He’s not Freddy. He’s not Jason. He’s real.
One of the most fascinating questions about the history of cinema is what and how films get considered “realistic.” Obviously people were fascinated by early shorts where real people left factories (even though it was staged), but other early films suggested fantasy through tricks. Then we can watch as various waves of films get considered more or less “realist” or “realistic.” The vast majority of those films look laughable to us now, their staginess and artifice as clear as day to our jaded, contemporary eyes. But every once in a while a film comes along that seems realistic and stays that way for a long time. Back in 1986, most horror was stuck on the slasher model, where supernatural or psychologically-thin characters menaced a bunch of interchangeably coeds. Then along comes Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It focuses on a killer who seems to possess hidden depths, and his world of aimless drifting and brutal murders unnerved a lot of people. Though perhaps not as influential as Psycho, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer set a new bar for realism in horror. This 30th anniversary Blu-ray is the version worth owning.
Based on serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, Henry follows the title character (Michael Rooker, Slither) as he drifts to Chicago, murdering anybody he feels like it. He hooks up with Otis (Tom Towles, The Devil’s Rejects), a friend from prison, and the two go on a killing spree that ends in tragedy.
Henry remains a deeply unsettling film despite its age. It stands out in a sea of films dedicated to mass slaughter in the era of 80s VHS horror boom. It stands out in part because it stands against the trends of the day. For the most part, horror in general and slashers in particular fetishize killing. That’s not, coming from me, a criticism, but it does mean that the meticulous detail with which the violence is documented can create a kind of cocoon that insulates viewers from the shock of that violence. Henry offers no such comforting cocoon of detail and ritual. The murders are random, brutal affairs that punctuate the narrative almost at random. They are at Henry’s whim, but his whims are as capricious as any god in the Greek myths.
Henry, of course, is the center of attention. That attention is earned by a star-making performance by Michael Rooker. The film immediately established his bona fides, from a ruggedly-handsome face to some serious acting chops. The film is also a double-edged sword, putting Rooker in psycho roles for too much of his career. But Henry really started it all, and Rooker plays the murderous drifter to the hilt. Tom Towles is the more outwardly unhinged of the murderous pair. Where Henry looks like someone you might nod to in a dimly lit bar, Otis is the guy raving out front you’d avoid on your way in. Towles sells the contrast beautifully. Tracy Arnold, as the third leg of this weird triangle, is also great. We can watch her being seduced by Henry’s reticent charm. We worry for her and are appalled by her actions in equal measure.
Though it’s far from a pleasant watch, Henry is an essential part of the history of the horror film, especially for the long shadow it casts over the 80s. For its 30 anniversary, MPI has given the film a Blu-ray release that simultaneously acknowledges and cements that legacy.
The disc kicks off with a director-approved 1.33:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer from a 4K restoration of the original 16mm negative. Damage isn’t really an issue, and detail shines throughout. It’s a 16mm source, so texture is key and this transfer delivers. Grain is appropriately thick and well-rendered, and details of the environment are easy to pick out. Colors are well-saturated, with skin tones looking very natural and appealing. Darker scenes don’t show a lot of detail, but that’s a source limitation rather than a transfer problem. Overall this is a great transfer for the material, and an improvement over previous editions. We also get a solid LPCM 2.0 stereo mix from the original reels. It’s a capable track that’s free of hiss and distortion while providing decent stereo separation. For the more sonically adventurous, those same original reels provided the materials for a DTS-HD 5.1 mix that adds a bit of depth to the sonic environment without adding any head-scratching effects-for-effects sake. The big change is a bit of movement in the film’s electronic score, as it covers a larger part of the soundfield.
The extras, though, are where this release really shine. From the previous edition we get John McNaughton’s commentary, a 53 minute making-of, 22 minutes of deleted scenes, a 1988 interview with McNaughton, along with the film’s trailer, storyboards, and a still gallery. The only thing not ported over from the previous edition is a TV episode about Henry Lee Lucas.
New to this set, however, is a bunch of good stuff. We get a 20 minute “appreciation” that lays out the case for why Henry is significant. We hear from director Joe Swanberg, critic Kim Morgan, film scholar Jeffrey Sconce, filmmaker Errol Morris, and Joe Bob Briggs himself. There’s another excellent featurette that charts the film’s interaction with the MPAA and how the film came to be released without a rating. Stephen Thrower spends a long time going over the way that Henry was treated by the BBFC, the British equivalent of the MPAA. It’s a long, strange story and Thrower tells it well. John McNaughton appears again for a wide-ranging interview, as does Joe Coleman, an artist who created on of the posters for Henry. There’s also a re-release trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Thrower as well as stills.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is not a pleasant film. Of course many will object to the material, especially those who have no desire to watch violence and horror. But even those who enjoy the red stuff might find McNaughton’s more arty tendencies too much. The film doesn’t have the narrative drive that we might expect from a serial killer thriller, but instead meanders through a series of incidents rather than building to an obvious moment of plotting.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer isn’t a film for everyone, but it is an important part of the history of horror. Fans have been given fine editions of the film in the past, but this 30th Anniversary Blu-ray edition is the one to own. It meaningfully upgrades the audiovisual presentation and the extras.