John McNaughton’s debut picture, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”, was shot on a shoestring in 1986 on 16mm film, but only became widely known in the early nineties after having sat on the shelf for over five years. The film is a cunningly conceived exploitation piece which adopts a detached, down-to-earth, semi-documentary style that often seems more concerned with capturing the gritty ambience of the director’s native city of Chicago and its rainy, urban-industrial environs, than providing the quotient of scares expected by McNaughton’s disappointed producers at MPI, Malik and Waleed B. Ali -- who reacted to the completed picture’s morally numb neutrality by mothballing it for years; while the MPAA didn’t help matters much by lumbering it with an ‘X’ certificate.
The director and his co-screenwriter Richard Fire discovered their idea for making a new kind of horror film by taking an observational approach to examining what was the-then fairly novel concept of a serial killer, grounding the unvoiced fear factor of the movie in the notion that sociopaths of this type could go about their grisly business for years, unrecognised and unmolested by law enforcement authorities, existing on the borders of an indifferent society. The real-life Texas serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas, provided the inspiration for many of the incidents and the central relationships portrayed in the film, although many of Lucas’s claims were later discovered to have been entirely fabricated. The film feels very much like the work of a specific moment in history in the way it engages with such issues, but seemed to exemplify an entirely new approach to the subject matter by the time audiences finally got to see it, since serial killers were by then generally being treated as rather more exotic fright figures in the cinema of the early nineties -- as evidenced by Anthony Hopkins’ lip-smacking portrayal of Hannibal Lector in “The Silence of the Lambs”.
In contrast, McNaughton’s film introduces us to an ordinary, illiterate drifter, festering at the bottom of the socio-economic pile with no life prospects and no hope of ever escaping the deadening grind of poverty that sums up the ‘lifestyle ‘of the marginal, petty criminal underclass among whom he dwells. The film is part character study, part underground horror picture, with McNaughton and Fire having their cake and eating it … and very much getting away with it. The film is able to move from quiet, downbeat minimalist realism to overstated set-piece theatrics such as the sequence in which the murder of an obese black market electrical goods salesman is topped off by having a TV set smashed over the victim's head, because the performances of the three actors in the central roles are strong enough to be able to cope with the sudden changes in tone, enabling McNaughton and Fire to wrong-foot audience expectations all the way through the picture with disturbing shifts of emphasis and manipulations of viewer sympathies.
Henry is portrayed as an open book, and yet he’s also thoroughly inscrutable; he’s often sympathetic yet in the end quite unredeemable. The film’s whole ambivalent approach to its study of this person is summed up best by an early kitchen table scene between Henry and his best friend’s sister Becky, who open up to each other over a game of cards about their grisly lives of shared childhood abuse, in a manner which seems at first revealing -- until the details of Henry’s story start changing with each retelling and we realise that we can never truly know what motivates such a person at all. His evil springs from a moral blankness that’s fundamentally blind to the suffering of others, and it seems his compunction to murder is no more than a recreational activity driven by opportunism and the constant robotic reliving of some ancient childhood trauma (either imagined or real), than a sign of any great internal rage or discord.
For the most part, the film takes a similar, disturbingly disengaged viewpoint to recounting a week in the life of this most dangerous individual. Michael Rooker, in his first major screen role, captures perfectly the emotionally numb persona of a man sleepwalking his way through being a human being: Henry is a man who’s simply going through the motions of life and mimicking his engagement with his surroundings without having any real feel for the existence of other people. The film opens like an arthouse picture, juxtaposing the day to day movements of this blue collar, part-time bug exterminator as he idly rides around in a beat-up old car, occasionally stopping on the road to murder random people (mostly young women) whenever the opportunity presents itself. We don’t see these murders being committed; instead, and much more disturbingly, we see their aftermath in a series of precisely arranged still-life tableaux displaying the results of each killing rampage, which replace enactment of the actual murders themselves with serene images of mannequin-like victims, broken and brutalised through torture and violence, like they’re a perverse artistic project perpetrated by the killer, the victims’ past death struggles played back over the scenes like ghostly echoes. The fact that two of these victims are played by the same woman (Mary Demas) who later plays the prostitute we witness being murdered by Henry and his pal Otis, subliminally plants the idea that we are witnessing Henry replaying the killing of his mother over and over again.
The plot, such as it is, is a minimalist affair designed to show the emptiness of life at the bottom of the pile. Henry pitches up with former prison buddy, Otis (Tom Towles) in a squalid Chicago tenement flat where the brown-toothed gas station attendant and part-time dope dealer lives with his little sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) after she ran away from her abusive husband, leaving a young daughter behind. The dishevelled, sexually ambiguous Otis dresses up in an absurd glittery disco shirt to go out on the town with Henry, and is shocked but then excited when their date with two prostitutes in the back of Henry’s car ends with Henry murdering them both and dumping the bodies. ‘It’s them or us,’ Henry tells Otis – a liberating philosophy of life for someone like him, since he turns out to have the kind of barely suppressed, depraved sexual urges that make Henry appear heroic by comparison.
Tommy Towles manages to make a pretty disgusting character -- who sexually preys on his own sister, attempts to touch up the male clients of his marijuana-selling business, and ends up discovering a real taste for necrophilia – appear both scary and strangely amusing: “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” is one of only a handful of exploitation orientated movies that successfully manages to combine humour and horror; here, what is essentially a comic performance from Towles joins seamlessly with hard-hitting, completely straight, often horrific surrounding material, without either strand detracting from the other, which is what happens when the same thing is attempted in films such as “Last House on the Left” and “I Spit on Your Grave” (in both cases the original versions -- the unremarkable re-makes aren’t foolish enough to even attempt any humour). McNaughton points out that you have to watch the film three or four times before the impact of the horrific nature of the subject matter fades enough in order to makes what Towles is actually doing with the role apparent to the viewer.
The film does flirt with the idea of violence as an entertainment spectacle in the aforementioned scene with the electrical goods salesman when, after Otis kicks in his TV set, the two go out to pick up a new one for $500. Ray Atherton is such an obnoxious, rude, snide and sarcastic bastard that the viewer is encouraged to cheer his absurdly elaborate demise, which is scored with a particularly strident music cue as the hapless salesman is first stabbed in the hand and then multiple times in the torso with a soldering iron; strangled with electrical flex; smashed over the head with a portable TV set; and then electrocuted when Henry requests Otis turn the power on! The two of them then use the murder of strangers as a form of displacement activity for the slights visited upon them elsewhere in their lives. Otis has a hard time dealing with his homosexual urges and after being punched in the face while trying to touch up a college student seeking to buy dope from him, is encouraged to take his frustrations out on people who won’t be missed instead. It’s been a much used device since, but the viewer is being unwittingly provoked into accepting the protagonists’ inclinations by the dynamic screen violence featured in these over-the-top but rather conventionally staged set-pieces. But McNaughton is planning an abrupt change in emphasis mid-way through the picture.
One thing that occurs to the viewer when re-watching the film today, relates to the-then recent appearance of the video camcorder and also to the advent of films being viewable on home video cassette (the latter being a common thing by 1990, but still fairly new when the screenplay was first being written and even when the film went into production). When we see the two small-time killers having to have the very concept of a camcorder explained to them (‘it’s sort of a movie camera and a video recorder combined!’) and we’re then introduced to the absurdly large, clunky looking device which Atherton is charging a cool 900 bucks for, we’re suddenly reminded just how old this film actually is! Otis then becomes a bumbling amateur home-movie buff, although aside from the usual mucking about in front of the viewfinder which makes up 99% of all usage of these devices, he also shoots bums murdering each other in the park while hiding with Henry in some bushes, as his partner explains to him how to avoid capture by making sure never to develop a traceable modus operandi.
But the use of this camcorder by the two central characters provides the main idea which was to result in the film’s most affecting centrepiece. Ironically, although it displays all the wariness and paranoia that constituted the media’s coverage of the video industry back in the day -- ostensibly about how the home viewing medium might provide the means for unstable individuals to get their kicks replaying ‘video nasty’ scenes of carnage over and over again, frame by frame, the film itself ended up on the receiving end of the censors’ moralism with regard to exactly that issue. The offending sequence occurs when Henry and Otis invade the suburban home of a completely blameless, ordinary family (a husband and wife and their pre-teen son), murder them all and sexually abuse the wife, both before and after her death … all on camera. We see the whole thing but only on a video monitor, so it looks grungy, gritty and most of all, completely real. This infamous scene is structured in such a way that we are at first misled into thinking we’re seeing it as it happens, but it turns out that the two killers are in fact watching the whole thing back for their own entertainment, sat on their sofa with exactly the same vantage point from which we, the viewing audience, have also just been watching the same spectacle. The point being made doesn’t need to be laboured -- mainly because, in the hands of other interesting-but-borderline-hypocritical directors such as Michael Haneke (in “Benny’s Video” and “Funny Games”) it’s since been reiterated to the point of cliché. Also, the advent of the whole found footage genre has meant that, these days, we’re regularly presented with whole pictures shot in exactly this self-same shaky, amateur-looking style.
Yet, coming as it did in the middle of a picture in which the genre status (highbrow arthouse or exploitation crime flick?) of the material was deliberately blurred throughout, it worked extremely effectively at the time and continues to work better than one might expect of such a device, even all these years later. The juxtaposition of this grim, relentless, utterly nasty sequence with the almost jocular style of the slaying of Ray Atherton’s unsympathetic black market salesman earlier in the film for instance, proves far more disorientating than Haneke’s highbrow, semi-surreal approach when he makes the same point in “Funny Games”(that real-life violence isn’t, and shouldn’t be, entertaining) by having his killers replay a portion of their own film so that they can carry out one of their killings again in the manner in which it would’ve occurred in real life, instead of the exciting, stylised and gratifying suspense format we witnessed the first time.
From this moment on the various trajectories of the three central characters all come into focus simultaneously in a bravura piece of screenwriting by Richard Fire. Since the home invasion, the buffoon Otis is now an uncontrollable monster, while his sister Becky (a tragic figure, abused by her father from an early age and thereafter always drawn into violent, abusive relationships with unsuitable men which always snap right back into the same shape as her unhappy childhood) falls for Henry, mistaking his blank emotional indifference for tenderness, and unaware that any close relationship would only seal her own fate. Henry himself is also drawn towards Becky, her acceptance offering him his only real chance at a normal, emotionally engaged life. But this fragile, twisted family pulls itself apart in the final act, which is when the film most resembles the horror film MPI thought they were getting in the first place. The unstable Otis ends up as a pile of severed limbs in the bath tub and Becky and Henry’s relationship reaches the kind of impasse Henry can only resolve in the one way he knows how. The film’s downbeat conclusion, its refusal to engage in any way with the usual redemptive plot structure or, failing that, to provide comfortable closure in the form of police intervention in the events, leaves one feeling numb and unnerved. As McNaughton later said, when you leave the theatre you know Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger won’t be waiting for you … but someone like Henry just might be.
The film was shot on grainy 16mm film, mostly in a stained-looking brown-grey palette with a cinema vérité style. Consequently the leap to Blu-ray doesn’t result in any noticeably vast improvement in the image showcased on this HD transfer. The musical score by Ken Hale, Steven A. Jones and Robert McNaughton spans the gamut from a piano-led title theme that sounds like the kind of thing you’d hear on the sorts of serial killer documentaries that inspired the screenplay to begin with, to innovative sample-driven ambient sound effects that incorporate backwards dentists’ drills and unsettling screams and moans manipulated with reverb in the edit. It sounds suitably powerful on the audio stereo PCM 2.0 track provided here.
The ‘double play’ Special Edition release from Studiocanal comes, of course, with a region 2 DVD version included in the set as well as the region B Blu-ray, but the latter includes perhaps the most comprehensive selection of extras yet seen -- essentially combining all the supplementary materials from previous US and UK DVD releases in one definitive package. The film is also completely uncut and appears in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
John McNaughton’s commentary track is extremely informative and chatty, with the director managing to keep up with providing a constant flow of anecdote and information for the full eighty-two minutes. The main extra is a 52 minute ‘making-of’ documentary called “Portrait: The Making of Henry” which was made by Blue Underground for the US 25th Anniversary DVD edition, originally released by Dark Sky Films. It is a pretty comprehensive rundown of the entire production history of the film, done in typically thorough Blue Underground style. There are contributions from pretty much every one of note involved in the work from both behind and in front of the camera, and the film runs through the experiences of the cast during the actual 28 day shoot and goes on to deal with the reaction to the movie when it was eventually released. Michael Rooker has a particularly entertaining anecdote about a woman who fled the theatre during the home invasion scene in one festival screening, only to run straight into him just as she exited the auditorium!
“The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas” is a 25 minute American documentary dealing with the true story of the real-life Texas serial killer who inspired the film, and who is also featured in an interview while he was still awaiting execution on death row (although Lucas’ sentence was eventually commuted to life imprisonment and he died of natural causes in 1981). This man’s early life sounds like something out of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, and you can see where Tobe Hopper was coming from when you contemplate the unwholesome details of the life of a man who grew up forced to wear a dress while watching his prostitute mum having sex with her clients, and who developed while still a boy a taste for sex with the dead animals he killed! Most of the confessions Lucas made in prison turned out to be lies but they still provided inspiration for the film, especially in the relationship between Lucas and his equally deranged accomplice Otis Toole, who, in their mug shots, look like the scariest couple of deranged lunatics imaginable. This is a fairly cheap and cheesy documentary shot on video in a typically sensationalist style.
The above extras probably go over all the ground there is with regard to the making of the film and its inspiration, but the Studiocanal disc includes a further two interviews with John McNaughton, each running for nearly 30 minutes, in which the writer-director talks in even more detail about his early career and about his early days as a director, as well as the background to the making of the film. There is a text-based summery of the film’s censorship history in the UK (which is very complex), and the three sequences which were the cause of all the trouble are included with a commentary by John McNaughton and Nigel Floyd. Deleted scenes, which include the infamous ‘love scene’ between Henry and Otis are included, also with commentary by the director; plus a stills gallery and an animated storyboards gallery, as well as a theatrical trailer.
“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” is never going to look a whole lot different on Blu-ray, since it was a low budget film shot in a fairly murky, often semi-lit style anyway. But this is by far the best looking version we’re ever likely to see and comes complete with the most comprehensive extras package yet -- so this is definitely the version to beat.
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