DIRECTOR John McNaughton WRITER Richard Fire; John McNaughton STARS Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles DOUBLE PLAY Now
There’s a key moment in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer that transforms the film from mere horror into the realm of genuinely, truly disturbing. It occurs around the halfway mark, when Henry and his friend Otis sit on their couch, beers in hand, and calmly watch a video recording of their massacre of a whole family. Up until now we’d not had visual evidence of what the characters are capable of, then director John McNaughton makes us watch, like a snuff film. It’s frightening, because Henry and Otis are so damn real. These guys could be living next door.
McNaughton deserves total credit for keeping the film firmly grounded in reality, letting events play out in almost documentary style, watching Henry go about his day, working part-time as an exterminator, following women and making notes for the future. He shares an apartment with his friend Otis, and this soon becomes a three-sided relationship when Otis brings his sister Becky home to stay with them. Becky becomes fascinated with Henry, even when she finds out he’s been in prison, and it’s through her questions we discover some details: Henry killed his mother because she abused him and made him watch her sexual exploits, and he’s a drifter without the ability to settle down. It also becomes obvious that he has an insatiable desire to kill, and it’s not long before he’s dragging Otis along, showing his friend the pleasures of murder. Becky, meanwhile, is falling in love with her brother’s strange, enigmatic friend.
Loosely based on the confessions of real-life killer Henry Lee Lucas, the film never descends into over-the-top madness and doesn’t fetishise or glamorise violence. It is often depicted bluntly and unvarnished, the audience remaining as trapped as any of the characters within it. The fact that it was shot on 16mm for $100,000 helps; McNaughton didn’t have the budget to make the film glossy, and the grey, rain-lashed streets of a faceless American town are the perfect backdrop. It’s also assisted by a truly astonishing performance from Michael Rooker, who is mesmerising in the title role without ever giving a clear insight into what makes Henry tick. There’s no grand fava-beans-and-chianti nonsense here, just the quiet workings of a very disturbed mind. A portrait, if you will.
The film has had a long and difficult battle with the BBFC and various censorship boards, but this new Blu-ray release finally restores a fully uncut print. An extensive documentary details the difficult birth of the film — made in 1986 and on the shelf until 1990 — and interviews with the cast and crew reveal just how proud they are of their involvement. McNaughton is still enthusiastic about the film, a refreshing change from some directors who choose to forget their earlier, more exploitative works. For those who have seen it, it’s obvious why this high-definition restoration is essential. For those who haven’t, be prepared to experience one of the most important modern horror films ever made.