There are flicks that scare you, flicks that shock you, and flicks that make you think, and every once in too great a while, a flick does all three...concurrently and consecutively...and the end result is not just a "flick", but a cinematic horror experience that gets under your skin and into your very soul, and just festers there like a great dark cyst. Rarer still is the film that does not only that, but that also gives birth to a whole concept of cinema. Every so often, a certifiable "horror event" occurs, an event that blows down the doors of perception, and that changes what it means to watch a "horror film". If you've neither seen nor heard of the beautiful, challenging, and absolutely poisonous film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, then you've officially been living under a fucking rock for the last two decades. I still can't believe that it's been that long since Henry first took the world by storm, but it has. By way of celebration, Dark Sky Films (a subsidiary of MPI releasing) has given us the best possible release of the film.
...and there was much rejoicing, because Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is the definitive "extreme horror film", and it's probably the film that ultimately inspired me to create this site in the first place. So read on...even if you're familiar with Henry, you'll want to revisit it now...I promise.
Henry (Michael Rooker) is a quiet, gentle, amiable enough fellow. He's just another poor, faceless schlub who scrounges to make his living, jumping from odd-job to odd-job almost weekly. Maybe it's the company he keeps. Otis (a particularly slimy Tom Towles) is his "best friend", former prison buddy, and current roomate in a ramshackle apartment in what is presumably Chicago's rough and tumble south side. Otis is just like Henry, only less stable and more apparently icky. When Otis' younger sister Becky (the underappreciated Tracy Arnold), fresh out of a dead-end marriage, comes to stay with Otis while seeking employment in the big city, we sense that she's in for a rough time of things, as she is hardly off the plane before Otis is trying to ogle and grope her in the most obscene manner possible. But that Becky, she's a trooper, and she hunkers down and tries to get her life underway. Soon, she meets Henry, and Becky is taken with his shy, mysterious, and gentlemanly manner right away. Henry seems to reciprocate, it seems, and he begins to confide in Becky to a certain degree. He relates to her the hazily-remembered story of how he murdered his uber-abusive mother ("Yeah...I killed my momma...") This doesn't scare Becky too much, it seems, as she is soon head over heels for Henry. But he's got other things on his mind. You see, he's a brutal, sociopathic serial killer (hence the film's title, natch') who slices, dices, butchers, and generally maims scores of people. One night, in a fit of desperation (after having his unwelcome sexual advances on Becky strongly rejected), he goes out with Henry for a couple of beers, after which they pick up a pair of prostitutes. When Henry kills both prostitues in front of Otis, Otis becomes shocked and fascinated by how calm and collected Henry seems to be. So, "I'd like to kill somebody!" he chimes, and off the two of them go on an incredibly realistic, brutal, and morbid series of murders throughout the city. Meanwhile, Becky just keeps fawning over Henry, while dodging rape attempts from Otis, and soon, this unlikely love triangle hits critical mass, and we just know that things are going to get even sicker and more disturbing from there...and they do.
Any additional plot information would be, at best, redundant and even pointless. The "story" is not the point of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. As it's title suggests, it's a portrait...a character study. Structurally, the film moves the viewer along from one interaction or violent outburst to another, and when it's not bombarding you with shocking violence, it's pounding you with depressing and morbidly fascinating dialogue and character-driven moments. Any "lighthearted" moments or joviality are summarily beaten down by hideous revelations, sudden violence, or instances of intense sexual depravity. Otis provides much of the "comic relief" here, but he also provides the lion's share of the perverse stuff. But, neither his character nor Henry are mere one-dimensional "killer" types...far from it. This portrait is painted with a fine, delicate touch, reveling in the details it exposes...a far cry from the cinematic killers that would become de riguer later in the 1980's and well into the 1990's. Hannibal Lecter and "John Doe" (from Se7en) may be more colorful than Henry and Otis, but comparatively, they are painted in such broad strokes that they end up seeming more like vintage Batman villains than the hyper-realistically psychopathic guys in Henry.
All of this talk of realism and brutality would suggest to the uninitiated that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is an over-the-top gore fest. Well, this is a situation where excessive gore would be distracting and pointless, and Henry manages to shock and horrify through the sheer strength of its tone and mood rather than by bombarding the viewer with one graphic execution after another. We are certainly "treated" to violence and mayhem, and we do actually see some pretty hideous stuff happen onscreen, but the focus here is decidedly on the "aftermath"...thus intensifying the dehumanizing nature of serial murder. The painfully slow tracking shots across the scenes of previous carnage are "highlighted" with haunting, echoing screams, and sounds of struggle. To continue the "painting" analogy, these scenes paint a picture deep within the mind of the viewer, but forces the mind to fill in the details on its own. And that, my friends, is truly scary. There are one or two exceptions to this rule in Henry, though, that stand out. Of particular note is the infamous "videotape" sequence, which has Henry and Otis invading a suburban family home and torturing/killing each family member, while videotaping the action with a recently acquired camcorder. This scene serves to further dehumanize the hapless victims, and as the action continues, the camera pans back to reveal that what we're seeing is actually the chain of events on a television screen, with Henry and Otis sitting on their ratty couch, sucking back beers and watching their handiwork with cold-blooded detachment. It's an eerie scene, and it puts the viewer into the uncomfortable position of almost being an accomplice. We are once again posed with that timeless horror movie question, "What's more horrible, the acts that are taking place or the fact that we're watching them take place?" You've got to remember that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was the first movie to be rated "X" (a rating generally reseved for hardcore pornography) because of its "tone" and "mood"...there's certainly no shortage of either of those things here.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer works on nearly every conceivable level; it's a thriller, it's a splatter movie, it's a character study, it's a psychological drama, and it's an "art film". Much of the success of the film rides on the more-than-capable shoulders of the cast, but no one is more deserving of recognition than Michael Rooker. Before moving on to memorable roles in mainstream dramas such as Eight Men Out and Oliver Stone's JFK, as well as a weird comedic turn in Kevin Smith's maligned but underrated Mallrats, Rooker broke new dramatic ground as the titular serial killer based, who is loosely based (of course) on real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Rooker plays it "nice", but not too nice...like Becky, we're not sure whether to hug the guy or run in terror from him. Rooker injects "Henry" with just the right blend of pathos, psychosis, and genteel charm, a potent cocktail that leaves a memorable, if super-creepy aftertaste. Towles, too, does remarkably well as Otis (based on Lucas' occasional partner in crime and would-be lover Ottis Toole). Otis is more one-dimensional than Henry, here serving as little more than the literal embodiment of all of Henry's pent-up rage and hatred. But, Towles plays it to the bone, and milks the role for all it's worth. Tracy Arnold, well...she doesn't have much to do but make googly eyes at Henry and look worried, but she does that better than most actresses can. If Otis represents Henry's rage and evil, then Becky represents the last vestages of humanity left in Henry's mind and body. When the inevitable finally happens, we feel bad for Becky, but honestly, it's like that old maxim about the old lady and the snake. I mean, seriously...she knew he was a fuckin' snake, now didn't she?
This "20th Anniversary Special Edition" of Henry, like the previous high-profile release from Dark Sky Films, is a wonder to behold. The film is presented in a fairly clean 1.33:1 print (it's original aspect ratio), and is comparatively free of the annoying digital artifacting that plagued the previous MPI release. This print does seem to have a bit more graininess to it, but it's still a perfectly suitable print, and I'll take a bit of grain over artifacting any day of the week. The sound seems to have been noticeably cleaned up, however, and this is never as evident as when that pounding, haunting score is playing in the background. Then, there are the bonus/supplemental materials, and let me tell you, this release is the model of what all "special editions" should be. Nary an ounce of "fluff" or "filler" is to be had here, and the copious bonus features contained within this two-disc set include an insightful commentary by director John McNaughton, a "Making of" documentary, a handful of deleted scenes and outtakes with comments from the director, storyboards, an interesting and above-average documentary about the real-life Henry Lee Lucas, trailers, and a gallery of stills. Dark Sky Films deserves some credit for putting together one of the better special editions so far this year, and this release of Henry, for me, is a serious contendor for that title, perhaps even edging out Dark Sky's own release of The Manson Family.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is easily one of the best films of its subgenre, and while its imagery might not seem terribly explicit to the younger generation of viewers, who have been raised on such modern extreme-horror classics as August Underground and August Underground's Mordum, Henry is absolutely required viewing by anyone who loves the genre. Futhermore, it's a reminder that low-budget movies based on the lives of serial killers need not be lifeless, idiotic potboilers, examples of which we've seen flooding the direct-to-DVD market over the last couple of years. Even if you're familiar with Henry, this amazing edition is something that you'll want to invite into your home...just be careful of that nasty Otis. Highest possible recommendation, and it gets the "Atrocities Cinema Essential" Award.