Film Reviews

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) – 4K UHD Review

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer arrives on UHD format, courtesy of Arrow Video.  Originally released in 1986, it was the film that made the name of Michael Rooker, in later years a regular of James Gunn’s various productions.  There are many possible reasons that Rooker didn’t become a leading man, but his involvement with this film, and association with this role are probably chief amongst them.

The film is loosely based on the story of real-life killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole.  The movie version of Henry (Rooker) is a man recently released from prison for the murder of his mother.  He travels America leaving corpse after corpse in his wake, for reasons not really made clear.  Ottis (Tom Towles) – a former jail inmate with Henry – collects his sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) from the airport and takes her back to his apartment which Henry shares with him, after the latter had moved to Chicago, killing an elderly couple in their own off licence.

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As Becky begins to be drawn to our enigmatic lead, who gives contradictory information to the rapt young woman about both the motive for and method for the killing of a patient, they bond over rhyming stories of childhood abuse.  Despite his psychopathic tendencies, Henry is disturbed by sexual violence against women, and will repeatedly stop short of performing any sexual acts upon his victims (something not quite jibing with the images we see of some of his female victims).  Henry demonstrates a seeming care for Becky by preventing Ottis from forcing himself upon his sister,

Drawing an initially reluctant and disturbed Ottis into his lifestyle of casual, violent murder, Henry maintains his personal code, while his newly converted friend pushes his behaviour further and further, filming many murders, some taking place in front of children, and one, in particular, graphically sexual in nature.  Abandoning himself to the thrills of this lifestyle, Ottis gleefully expands the murder spree, taking on-board Henry’s advice to continually change their methods, in order to avoid police suspicions that these are the acts of one murderer.

At 83 minutes the film does not hang around.  It is a work grimly shot in 16mm and presented in 4:3 academy ratio.  The film is all the more disturbing for feeling cheap and prurient, something that it has in common with the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It is unlikely anyone will buy this film by mistake, so the consumer will know what they are getting – a genuinely disturbing film originally rated X by the MPAA upon release.  The feature itself has a decent DTS track but has no subtitles for either the main feature or any of the commentaries.  This is disappointing, as there is little excuse to limit the accessibility of a product in an era when such matters are front and centre in considerations when preparing a release.

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On the disc are three commentaries.  The first is new and with director John McNaughton and producer Steven Jones.  In it they rarely address the film’s low budget directly (around $110,000), but hint at such with reveals that many in the film – particularly extras – are comprised of family and friends (and in one case the same woman portrays multiple victims), cars are borrowed, and locations grabbed as and when able.  They pepper what they are seeing on the screen with tales of how they accomplished scenes and their wider memories of the shoot.  They talk engagingly about their approach to showing crimes, focusing in particular on the aftermaths, rather than the details.  They encouraged their actors to come up with detailed character backstories, much of which made it into the film as improvised dialogue.  The track dries up in places, but it is amiable enough.

The second and third commentaries both revolve around the director – one from 2005, the other from 1999.  The 2005 track is moderated by David Gregory, who doesn’t really explain his background, but is there to prompt with questions.  It is a little more focused than the new track, with fewer dry spells.  Gregory is sparing with his questions but asks the rights things in the right places.  It is less descriptive of what is on screen than the first, but it is not totally detached, as they do both reference on-screen events.  There is some overlap on details, with the fact that the cast has many non-professional volunteers, but it adds extra detail on the film’s development from its original concept of Henry being a more paternal figure to Becky than in the finished product.  It is a stronger commentary, with greater focus, and interesting background on the actors – such as Tom Towles hailing from improvisational comedy.

The final commentary is just John McNaughton.  Again, it is more focused than the first, as he is on his own and clearly feels responsibility to stay on point and keep viewers engaged.  There are nice nuggets of information from score to casting, and he uses what he is seeing to prompt stories and reminiscences.  By now, however, we have heard much of this.  This is very thorough, but unlike the recent RoboCop release the abundance of this material makes it feel like they don’t have that much – given we are hearing variations on the same handful of stories.

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Other extras include scene specific moderated commentaries by the director – specifically three scenes (the opening, Ottis destroying the TV, and the home invasion scene) adding up to around 14 minutes.  It’s fine but we’ve already heard three commentaries by this point, so little is new here; it’s three scenes cut from the film in the UK, but they are in this print, so it’s redundant.  Then we have deleted scenes and outtakes – around 21 minutes – again David Gregory moderates the questions to John.  This is way stronger as we get a thoughtful examination of why they aren’t there in the final film, though this often adds up to the end effect being too comedic.

There is both the theatrical trailer and 30th anniversary trailer – both under two minutes.  Then there is a stills gallery, mostly on-set, and only around 15 photos.  Finally – and wonderfully – the original script is put up o nscreen.  The viewer can skip each page manually, which means it is comfortably readable.

This all adds up to nothing more than a decent release for a deeply disturbing film, but one that everyone should see once.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is out on 4K UHD on 18th April from Arrow Video.

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