Monica Anne O'Malley
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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer - 20th Anniversary Special Edition (1986)
6th Jun 06
That guy next door, Henry, is a serial killer. The guy he lives with, Otis, is his buffoon of a sidekick who just goes along for the ride. Otis's sister, Becky, has come to stay. She likes Henry, and obviously doesn't know what he gets up to when he's not at home. Whereas Henry is a pre-meditative, cunning sort, Otis acts on whim and is, in many ways, a much scarier presence. To quote actor Tom Towles, he is more "reprehensible" as a character; a common, incestuous criminal. With bad teeth. Anyway, Henry kills Otis when he catches him raping Becky, then flees the scene for a new life for Becky. Maybe.
Review Henry is the kind of film that you shouldn't necessarily love. It seems more appropriate to respect it and regard it as one of the scariest and most real horror films out there. It's one of a kind, with a sparse aesthetic and lack of optimism belting your damaged brain like a next-door killer with a blunt instrument. Well, it's you who puts the DVD into the player. This is exactly the sort of stuff you want to see, right? Right.
This is kitchen sink realism meets the horror genre. In fact, there's probably a severed head in the kitchen sink. John McNaughton's debut is a bleak affair to be sure, but it's not just that - it's also hellishly powerful, heady stuff. Written from a perspective that examines the worldwide cinema audiences' relationship with horror and violence - and more significantly the gratification of violence - it plunges you straight into the very real world of Henry from the opening frames and leaves you off at pretty much the same place 83 minutes later. Nothing has changed, there's no resolve. It just is.
McNaughton's film initially depicts only the victims of Henry's handiwork, in a series of slow, incredibly uncomfortable shots of open-eyed corpses and accompanied by the echoed shouting, screaming and grunting of the event itself. This approach to style is as important to Henry's narrative flow as the later scenes where we see and hear it at the same time, by the time with the awful Otis in tow. This film is about the kind of people society doesn't want to know about. Or know.
After offing a smart-mouthed electronics dealer, Henry and Otis begin recording their night-time activities on a MASSIVE 80's video camera. In one key scene, we are witnessing their home-invasion of a normal family, where they beat, torture and sexually assault their unlucky hosts, even when one of the said victims has had her neck broken. We soon realise that we are watching this in the very uncomfortable presence of Henry and Otis themselves, and as if that's not bad enough, Otis rewinds to watch the heinous home invasion all over again. That's because he's a sick, twisted fuck, whereas Henry looks unimpressed. This apparently is what would send theatre goers right out of the cinema, sickened and disgusted in a way that only McNaughton's film could easily inflict.
The film is based on real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas and sidekick Otis, Lee Lucas himself having admitted to many more murders than he could have possibly carried out. Accompanying Dark Sky's welcome re-release of the move comes a darkly intruiging documentary called The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas which contains interviews with the monster Michael Rooker would depict so convincingly here, but the real treat on this 2-disc set is Portrait: The Making of Henry, a comprehensive account of the production from most of the key players involved. Here, everyone from Rooker, Towles and Tracy Arnold to the behind-the-scenes creative forces of McNaughton, cinematographer Charlie Lieberman and writer Richard Fire (of Chicago's Organic Theatre Company, from where much of the acting talent was gleaned) have their say. Highlights here include discussion of scenes that were simply too funny to include in the final cut, as well as a highly amusing anecdote from Michael Rooker who gave a petrified audience member a shock she is probably still having nightmares about to this very day.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is such an accomplished piece of horror cinema, such a powerful character study, that it's hard not to go on and on at great length the way we often do here at eatmybrains. Truth is, no-one could verbally summarise the very real and awesome dramatic vigour that characterises Henry, but that's fine. It proves that all by itself.
Go and buy this 2-disc treat. If any film deserves to be in a horror buff's collection, it's this one, but make sure to watch the 'Making of' documentary afterwards because it will put a smile on your face again after the squalid portrayal of a very real monster.
Additional extras include Feature length commentary with director John McNaughton, deleted scenes and out-takes, still galleries and original storyboards.