Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer is a 1986 horror film, loosely based on the real life crimes of Henry Lee Lucas. The film wasn’t released until 1990, in part due to the brutal depictions of violence shown in the film. In fact, it was not available uncut in the United Kingdom until 2003.
Henry is certainly not the kind of film you would use to demo your home cinema. In fact, seeing the film on Blu-ray allows the viewer to see how dated it is. Obviously, the film was made on a very low budget of just $110,000, and was shot in 16mm, but watching the film in 1080p as was probably never intended makes it look awful.
I’d always expect a good bit of grain, and would be disappointed if they had made it completely noise-free, but the transfer is so bad that it is difficult to see what is going on at times, particularly in the internal and night scenes. The sound also suffers badly; there are a couple of external scenes where the sound is so badly affected that you can hardly hear what the actors are saying.
The film itself however, is still pretty powerful in parts, and is a very difficult watch. Henry murders indiscriminately, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. He then gets one of his former prison buddies involved in his serial killing ways, who drags along his sister, who is always just on the outside of what is happening.
The film takes weird shifts in the way the murders are displayed. For the first 15 minutes, we’re only shown the aftermath of the murders, with a soundtrack of what is obviously supposed to be Henry committing the acts played over the images. Later, we are shown the full murders, as the camera follows Henry and Otis around without judgement. To be honest, whilst viewing the murders was very powerful and very upsetting, I didn’t really understand what the point was in changing the mechanics of the film.
Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer predates Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, where two well-dressed protagonists torture and kill a family, constantly breaking the fourth wall to ask why the viewer isn’t doing anything, and I’d imagine that Haneke’s film is heavily influenced by McNaughton’s, released four years earlier.
Indeed, there is a similar scene of a family massacre in Henry, where Henry and Otis film the murders and watch them over and over. It was at this point which I found myself desperate to switch the film off, because I couldn’t bear to be a part of it any more. The thing is, unlike Funny Games, or Man Bites Dog, there doesn’t seem to be any point to the killing. Both of those films are pretty tiresome in that they tell you off for watching for almost their entire length, but at least there seems to be a point to this.
Granted, McNaughton tries to give Henry a (slightly) sympathetic backstory, and compared to a monster like Otis, who’s desperate to rape and commit necrophilia, he is a saint, but in the 82 minutes that I spent in his company, I neither warmed to him nor rooted for him at any point.
However, for every disturbing scene, there’s another one with paper-mache severed heads and corn syrup blood, and it’s very apparent in 1080p that this film has not aged well at all. Add this to the fact that whilst the actors’ performances are mindblowing, particularly Michael Rooker as the eponymous killer, the dialogue is laughable. Lines like “Adios, amigo!” and “I guess I love you too” leave the film feeling more like a b-movie than the serious document the director clearly intended.
While some of the scenes are still horrific, a lot of them look cheap and schlocky. Its attempt to make a feature length film on a shoestring budget is admirable, but it’s unfortunate that its low production values are so painfully evident. Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer has its fans, of that I’m sure, but it’s a film that only hardcore horror aficionados will need to own on Blu-ray.
StudioCanal have been very generous with the extras, and if you enjoyed the film enough to want to know more about it, then all your questions are sure to be answered here. There’s the usual director commentary with John McNaughton, and there’s a fairly lengthy making-of, along with trailers, stills and deleted scenes.
There’s also a documentary on the man who inspired the film: Henry Lee Lucas, and some more interviews with director John McNaughton. The most interesting feature available is the censorship history, where McNaughton talks through what had been censored from various versions, although admittedly, after watching it, I think that I’ll be having nightmares for weeks.
You can rent or buy Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer at Blockbuster.co.uk.