He’s not Freddy. He’s not Jason. He’s real.”
Shot in 1986, shelved during a dispute with the US censors, and finally released to a repulsed public in 1990, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer has often been mistaken for a horror movie, not least of all by its backers.
They wanted a no-frills, turna- quick-profit fright flick, but director John McNaughton delivered something much more disturbing – an unblinking descent into abject nihilism. Inspired by a 20/20 TV report on real-life spree killer Henry Lee Lucas, Henry is one of the finest serial-killer movies ever made.
It’s an easy film to applaud, harder to actually enjoy. McNaughton sets his stall out in the first few frames: an opening reverse zoom from a lifeless eyeball revealing a stripped, bloodied corpse dumped in the long grass, which then cuts straight to a close-up of a cigarette being stubbed out in an ashtray. Clearly, life is cheap.
Refusing to revel in the murder (compared to the sleazy sensationalism of films like Matthew Bright’s Bundy), McNaughton opts instead to stage a series of grisly tableaux.
Each fresh corpse is photographed with a coroner’s clinical precision, while the soundtrack replays the victim’s screams and struggles, subliminally mixed with the sounds of animals being slaughtered and dentist drills buzzing.
“It’s often been said that the picture has no moral point of view,” says McNaughton in interview on the disc. “But I’m not going to make moral decisions for you. I’ll present you with a situation. I know how I feel about it, but it’s not my place to tell you how to feel about it.”
It’s a strategy that comes to fruition in the movie’s most sickening sequence, a home invasion recorded on blurry VHS that implicates us as accomplices of Henry (Michael Rooker) and his tag-team kill buddy Otis (Tom Towles).
Yet the real power here comes from Rooker, in his movie debut. His tar-pit eyes and soft-spoken voice are perfect for the role, while his ferocious, tightly controlled performance is a masterclass in menace. “I thought, ‘I hope he’s acting,’” recalls McNaughton of the star’s first audition.
With a widescreen transfer and a brace of extras on the film’s making and censorship history (some seen before on the 20th Anniversary DVD), Optimum is treating this difficult film with real respect. Underneath the grime lies a landmark indie movie.
If John Cassavetes had preferred psychos to Shadows, the result would have looked a lot like this.
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