Films based on real life crime sprees are often some of the most intense an unsettling pieces of cinema, particularly with their ability to depict just how senseless and erratic such criminals actually are. John McNaughton’s infamous low budget chiller Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which makes its way on to Blu-ray and DVD this week, is certainly one such film. Follow the jump for our review…
Loosely based on the real life crimes of American serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, John McNaughton’s haunting docudrama sees Michael Rooker take on the role of Henry, a demented man who arrives in Chicago to move in with an ex-con acquaintance, Otis (Tom Towles). Otis’ kid sister Becky comes to live with her older brother after a falling out back home, deciding to head out to the big city to find a new life. We follow the three along Henry’s murderous trail as he starts to school Otis in the ways of the serial killer. Becky becomes ever more enamoured with Henry’s stories of violence, all the while his pent up rage and sexual frustrations fuel the madness locked deep inside his psyche…
Cinema violence has never been more unnerving or disturbing as it is in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Without any of the comedy or almost comic book styling that so many films that feature violence have, the overly realistic portrayal of the gruesome murders Lucas commits is downright frightening. Although the film – which was made in 1986 – does look rather dated in places these days, McNaughton’s dedication to trying to capture the most authentic sense of Lucas’s depraved crime spree means that it remains a truly remarkable and powerful piece of cinema. As much a comment upon audiences’ own relationship with on screen violence as it is about recounting Lucas’s murders, the film directly calls into question viewers’ own voyeuristic pleasure with this. By filming such brutal, disconcerting and realistic murder scenes McNaughton jars audiences by shocking them and having them analyse this relationship with violence. The director deliberately refrained from showing any police characters on screen in order to heighten the sense of lawlessness within the film and prevent viewers from having the comfort of seeing a reassuringly ‘good’ character on screen.
This also enhances viewers’ analysis of their own connection with violence on the screen and in reality: by removing any sense of morality and decency within the fictional realms of the film it becomes an expression of violence as the realistic norm and not something distanced (or separated by an invisible fourth wall). The pacing of the film is solid, preventing the film from appearing too focused on this sense of allegory and there is definitely an air of tension and a sinister underlying tone throughout the narrative. The direction is ample, effectively working to achieve the right amount of suspense and providing enough shocks to swiftly carry the narrative (and the audiences’ attentions) forward. McNaughton and co-writer Richard Fire’s screenplay is refreshingly frank and honest in its depictions, elevating the film out of the lowly realms of a cheap, simple shocker. With much more depth and complexity within both its narrative and its character developments, the screenplay offers viewers a distinct sense of realism that makes it an even more uncomfortable watch.
The film is definitely a performance driven piece, with fantastic work from its main cast. Michael Rooker gives a star performance as Henry Lee Lucas, portraying the unrepentant monster with an intensity and fundamental sense of evil. Although the character is rather soft spoken and not particularly nasty looking at a glance, Rooker perfectly manages to capture a distinct sense of psychological imbalance within his portrayal of Lucas. Rooker is pivotal to the success of the film, capturing audiences’ attentions immediately and holding them captivated with his uncomfortably realistic performance throughout the runtime. From his ability to evidence sheer anger in a mere facial expression to his viciously physical performance, Rooker’s turn as Lucas will remain with audiences long after the end credits start rolling.
Tom Towles as Lucas’s protégé, Otis, gives a terrifying performance in a role that creates a truly unpredictable and ruthlessly maniacal character. Towles immediately looks unsavoury with his grotesque comb over hairstyle and expressive face. His efficiency as a killer and his emotional detachment mean that Otis is a distinctly unlikeable and inhuman character. Towles manages to effectively capture this in his portrayal, but also refrains from turning Otis into a simple, two-dimensional portrait of pure evil. The only positive character within the piece is Becky, played well by Tracy Arnold. Her performance is stellar and the contrast between Lucas’s character when he is with Becky and when he is with Otis is distinctive. Becky poses the opportunity of a far brighter future for Lucas, but this is still not enough to prevent him from committing murder. Having being abused both emotionally and physically, Becky has some of the same psychological torments as Lucas and Arnold manages to imbue her with a complexity and likeability that finds audiences hoping she will have a profound positive effect on him. These three principal actors each bring their own unique charms and repulsions to the screen, which ultimately heightens the duality of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’s complex narrative.
There’s no two ways about it, this film was made ion a meagre $100000 and as such does not have the same visual or audio quality as a major Hollywood blockbuster. Rich golden lighting and stunningly clear dialogue won’t be found here, but frankly the film wouldn’t look right if this was the case. The gritty and realistic tone of the narrative is reflected in the images here. Whilst the print has been cleaned up considerably and is better than any found on previous releases of the film, a persistent grain and series of other visual imperfections are still very much present at times. Generally the images are rather flat and a little dull, however certain scenes evidence a depth that makes them stand out as the most impressive in the film. The colours are not particularly vivid here – the colour palette is not really resplendent with a variety of tones – but reds are (predictably) particularly strong, meaning that the oodles of blood that splatters the screen is deep and rich…something that fans of excessive gore will undoubtedly love!
The audio is less impressive than the visuals here, with an extremely varied quality throughout the film. For the most part, dialogue is audible if not always entirely clean and clear (this is most likely due to the fact that no more than two lines were actually re-dubbed in post production, meaning that audiences are reliant upon the quality of what was captured on the day of shooting). Ambient sound is not always that great and there are some moments where the levels are distinctly different between various shots within the same scene. This can be rather distracting, but fortunately doesn’t occur too frequently. The soundtrack is rather dated (although in all honesty, which 80s film score isn’t these days) and lacks any real depth or richness. Although the audio has obviously been tweaked and improved from previous versions, it’s unfortunately not up to quality that Blu-ray viewers have become accustomed to.
A good mix of special features accompanies the film and will likely quench viewers’ thirsts for extra-textual information on the feature. The following supplementary material is housed on the Blu-ray release:
• Portrait: The Making of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
• The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas documentary
• Interview with Director John McNaughton
• Discussions with McNaughton and Nigel Floyd on Altered Scenes (The Opening Sequence, Otis and the Broken TV and the Home Invasion scenes)
• Deleted Scenes and Outtakes (with Commentary by McNaughton)
• Stills Gallery
• Original Storyboards
Film: 3.5 out of 5
This ultra-realistic and scarily unsettling film is complex but engaging and will remain with viewers long after a screening. Much more than a grotesque, vulgar, exploitative, cheap shocker, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is rightly regarded as a cult classic.
Visuals: 3 out of 5
The film still looks like a low budget production despite being upgraded to a high definition print. The gritty and imperfect transfer is reflective of the narrative however, and the film wouldn’t look right in crystal clear, flawless HD.
Audio: 2.5 out of 5
For a Blu-ray release the audio quality is rather poor. Whilst it’s not dire, dialogue is less than clean at times and ambient sound levels are mixed. Dialogue does, however, remain audible for the most part and viewers are definitely hearing the film at its best here.
Extras: 4 out of 5
The comprehensive collection of extras includes a stellar variety of offerings that should suit virtually all cinephiles. Highlights include the documentary on the real Henry Lee Lucas (which includes eerie interviews with the criminal himself) and the interview with director John McNaughton. All of the supplementary material is worth checking out however.
Presentation: 4 out of 5
The front cover image captures the intense nastiness of the films narrative and is a good reflection on the themes viewers will find within it. Menus are nothing particularly special, but do the job effectively and are easy enough to navigate.
Overall: 3.5 out of 5
Refraining from playing up to the vulgar stereotypes of cheap shocker cinema, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is an exceedingly intelligent and thought provoking film. Earning a cult status over the years it is likely to appeal to gore seekers and film buffs alike. Whilst Studiocanal’s release is not exactly perfect, the film looks and sounds better than it has elsewhere and the interesting collection of special features definitely makes this a release that shouldn’t be ignored.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is available now on Blu-ray.