouble that this particular film would find itself in before it was eventually released as an unrated picture. Henry At The BBFC is a similar piece wherein film critic and Nightmare USA author Stephen Thrower talks for twenty eight minutes about the various controversies that the film was the subject of when it was released in England. The distribution history of this picture is far more interesting than some might assume, particularly when it comes to its trials and tribulations in the United Kingdom. In the nine minute It's Either You Or Them featurette we talk to poster artist Joe Coleman about the art that he came up with for this film's most infamous one sheet variation. Here he gives us some thoughts on the film and talks about his work coming up with the poster art. In The Round: A Conversation With John McNaughton is just that, a new half hour long talk with the director of the film conducted by Spencer Parsons. Here McNaughton talks about how he got into filmmaking, what he's been up to before and after making Henry, some of the influences that worked their way into the final version of the film and quite a bit more. We also get a new 30th Anniversary trailer for the feature.
However, there's a lot more to digest here. Dark Sky has also carried over almost all of the extras from the two disc special edition DVD and the first Blu-ray release for this new reissue (missing from this release is the half hour long The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas featurette), 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 costars 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.
After that we find roughly 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, a still gallery 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. An insert booklet containing an essay on the film from Thrower is also included inside the case along with the disc. This book also contains credits for the feature and for the Blu-ray release.
One of the horrordom's most beloved bastard children receives an impressive 30th anniversary Blu-ray release from Dark Sky Films. The film looks and sounds better than it ever has on home video and in addition to carrying over most of the high quality extra features from previous editions includes some very worthwhile new supplements as well. The grisliness and realism of the film itself makes Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer one of the finest horror offerings of its time, and while it's not for the faint of heart, it is an excellent film. 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.