Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Studio: Dark Sky
Release date: December 6th, 2016
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Most long-time horror fans have multiple stories about seeing certain movies at much too young an age, those violent, wildly inappropriate forbidden fruits that were plucked from the video store shelf in the face of common sense and decency. I can point to many such mind-warping experiences ranging from the likes of Slugs to Night of the Demons. Countless others—including all of the iconic slashers—were consumed before I was even ten years old, leaving me pretty much hardened to just about anything.
It says a lot, then, that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was something I absolutely would not fuck with. Even though its tagline (“He’s not Freddy. He’s not Jason. He’s Real”) practically doubled as a dare, I was spooked away by Michael Rooker’s dead-eyed stare into a grungy bathroom mirror, not to mention the giant “unrated” warning that made it feel even more foreboding. Without seeing so much as a frame, I just knew Henry was on a different, more disturbing level, and I couldn’t even muster up the courage to see it until my late teens.
I can’t stress enough just how good of a decision it was. All these years later, Henry remains deeply and profoundly unsettling. Every frame is somehow authentic and unreal all at once, almost as if it were a snuff film masquerading as an exploitation film further disguised as an arthouse film. Though its two most prominent actors (Rooker and Tom Towles) are now recognizable beyond this film, it’s nonetheless unsettling in its stark, completely believable portrayal of a couple of spree killers. It’s a testament to John McNaughton’s uncompromising vision that it still feels like he took a camera and actually documented these ghastly proceedings like an impossible fly on the wall.
It’s most certainly one of the scariest movies ever made, if only for its detached, clear-eyed depiction of an evil so banal that you’d never suspect it if you bumped right into it on the streets. Modeled after Henry Lee Lucas, the titular serial killer here drifts unassumingly, working odd jobs that allow him to leave a trail of corpses in his wake. McNaughton initially captures his carnage with matter-of-fact photography that might as well double as official crime scene evidence videos, as the camera prowls into invaded homes, coolly spying upon mangled bodies. You sense it’s all in a day’s work for Henry, who casually strolls down the street before heading home to hang out with drug-dealer Otis (Towles) and his sister Becky (Tracy Arnold), the latest two people he’s taken a liking to. They aren’t the first to unwittingly house the maniac, and they won’t be the last.
That grim inevitability hangs over Henry, which is less a sustained narrative and more a slice-of-life hangout flick. It’s almost like if Jim Jarmuch made a serial killer movie: here, we’re allowed a brief glimpse into one sordid chapter of an unbelievably disturbed life. We’ll see no more and no less than this episode, meaning the film adopts Henry’s perverse, unrepentant worldview. Each moment is a practical and economic burrowing further down this grimy rabbit hole, existing only to appall with their utter ghastliness. Save for some brief asides about Henry’s childhood—which may or may not be bullshit, given how he scrambles up the details—the film resists any kind of psychoanalysis or explanation because, quite frankly, there’s no accounting for how someone could commit such atrocities in such a calm manner.
Perhaps even more inexplicable is how his madness spreads like a disease. While it’s true that Otis is far from a saint (what with his lecherous advances towards his own sister), it’s alarming how easily he takes up Henry’s penchant for murder after watching him snap the necks of a couple of prostitutes. Henry’s sociopathy is never in doubt, especially when he casually dumps the bodies and heads straight to a fast food drive-thru; Otis at least shows a hint of remorse, at least until he quickly rationalizes it in his mind and begins scarfing down fries.
From there, the two engage on a horrific spree that’s simultaneously revolting and captivating. An increased amount of on-screen violence coincides with some fascinating character work; your first inclination is to look away from all the nastiness, yet the magnetic performances make that impossible. Rooker’s turn particularly explains how anyone could be drawn to Henry. As a person, he’s weirdly likeable, as the soft-spoken lilt in his voice undercuts his gruff exterior. He’s almost boyish, which stands in stark contrast to those moments of intensity (such as when he has to restrain Otis from groping Becky) that hint at a sinister soul lurking beneath the deceptive surface.
McNaughton’s decision to initially abstain from showing Henry’s exploits only heightens the disconnect between what we see and what he’s actually capable of. When the twain finally meets in that violent backseat rendezvous with the ill-fated prostitute, it’s jarring as hell: somehow, this average, grungy-looking working class guy is a total lunatic who chases murder with a six-pack.
Arguably even more staggering is Otis. While he’s just as disturbed, there’s something even more harmless about him at first glance. With his big-toothed smile and a gregarious personality, he comes off as that weird, inappropriate relative that shows up to family gatherings. At the very worse, he’s just a goon, a total fuck-up who’s done a stint in jail yet still sells weed anyway. In reality, though, he’s a sexual predator harboring sick desires for his own sister. Committing to a days-long murder spree is only a step away, and that’s somehow more frightening than Henry’s pre-ordained madness. It’s certainly not that you can understand Henry, but his unassuming banality somehow feels believable; on the other hand, Otis’s total banality is soul-shaking. He truly embraces the “spree” in “spree killing,” gleefully trucking alongside his accomplice and indulging in each murder the same way a playmate looks to impress an older friend.
It’s a totally human portrait of evil, and that’s what’s frightening about the duo: they’ve taken dynamic of friendship and completely twisted and perverted it into a ghastly ritual of death, one that they eventually record on home video. In the film’s most notorious scene, the two replay their exploits during a home invasion. Sensing the power of faux cinema-verite that would be popularized decades later, McNaughton allows the scene to play out in all its quarter-inch tape glory, all scuzzy and disreputable-looking as it unfolds on a dingy mid-80s TV. For all intents and purposes, it looks like an honest to god snuff film—it’s messy, clumsy, and seems to capture victims authentically struggling for their lives.
There are times when I’m pretty sure it’s the most genuinely disturbing thing I’ve ever seen. It’s also one of the cleverest—in fact, Henry’s most powerful shot might be the transition from this videotaped fit of madness. With a slow pan that’s just subtle enough, McNaughton’s camera finds Henry and Otis sitting on a couch, a seemingly mundane but altogether stunning image. A sharp contrast between the home video and cinematic aesthetic emerges, practically calling attention to the artifice of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. For a film that thrives on blurring the line between fiction and reality, it’s an atypical move to remind its audience that it’s watching a movie. In fact, they’re doing almost exactly what these two scumbags are doing: sitting on the couch, watching horrific acts of violence unfold.
An unsettling sense of complicity comes with that reminder. Here you have two psychotic bozos enthralled by consumer grade video equipment, state-of-the-art TVs, and violence, which doubles as a jab at 80s consumerism and our viewing habits. Maybe it’s a prophecy from McNaughton: when simulated violence won’t do, we’ll eventually take to engaging in the real thing and replaying it as entertainment. Or it could be something else: yes, McNaughton insists, you’re watching a movie—however, it’s one that resists any semblance of entertainment, much less comfort. Henry doesn’t abide by any rules: it draws you in with the pretense of cozying up to madness, only to leave you completely dumbfounded and blindsided by the depths of its depravity.
In many ways, we are all Becky: good-natured, well-intentioned, but hopelessly naïve. Just as she’s inexplicably attached to Henry as her means of escaping the perverted clutches of her brother (at any costs, it turns out), we can’t help but to cling to this film in the hopes that it may somehow illuminate or humanize psychosis. However, both Becky and the audience learn a harsh lesson: illumination is impossible when a soul has been completely swallowed by darkness. McNaughton denies such possibilities throughout Henry. He’s not looking to accommodate and remains completely unsentimental, going so far as to keep what would be its most heartbreaking scene off-screen.
While Henry and Otis’s home invasion remains the film’s most indelible, in-your-face image, Becky’s implied murder is just as profoundly disturbing. How callous is it that both Henry and McNaughton dispose of her with so little fanfare? Indeed, the final shot of Henry coolly ditching her remains in a suitcase by the roadside captures all you need to know about Portrait of a Serial Killer, a somewhat ironic subtitle as it turns out: if anything, it’s a blurry sketch, one that can’t even feign an explanation. Instead, it leaves its audience stranded on the roadside, thoroughly bludgeoned and eviscerated, helplessly grasping at meaning as it drifts off into a blood-red sunset.
Henry’s box art not only haunted my own video stores but countless others throughout the 90s, as a 4-year-long struggle with the MPAA led distributor MPI to release the film directly to VHS in 1990. It was here that its infamy—and eventually its legend—grew, as it swiftly became a cult classic, so much so that its 30th anniversary was recently celebrated with a new Blu-ray edition courtesy of Dark Sky. While it debuted on the high-def format several years ago, this disc is an upgrade in every way imaginable: not only does it boast a brand new 4K restoration of the original 16mm elements (meaning it looks perhaps better than you ever imagined Henry even could look), but it also features a host of newly-produced supplements.
“In Defense of Henry: An Appreciation” is a 20-minute retrospective featuring various critics and filmmakers (Joe Bob Briggs, Kim Morgan, Errol Morris, & Joe Swanberg), all of whom discuss the film’s reputation and reappraise it in light of its anniversary. I couldn’t help but chuckle that Swanberg’s own experience with the film mirrored my own, as he especially discusses just how disturbing and powerful the film still remains. Another supplement, “Henry vs. the MPAA” is exactly what you think it is: a recounting of the film’s long struggle with the ratings board, which resulted in something of a triumph once the MPAA exchanged the old “X” stigma for the NC-17 branding we know today.
“Henry at the BBFC” transports the audience across the pond, where the film faced a similar battle with Britain’s rating board. Nightmare USA and video nasty expert Stephen Thrower recounts this all in detail—in fact, at 27 minutes long, it’s nearly the longest new extra on the disc, falling just a minute short of “In the Round,” a conversation with McNaughton that details the history and production of Henry. Even artist Joe Coleman, who designed the film’s iconic poster, features in his own interview, so very few stones have been left unturned between the disc’s extras and the accompanying booklet.
And if that weren’t enough, Dark Sky transported most of the old features dating all the way back to the original special edition DVD release. These include deleted scenes, trailers, outtakes, an interview and commentary with McNaughton, and “Portrait: The Making of Henry,” a 52-minute retrospective boasting all three principal actors and various crew members. Not a bad fate for a film that was once practically a pariah and struggled just to be released. Now, it’s rightfully hailed as an indispensable dispatch from an era that typically wasn’t overly concerned with depicting such a stark, realistic portrayal of insanity. That old tagline rings truer than ever: this isn’t Freddy or Jason—this is on an entirely different, uncompromising plane of existence.
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