Review: Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer - Special Edition / Directed by: John McNaughton / Written by: Richard Fire, John McNaughton / Starring: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles / Release Date: Out Now
Prior to Michael Rooker finding himself taking on zombies single-handed in The Walking Dead, he was doing other things to corpses as notorious serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas, in this classic 80s horror/drama.
Throughout the mid 70s and early 80s, buckle-faced drifter Henry Lee Lucas committed in excess of 188 murders (although he would later confess to a staggering 600 slayings). While it was later claimed that he was owning up to killings to make prison life more comfortable, there is no doubt that he was a depraved and twisted human being. And as if murder wasn’t enough, Lee often added necrophilia and paedophilia to his resume during his spree before finally getting caught in 1983.
This movie has practically nothing to do with any of that.
In what can only be described as a homage to his horrors, this independent movie (shot in 1986 but not released until three years later) takes the names and some of the locations from Henry’s back catalogue and inexplicably spins a new tale with it.
Former stripper, Becky (Arnold) returns to her hometown in search of work, leaving her daughter and abusive husband behind her. There to greet her is Otis (Towles), her bucktoothed brother who invites her to stay with him and his roommate, Henry (Rooker). Before long Henry and Becky strike up a bond, but this is secondary to Henry’s true passion: randomly killing people. Then, whilst entertaining two hookers in his car, Henry indoctrinates Otis into his killer club, leading to an evermore increasingly disturbing series of murders.
In truth, Becky was Otis’s 12-year-old niece, who escaped from juvie and wound up having a sexual relationship with Henry. In addition, Otis and Henry shared their own romantic relationship during their time together. Not that these inconsistencies necessarily take anything away from the finished film, but knowing them, you can’t help thinking such details would have made for a far more interesting story.
As it stands, this is undoubtedly a shocking movie (the home invasion scene is still gorge-rising, even by today’s standards), with a stand-out – if slightly uneven – performance from its titular star. While many of the murder sequences are shown after the fact (with haunting screams overlaid), when we do witness Henry and Otis letting off steam, there is a tendency for it to get a little schlocky. The atmosphere, however, is unquestionably thick, and as the film drags you by the hair to its inevitable conclusion, you’ll find yourself desperate for some clean air.
Shot on 35mm film in 1:37 ratio, this can’t help but feel incredibly dated, despite Blu-ray giving the picture as much of a boost as is possible given the source material. But then perhaps that’s what helps set this apart. Despite returning to the public consciousness at a point where serial killer movies are ten a penny, Henry manages to remain a unique example of the medium. Although, to say it is an enjoyable one, would be somewhat difficult.
An absorbing making of documentary proves to be an interesting viewing experience. Filled with facts about the real killings and director McNaughton’s struggles to bring the film to fruition and then get it off the producer’s shelf, it provides a very well rounded background. One of the most interesting points it reveals, is that the film was originally much, much longer.
Some of these cut scenes are included (all without original audio, with McNaughton giving commentary) and help to fill a few holes in the narrative. They also help to show why Rooker’s performance seems to change midway through the film as many of his ‘lighter’ moments during the early part of the movie were cut, leaving him to appear like little more than an emotionless robot.
A further documentary on the real Henry is included for those who can stomach more, while a revealing featurette on censorship sheds light on McNaughton’s experiences with the board. Feature Commentary, some stills and trailers round off the goodies.
There’s no escaping the fact that this remains one of the first and most disturbing entries in the serial killer genre, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the best. Shocking it may be, but you can’t help think (as you eject and reach for a DVD of Sesame Street to feel better about the world) that this interpretation of Henry is as pointless as the killings he committed.