Director John McNaughton's notorious feature debut, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, was a dark and gritty low budget phenomenon that polarized audiences when it was finally released in 1990. Actually made in 1986, it was also a film that almost never saw the light of day. Stuck in limbo for nearly four years, due to both disenchantment for the film among MPI executives, and an X rating from the fickle but consistently exasperating MPAA, Henry eventually received support from many of the country's most influential film critics (after screening at various film festivals) which in turn made it possible for the release of a film that would go on to anger, shock, and astonish many a movie watcher.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a film rooted in reality, as it is loosely based on actual mass murderer Henry Lee Lucas. Originally a Floridian, Henry (played by Michael Rooker) and his story are transplanted to the hustle and bustle of Chicago. In the film Henry works, when he can get it, as a pest exterminator. However, Henry's true occupation (see title) and vicious handiwork are revealed in several grisly shots interspersed throughout the film's opening.
Living with Henry in a rundown inner city apartment is Otis (Tom Towles), who is based on a real accomplice of Henry Lee Lucas. Like Henry, Otis has spent his fair share of time in the stir, and is working sporadically as a gas station attendant in desperate want of some customer service skills. Like a warped version of Three's Company, Otis' sister, Becky (whose "husband" is in jail for murder) decides to move in with her ex con brother and his (unbeknownst to them both) serial-killing compadre.
Henry proves to be a latent gentleman when he offers to sleep on the couch and gives Becky his room. Touched by this gesture, and prompted by an inkling that she and Henry have something in common, Becky attempts to bond with Henry by comparing childhood traumas over a few beers and a friendly game of war. Later, Otis and Henry also create a bond of sorts. After trying to put the moves on his sister, and being remonstrated by Henry, Otis accepts Henry's invitation to go out for a few beers. As is too often the case, cheap beer leads to picking up prostitutes, dalliances in a dark alley, and a double murder. Any reservations that Otis may have had vanish soon thereafter, and he and Henry form an unspoken pact, which results in a killing spree, and some of the film's most infamously harrowing scenes.
The major reason why Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer works so well, and has disturbed so many viewers, is that the filmmakers and cast took a very real approach to the subject matter. In Henry, glamorization and artifice are eschewed for stark realism and an unflinching approach to violence. John McNaughton's previous experience as a documentary filmmaker serves him well here, as do some really amazing and totally believable performances from Michael Rooker, Tom Towles and Tracy Arnold. Along with the nuanced and gripping performances turned in by a cast of then unknowns, the screenplay by Richard Fire and John McNaughton is also full of subtle touches that reward a close viewing. With this in mind, anyone expecting Friday the 13th type thrills (if there is such a thing), or a plot-driven psychological thriller will be sorely disappointed, as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (as the title implies) is really a character study.
While the film holds up extremely well twenty years after it was made, one quibble I have is with the score. The main "piano" theme which bookends the film is very effective and memorable; however, throughout much of the film the electronic score only seems to distract and undermine some otherwise powerful scenes. In fact, the film seems to work best (and is all the more startling) when the diagetic sound can be heard without the intrusive electronic score.
In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Dark Sky Films has released a really spiffy two disc set brimming with bonus features. The film itself is presented in a High Definition transfer from the original 16mm negatives, and is an improvement on any previous editions that I've seen. In addition to the film, the first disc includes a commentary with director John McNaughton, theatrical trailers, and a stills gallery. The second disc boasts an interesting documentary (made in association with Blue Underground) titled Portrait: The Making of Henry, a fascinating second documentary on the real Henry Lee Lucas called "The Serial Killers," several deleted scenes and outtakes with McNaughton commentary, as well as the original storyboards for the film. Also worth noting, the DVD comes with a reversible cover which features the original, long lost theatrical poster designed by artist Joe Coleman. Undoubtedly an exemplary DVD release befitting for this unforgettable, low-budget classic.