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MPI Networks presents
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer—Director's Edition (1989)

"If you shoot somebody in the head with a .45 every time you kill somebody, it becomes like your fingerprints, see? But, if you strangle one and stab another and one you cut up and one you don't then the police don't know what to do."
- Henry (Michael Rooker)

Review By: Justin Stephen   
Published: July 10, 2000

Stars: Michael Rooker
Other Stars: Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold
Director: John McNaughton

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, nudity, rape, and disturbing images)
Run Time: 01h:22m:33s
Release Date: November 03, 1998
UPC: 030306738222
Genre: horror

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- BC-B- C+

DVD Review

Although filmed in 1986, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer did not see any sort of wide release until late 1989 when it made the rounds at various film festivals. Critics seem to be of two distinctive minds on this film. Some raved about it, some loathed it. Having just watched it, it was easy for me to see why. Due to the graphic nature of its content, the MPAA refused to assign it any rating other than "X." Rather than bear that rating, the film later saw limited release in an unrated format.

Not so loosely based on the life and confessions of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas and his cohort Ottis Toole, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer revolves around three central characters. First, there is Henry, a man who basically kills for a living, choosing his victims almost at random. Otis, an old jailhouse buddy of Henry's, is his roommate. Otis works at a gas station to make his parole officer happy but also deals drugs on the side to make ends meet. The film also leads us to believe that he is a closet homosexual with pedophilic leanings. Lastly, there is Becky, Otis' sister. She is a downtrodden, impressionable young woman who has had a very rough life. Abused both physically and sexually by her father, the film opens with her coming to stay with Otis and get back on her financial feet after her recent marriage has fallen apart.

The film opens with a montage of various murder victims as they lay, interlaced with footage of Henry as he makes his way back to the apartment he shares with Otis. Becky, desperate for affection after the recent downturns in her life, immediately develops a liking for Henry. Otis' revelation to her that Henry was in prison for murdering his mother intrigues, rather than repulses her. At first, Otis is totally unaware of Henry's homicidal nocturnal habits but when Henry murders two prostitutes right before his eyes he is at first shocked and then excited. Henry takes Otis under his murderous wings and they commit several murders together on seemingly random targets. Despite this level of teamwork, tension is slowly building between Henry and Otis, much of it having to do with Becky, her feelings for Henry, and the abusive manner in which Otis treats her. This tension explodes into a violent crescendo near the end of the film.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was a career-making event both for director John McNaughton and its star, Michael Rooker. This is McNaughton's first feature directorial effort and he was forced to make due with the scant budget of just over $100,000. Rooker was no stranger to feature film work, but Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was his first major role. McNaughton has made a pretty good career for himself since, directing such notables as Mad Dog and Glory, the Ashley Judd vehicle Normal Life, and 1998's steamy Wild Things. Rooker, who did most of his work in Chicago theater prior to Henry, has gone on to roles in JFK, Tombstone, Cliffhanger, and The Replacement Killers, among others. Tom Towles rings in effectively as Otis. Looking like a reject from Deliverance (or perhaps some B-redneck flick like Gator Bait or I Spit On Your Grave), he captures the dim-witted yet violent essence of Otis very well. Lastly, a little-known (before or since) actress named Tracy Arnold appears as Becky. All three actors do relatively effective work, but Rooker's disturbing performance as Henry is the real gem here.

Considering the subject matter, it is not much of a surprise that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a rather disturbing vision. By some accounts, a full third of the audience fled the theater in disgust on its initial showing at the Telluride Film Festival. Truth be told, this film does contain some rather grisly acts. However, with one exception, viewers acclimated to action films of the past five years shouldn't find themselves too revolted by what they see. The one exception however, is a home invasion scene filmed with a handheld video camera that occurs near the end of the film. Some viewers may be reminded of a similar scene in Stanley Kubrick's seminal classic A Clockwork Orange but this one is, by far, the more brutal of the two. Henry also contains a rape scene that, while short, is also very hard to watch.

It should come as no surprise to most of you that $100,000 really doesn't buy a director much of a film, even in 1986. One thing that is almost astounding about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is how much fleshed out cinema verite McNaughton was able to give his audiences with such a limited budget. Henry is not at all a film without weaknesses, however. Some people will simply be too turned off by the subject matter to really ever give the film a chance. Most notable for me however, are that the scenes in which Becky and Henry get to know one another are extremely forced, with painful truths coming from both characters that would almost certainly require a much longer acquaintance to share. The entire level of chemistry between these two comes across as extremely ersatz for much of the first half of the film. Despite its flaws, this film scores big points for originality. There is no hero here, no one to swoop in and save the day and put a swift end to the madness. The film follows these three characters unflinchingly with very little significant interlude from outside characters and no underlying moral point of view. This alone separates Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer from virtually every crime drama made before or since. The film also ends extremely well, with Henry, for a brief moment, seeing a chance to shed his lifestyle and embrace Becky's love. Will he do so, or will Otis shatter the opportunity with more violence?

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: Offered only in full frame format, the video transfer for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is less than stellar. Black levels are very poor, and deep blacks fade to occasional pixelation. This is a film that could benefit from better differentiation between shades of gray as so much of the action occurs on dark city streets. While the source material was undoubtedly of mediocre quality, there does not appear to be any effort to remaster the transfer. There is a moderate amount of graininess that is expected in a low budget film of this age and occasional film blemishes as well. I also noticed two distinct occasions of sudden, but brief, brightness level changes. None of these flaws are terribly distracting but do somewhat lessen the viewing experience. What is distracting, however, are the lip-sync problems that occur early in the film (most notably in the scenes with Becky and Henry getting to know one another over a game of cards). Thankfully, the audio-video mismatch lasts only for a few minutes.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Advertised as Dolby Digital Stereo, the audio more closely resembles two-channel mono. I was unable to detect any directional effects so this is not a terribly impressive stereo track. Lacking the crispness of an effectively remastered track, the sound is nonetheless relatively adequate for the material.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, and French with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part 2
Production Notes
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Behind the Scenes: An Interview with John McNaughton
Extras Review: While hardly heavy with extras, this disc has a couple that are definitely worth a spin. The biggest highlight is the James McNaughton interview. Over thirty minutes in length, the interview is sporadically interlaced with scenes from the film. McNaughton is a personable guy and he offers several worthy insights into the film and the characters as well as the trials and tribulations of trying to make a feature film on such a tight budget. Lacking a commentary track, this interview is a relatively thorough substitute. Unfortunately, this extra is marred by even more lip-syncing problems. The audio and video are out of synch for the entire piece. Careless!

This "Director's Edition" also contains trailers for both this film and its sequel, two batches of production notes (both 3 pages in length), and filmographies for the director and the film's three stars. Like other MPI releases I have seen, this one also suffers from poor cursor movement design in the menus.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is far too violent and visceral to appeal to everyone. However, it is mostly worth the effort for those with a strong stomach and an interest in such macabre material.


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