Hear that? It’s true horror knockin’ at your door. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is its name, and much like its sick screw of a female-hatin’ felon, it ain’t gonna pull no punches. It’s not gonna tell you everything’s going to be all right and give you a comforting embrace. There are no clear-cut answers to the reasons behind its actions. And it doesn’t give two shits about how you feel when all is said and done.
Regardless of that last fact, you do feel something when the end credits roll. Something thick, black and unsettling in your stomach. A certain conflict. Unlike most films of its ilk in which you’re dragged by the pubes through an endless nightmare with a fixed sensation of terror and disgust – check out Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Craven‘s Last House on the Left, poncho – McNaughton’s mid-‘80s crack at filmmaking is a surprisingly emotional affair. Not exactly the uplifting whirlwind of positive vibes you might find in Hitch nor the single-minded “You can’t do that.” reaction one known producer had following a Henry screening, according to McNaughton in his commentary track (apparently the lack of police presence or catharsis in the film was perturbing to the Hollywood suit). Instead, as a witness to Henry’s deeds, you’re mired in a puzzling gray area where revulsion comes natural (that is, if you‘re human), but guess what…you’re often wondering why it is you’re slowly warming up to that boyish, insecure cold-hearted killer.
Being the rough sketch of a week in the life of the real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, there’s a lot packed into this film’s scant eighty-three minutes. The technical ambition is apparent in not only Charlie Lieberman’s photography (remarkably cleaned up and given its due in this disc’s full frame transfer) but in Robert “No relation to John” McNaughton’s bare, piano-heavy score as well. However, the raw power that sticks to your insides like oatmeal (maple brown sugar, if you please) and serves you that aforementioned sense of emotional confusion lies in Richard Fire and McNaughton’s script. There’s never a lack of focus. No pussy-footin’ around. Nearly every scene has the control to make you cringe, chuckle, or kick the legs right out from under you as we’re given a front seat look into the lives of three troubled souls. Perhaps we have Fire’s background in theater to thank for simmering a textbook’s worth of criminal study down to the crude, efficient basics.
The story itself is simple. Although we open on a montage of Henry prowling Chicago’s suburban streets and his female victims in various stages of death, the introduction of Becky – lil’ sister of Henry’s roommate, Otis – serves as the catalyst to most of the film’s events. She’s welcomed into the duo’s rotting apartment for a spell until she can get her life back on track, and the proverbial sparks fly between her and Henry. The rest is character study. While the bond between Henry and Becky strengthens, so does the relationship between Henry and Otis. He discovers a bloodlust to foster in Otis, and through this vicious partnership we gain the most insight into the nature of Henry’s habits. The big question that ultimately comes into play is: Can the engine that runs Henry’s killer instincts be shut down by Becky’s love?
As plain a scenario as it sounds, the playing grounds in which the characters roam is thick with subtext, the source of all things that toys with our own perception of this “portrait.” The homosexual energy between Henry and Otis is palpable, and almost comedic, as they quarrel like lovers over a busted video camera or when one nurtures the other over a broken nose. (Says Otis in this scene, “I’d like to kill somebody.” to which Henry replies passionately, “Say that again.”). You might say it’s funny, sure, but that smile of yours is gonna be scrubbed right off your face the minute these two invade the home of a suburban family in what is the film’s grisly, yet skillfully done, centerpiece (a sequence which speaks volumes about on-screen violence). Later, we’re forced to do yet another one-eighty turn, personifying Henry as a archetypal hero when he saves Becky from Otis’ sexual hunger.
It helps that the key players – Rooker, Towles, and Arnold – sell every nuance of their characters like professionals (even though it was the start of their careers). Towles went so far as to see his dentist about getting stained, crooked teeth to ease him into Otis’ despicable skin. Cast and crew say on this disc that Rooker often remained in character while going to the set; those talking to the actor didn‘t know if they were talking to Michael or Henry at times. Needless to say, he owns the role, fluctuating between a guy who appears shy and child-like and a determined, mature murderous machine.
Attaining Henry‘s grim air of realism and unnerving horror appears to have come effortlessly for those in front of and behind the camera. In this knock-out 20th Anniversary Edition’s documentary with the cast and crew, Portrait: The Making of Henry (52m 28s), McNaughton explains how all of the pieces to make his opus came together with ease early on, from scoring a cool $100k budget to casting Rooker, who happened to arrive to his audition in his Henry-like work clothes. With a script that set out to “humanize” the killers, McNaughton lensed most of Henry in the streets of Chicago without much hassle from the city police. The filmmaking style was guerilla. The crew picked up shots on the fly, and most of the background extras were Chicago natives who just happened to be in the shot. You get the sense that McNaughton used and respected the city very much like Larry Cohen used New York City as the backdrop and character in many of his films. But as we all know by now, all didn’t go so smoothly with Henry. After its completion in ‘85 it sat on the shelf until 1990.
The reason is explained in the documentary and further explored in McNaughton’s commentary, moderated by genre-enthusiast David Gregory. There’s a little regurgitation here (if you watched the docu first) but the director gets screen specific at times, breaking into a few amusing anecdotes including how he coaxed Ray Atherton – who plays the smarmy stolen electronics salesman – into feeling content in front of the camera. Also, Chuck Parello went on to helm a Henry sequel, but here we get a taste of what McNaughton’s follow-up, Henry 2: Superstar of Crime, would’ve been like had he developed it himself. The disc also includes highly detailed storyboards (check out the panel with the Gein City Mall), trailers, a still gallery, a sampling of MPI’s The Serial Killers DVD, The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas (26m 17s), and about twenty-one minutes of deleted scenes. They don’t carry a production track so McNaughton provides a commentary, using his time to explain where the scenes would fit in relation to the film and why they were excised, especially a tender moment between Henry and Otis. Yeesh. Fatal as Henry the man may be, Dark Sky, with this two-disc edition, has given us every reason to let Henry the film into our homes.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990)
(Dark Sky Films)
Directed by John McNaughton
Starring Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold
Portrait: The Making of Henry documentary
The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas documentary
Commentary with John McNaughton
Deleted scenes with director’s commentary
5 out of 5