Director: John McNaughton
Dark Sky Films/MPI

In a decade known for its endless FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels and the wise-cracking Freddy Kreuger, the 1980s also witnessed the release of one of the most controversial and effective “true crime” horrors ever made. John McNaughton’s HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER gained notoriety before most people even saw it, earning an X rating not just for its violent content (which is quite small compared to other films of this type), but for “overall tone.” It is indeed a grim little mother of a movie, a take-no-prisoners tale of a psychopathic killer who needs no motive in choosing a victim at whim to murder, each method different, every one brutal. Influenced by the real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, this is doubtlessly one of the best true-crime films ever made and is a mandatory addition to the collection of horror fans and crime buffs everywhere.

Henry is a brooding, shy every day Joe, living in a crummy apartment with his ex-con drug dealer friend Otis (with bizarre sexual quirks) and working as a bug exterminator to make quick cash. On his days off, however, Henry is an immoral killing machine, selecting his victims at random and leaving bodies strewn all over Chicago. Enter Becky, Otis’ sister, running away from an abusive marriage which was an extension of an even more abusive childhood. Taking a job as a shampoo girl, Becky also begins to fall in love with Henry and his soft-spoken ways. Little does she know that he has recruited his brother in a killing spree to cure their boredom. And even she isn’t safe from their unexpected outbursts of violence and sadism!

HENRY is not a pretty picture. It’s well acted, brilliantly written, and all technical aspects of the film are better than average for such a low-budget excursion. But this isn’t a film to turn on for a good time. If you want to be disturbed and be bombarded with perverse killings, then flip on HENRY. And pick a good comedy for afterwards, because after the final shot of the nasty twist ending, you’ll need some laughs in your life! It would be hard for the film to earn an R rating even today, so it’s no surprise that all video versions have been Unrated to overcome the MPAA. For those anticipating them, the brief gore effects are very effective, especially an early make-up shot of a victim with a broken bottle shoved through her face, a black-market dealer having a television set smashed over his head and turned on to electrocute him, and a major character having his eye gouged out with a comb in the final act! It runs more on creepy atmosphere and realism; John McNaughton allows the film to work in a pseudo-documentary fashion, with dialogue scenes sounding improvised and true to life and stationary 16mm cinematography losing the Hollywood pizzazz that would have ruined the mood of this piece. The musical score by Robert McNaughton (no relation to John) is equal parts cheese and chills, with some of the synthesizer bits sounding just silly, but other moments, such as sampling screams and sound effects during the opening shots of Henry’s victims littering the landscape, are as terrifying as music gets.

Michael Rooker kicked off a successful Hollywood career by playing Henry, the somewhat likable murderer whose behavior stems from a nasty childhood secret. One hopes he wasn’t a Method actor on the set because even though Henry shows his sensitive side, he is the closest to a monster that a human being can become. He shows no remorse for his crimes, doesn’t try to confront or fix his problem, and even sucks in the gullible Otis as a partner. As Otis, Tom Towles is slimy and gross, with a bad combover, rotting teeth, a strange unexplained liking for young men, and incestuous feelings towards his sister. While there are traces of a nice guy in Henry, Otis has none, so it’s even more disturbing when he joins the serial killer fold. A scene of the dynamic duo breaking into a suburban home, molesting a housewife, and murdering her teenage son and husband before her eyes, as Henry videotapes the whole thing on his camcorder, is the film’s nadir of tastelessness…and is based on fact! Tracy Arnold is the innocent caught between these two men, a runaway who left her young daughter with her mother and fled from an abusive marriage to a violent bastard who is eventually jailed for manslaughter. Becky identifies with Henry’s damaged childhood memories, as she has several of her own, and thinks she can make a new life for herself with him in Chicago. She soon discovers too late that such pipe dreams don’t come true, but Arnold gives a great performance.

Just in time for the film’s 20th anniversary (a year early in terms of the film’s release), MPI has remastered HENRY from its original 16mm negative! Presented fullscreen, as it should be, this is a nice improvement over MPI’s previous disc. The film’s color palette was realistically muted to begin with, shot in the city of Chicago on-location, with grimy street shots and Otis and Henry’s filthy apartment populated by browns, grays, and darkness. Some dark scenes still suffer from grain, but the transfer is generally clean and bright. It will never look like a million bucks, and this works in the film’s favor. It’s a gritty story with gritty photography and while the disc looks great, it doesn’t look so polished that the film loses its effect. The 2.0 mono track works quite well, with all the dialogue, creepy music, and sound effects coming across boldly.

The 2-disc special edition kicks off with an audio commentary with writer/producer/director John McNaughton, moderated by Blue Underground’s David Gregory. McNaughton points out family friends in the cast, discusses the musical score and casting the film, the limited use of special effects and make-up, and researching the original murderer Henry Lee Lucas. You will learn everything about the production you will want to know on this commentary, including the various locations of the film, the genesis of the project, and the run-ins with the MPAA. Disc 1 also includes two trailers for HENRY and a trailer for the abysmal MANSON FAMILY (skip this one!), and a stills gallery filled with promotional shots, behind-the-scenes photos, test shots of make-up and special effects, the Japanese pressbook, and newspaper ads.

Disc 2 holds the meat of the extras, two lengthy documentaries! The first is “Portrait: The Making of Henry,” an almost hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary reuniting all the major players in the film: writer/director/producer John McNaughton, actors Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold, and Lisa Temple, co-producer/composer Steve Jones, co-writer Richard Fire, art director Rick Paul, costume designer Patricia Hart, composers Robert McNaughton and Ken Hale, editor Elena Maganini, and filmmaker Chuck Parello (who made the completely inept HENRY 2). McNaughton talks about how the film began with him producing documentary features for MPI and being asked to make a horror film after seeing a “20/20” story on Henry Lee Lucas; Fire discusses writing the character of “Henry” after trying to understand the personality of the real-life Lucas, and also the motivations of the other characters; Hart remembers Rooker’s Method acting resulting in some scary dialogue between the two; and Rooker, Towles, and Arnold tell how they became involved with the film and give their opinions of McNaughton as a director. It’s interesting to hear about Rooker, Towles, and Arnold’s approaches to their characters, all based on real people; they all were Method actors who would do anything in a role. Arnold passed out while shooting the intense final act of the film and apparently Rooker didn’t make things easy for his wife, pregnant during the production. Rooker also reveals that a scene of Otis and Henry making out was sliced from the film, and other deleted scenes are mentioned and shown, such as a burglar raping Becky and then being beaten up and thrown out a window by Otis and Henry, and an additional bit to the gun blasting of the Good Samaritan on the freeway. It’s a real surprise to see Lisa Temple interviewed here! She’s the abused housewife during the home invasion, and her input is interesting during the lengthy discussion about this certain scene. Also quite fascinating are stories of how the film was shelved by the film’s money men due to lack of gore, the public’s reaction to the film upon its release, and the MPAA battles over the film’s X rating. Behind-the-scenes sequences and outtakes pepper the documentary, including staging the various opening shots of the victims (several are ones which never showed up in the final film) and set-ups to other scenes. Clips are shown from McNaughton’s DEALERS IN DEATH documentary which sparked interest in hiring him to direct HENRY, and nice shots of 80s big-box video covers (whose collection is this?).

The second documentary, “The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas,” is a piece produced for MPI (who have released a boxed set collecting this one and other docs covering other famed serial killers). Interview subjects include Texas investigators, sheriffs, and Henry Lee Lucas himself, explaining his family background. After murdering his prostitute mother in 1960, Lucas was jailed for 10 years, then was released, married and had two children, who he molested regularly before his wife left him. He eventually met up with Otis, another ex-con who was predominantly homosexual and began a friendship/sexual relationship with him. They began a killing spree in 1977 throughout Texas; Otis’ niece Becky (real name: Frieda) became Henry’s lover at age nine. Bizarre revelations include Lucas having sex with dead animals in his youth, his homosexual relationship with his partner Otis, and necrophiliac details about the various murders he confessed to. It’s interesting to see the many parallels between HENRY and Lucas’ real life, and some elements of Lucas’ molesting his daughters were thrown into Becky’s background story.

In addition to the two documentaries, the second disc also includes a nice selection of over 20 minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes, most of which were included in the “Portrait” documentary. They are presented with commentary by McNaughton and Gregory, as the original sound elements are gone, and include several interesting additions including more dialogue between Henry and Becky, the love scene between Otis and Henry, additional sequences of Henry’s victims laying out in the open, extensions to the Good Samaritan murder, Henry fishing, Becky being raped by a burglar, outtakes of the trio dancing to The Sonics’ “Psycho”, comedian Neil Flynn (The Janitor on “Scrubs”) as a street preacher (neither McNaughton or Gregory recognize him!), and Henry consoling Becky after her rape. Capping off the second disc is a gallery of original storyboards, which seem cartoonish compared to the realized scenes. Most are the eerie shots of Henry’s victims. Also worth noting as an additional extra is the excellent reversible cover option, with the flip side of the original poster art being an alternate poster concept by Joe Coleman! Either side is a nice selection to display this excellent package! (Casey Scott)