Saturday, 5 November 2011

Blu-Ray Review: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Directed By: John McNaughton 

Starring: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles

Henry is an irredeemable psychopathic killer, a faceless, random murderer who targets mainly women. He ends up living with Otis, an ex-con acquaintance, and Otis’ young sister Becky, who’s just moved out to the city herself. In the course of his murder spree, he ends up taking Otis under his wing, while Becky becomes ever more enamoured with Henry’s stories of violence. Meanwhile, Otis’ lustful feelings for his sister start to become more apparent...

1986, when this film was made (it wasn’t actually released until 1991, not that it matters a great deal), there were no TV shows like Dexter where a serial killer is akin to a hero with everyday problems like looking after a child and wondering how I stop my sister from finding my blood samples. There was no CSI or Criminal Minds putting forth pop psychology soundbites on a serial killer’s motivations. In the movies we had Manhunter, where Francis Dolahyde is clearly given a back story that tugs at our sympathies until we witness, through his eyes, how he sees his world. So, when John McNaughton made this movie where we are complicit in the actions of the killer and seeing things in the same way as he does, it was a new concept: Because we are complicit in Henry’s life, and because the movie is so realistic, it’s not a nice place to be.
With the violence, there is nothing in Henry that’s any worse than in a good episode of Criminal Minds but it’s the grimy world in which Henry inhabits that makes the content less palatable and the way that it is presented.

McNaughton could have killed his career in making this movie, similarly to Michael Powell when he made the 1960 movie Peeping Tom, luckily, Henry was better received. The critical acclaim didn’t convince the MPAA or, initially, the BBFC. Henry went out unrated in the US . This is the kiss of death for a movie in the US . In the UK we got a slightly edited version. It’s the movies lack of apparent morality that troubles people the most. Yet, unlike movies like Silence of the Lambs (for example) there is no glorification of the subject matter.

The performances are raw and uncompromising. It was clear from this movie that Michael Rooker was a talent to be reckoned with. I recall, at the time, feeling the same about his performance as I did the entire movie; was it a bit too real? It didn’t hurt Rooker’s career. I last saw him in the first season of The Walking Dead and assume that we will see him again some time later in the story, perhaps as The Governor. We don’t get to learn what, if anything motivates Henry into killing the way he does. He is a true psychopath as in he feels little about it, whereas Otis is creepier because he should know better. Otis appears to get a kick out of it. 

Chicago is a character in the movie too. McNaughton shows us the seedier side of the city. Along with the rest of the movie, it’s dirty and grimy. Henry does for Chicago ’s tourist industry what the Texas Chainsaw Massacre did for Austin . Unlike cities portrayed in some films, I didn’t think “Ooo, I must visit Chicago next time I’m in the US . No sir. 

The Blu-Ray Picture Quality is what you should expect from this movie; grainy and grim. That said, it's still the best way to watch it. Everything is sharper than previous releases and it does help with a movie shot in the gloomy realistic style that McNaughton adopted.

The ending is suitably chilling and downbeat. This is no feel good movie and is all the better for it. The honesty and frankness of the story telling is refreshing but only in that for the duration of the film you feel like you’re in a dirty, nicotine stained bubble and when the movie ends, you’ve gone out in the street and breathed in country air. This isn’t just another exploitation film despite the way it’s been treated. McNaughton’s film is something else entirely. It was a movie way ahead of it’s time and I truly believe that most people are ready for it now, even if it still has the power to shock, and make viewers uncomfortable. 

Score: 8/10

Blu-ray Extra Features

• Commentary with Director John McNaughton
• Portrait: The Making of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
• The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas
• Interview with Director John Mcnaughton
• John Mcnaughton in conversation with Nigel Floyd
• Censorship History
• Deleted Scenes and Outtakes with Commentary by John Mcnaughton
• Stills Gallery
• Original Storyboards
• Trailer

The disc is available now from all the usual retailers.

For an alternative view, Mike has reviewed this on Flash-Bang:  Mike's Review

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