Blu-ray Review: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Whether you read it in print or say it aloud, no doubt your survivalist instinct immediately kicks in and you're ready to run in the opposite direction of this film. Yet like Peter Greenaway's daringly allegorical 80s offering The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Chicago filmmaker John McNaughton's equally divisive Portrait were both titles that as a film buff I knew I must take in eventually. And this was especially true since-- all controversy aside including the fact that they helped lead to the NC-17 rating-- people haven't been able to stop talking about these movies for twenty years.

Yet although Henry was one of those films I always knew I “should” see, it was likewise one that I never felt I “wanted” to see until I was reminded to just go for it once again when MPI Media Group and Dark Sky Films sent me this Blu-ray for review. However since the most frightening thing that has happened to me during a screener occurred with Walt Disney Studio's High School Musical 3 when a police standoff took place ten feet away from my front window as officers tried to track down a thief in my neighborhood, admittedly I braced myself for the worst when it came to watching Henry.

Carefully, I took precautions and decided to watch it at 9:00 am on a bright, sunny day, armed with pillows as well as the remote in case it all became just too much to handle. And sure enough, I thought it would be exactly that given the opening sequence of finding numerous female victims in a series of frightening cuts to set the tone of this particular Portrait. Still this is essentially the only bit of editing trickery employed. Gradually, however the film's
creepily nonchalant, effortlessly realistic and simplistic style makes it feel far more unsettling as it relishes in its long takes, basic framing, and naturalistic actors.

After McNaughton's wrestling film fell through, he moved on to this unconventionally chilling '86 work which was the polar opposite of slasher franchise pictures as well as independent horror movies. And while The Blair Witch Project took great pains in making a hyper-real horror film that presented itself like it was a documentary when it was really a film from start to finish, nothing about Henry feels like it's staged. This is a testament to the talent and skill of not just McNaughton but particularly actor Michael Rooker whose turn as Henry is far more believable than the diabolical Hannibal Lecter style characters we typically see in films.

The movie was made for just $125,000 dollars during a Chicago winter where the prop for a fake head cost more than the salary for producer/composer Steven A. Jones ($700 for the head vs. $100 for Jones' fourteen months of work). Additionally, Henry was completed with unknown stars in the form of stage actors culled from the Organic Theater Company.

Without meaninglessly exploitative scenes of teens having sex before they run screaming through the woods from larger than life and truly silly “monster” like subhuman villains including Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers or Freddy Kruger, audiences, festivals, and especially the MPAA had no idea what to make of Henry. Immediately it was slapped with an X rating before it was surrendered and left unrated as word-of-mouth spread. Three years later critical and festival buzz helped springboard the 1990 release. Yet overall, it's largely devoid of extended sequences of gore and at times the violence is inferred, which reaffirms the payoff of McNaughton's admirable risk that we won't become desensitized by it or need to see everything for shock sake.

For aside from the opening aftermath of the crimes, his decisions of what to show us and when is extremely effective so we don't allow ourselves to empathize with the character we're forced to follow in a Dexter-like antihero way. And sure enough, when violence is depicted it is so we never forget just what Henry does out of an unexplainable, psychotic need most notoriously when it involves the slaying of a family that rivals In Cold Blood, Clockwork Orange, and the opening of One False Move as the film's litmus test wherein reportedly half of the audience fled during its 1989 Telluride Film Festival screening.

Still, this being said given his choice of when to show violence doesn't make it any easier to bear and it's a film that I feel much like Monster or Boys Don't Cry or Elephant, that I won't ever be inclined to see a second time. Moreover, although I would easily call it the scariest film I've ever seen because of its melancholic vacuum of brutality and twisted human nature, it's one that ironically I feel most traditional horror fans may not appreciate since it goes against every convention they've come to expect.

There is no cop to this villain and furthermore, McNaughton refuses to give us anyone for whom to root and minus a traditional gotcha sequence, we're just held captive to the experience with Rooker's murdering titular character. Inspired by a 60 Minutes piece, McNaughton and co-writer Richard Fire's film is loosely based on real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Immensely disturbing yet startlingly real, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is the type of movie that makes you want to shower out your eyes and mind after you watch, obviously as described not just for the violence that's shown and what we imagine (which is even worse) but because we were challenged in an unconventional way.

While it's a tough one to “recommend,” Blu-ray is a great way to see it with a clean transfer in the original full screen aspect ratio and strong audio to accentuate the music and noises recorded. The disc is filled with copious extras including commentary, interviews, behind-the-scenes features and a TV special about the real Henry Lee Lucas (whose life and crimes were even more twisted than the ones in this film). Likewise, the film is not only so intense that those viewing it today may want to do so at their own risk but even those who worked on it had similar issues as well including actor Tom Towles who has been only able to view the film once. Proceed with caution.

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