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Dark Sky Films presents
"It's always the same and it's always different."
DVD ReviewHard to believe it's been 20 years for this one, but it has for this coarse and horrifying look at a week in the life of an unadulterated sociopath (Michael Rooker), whose character of Henry is loosely based on real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Directed with a fly-on-the-wall presence by John McNaughton (Wild Things), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a low-budget film (and it often looks it), but this is one of those films where that starkness and minimalism only serves to make the storytelling somehow more effectively disturbing.
It takes a lot for a film to completely rattle me, and this one does just that. It is wholly unnerving and frightening, and no less of an emotional bellypunch today than it was 20 years ago. Rooker is a mumbly, blank slate of pure evil, a drifter of an ex-con who moves in with Otis (Tom Towles), eventually drawing him into his string of random killings, and finding a doomed romance with Otis' soft-headed sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). There isn't so much a story as there are tendrils that connect the violence, because that is what drives Henry. There's a deep rage that propels him, and McNaughton just tries to capture it without explaining or needing to justify it. It just is.
One of the criticisms often leveled at this film is its frank depiction of brutality and the seemingly randomness of the plot structure. Henry kills. Often, easily and with no trace of remorse. Candycoating or softening the hard edges would have ended up making this like so many other films that look away when the ugly parts happen, or rationalizing the actions with a pat ending meant to reassure audiences. McNaughton doesn't pull back, and he doesn't avoid developing scenes that are staggeringly cruel.
I'm not sure what the redeeming values of a film like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer really are, or if it even has any or needs to have any, for that matter. With that said, I think this is a raw piece of filmmaking, because it gets under your skin in ways that so few films can, and it is hard to shake the disease when it's over. There are no happy endings (or happy beginnings or middles) in a story like this, and like real life, what unfolds is often senselessly harsh and terrifying.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Originally shot on 16mm, McNaughton's film gets a facelift here, with a new transfer that has been majorly cleaned up. There is a fair amount of grain, especially during night scenes, but on the plus side color reproduction gives a natural hue to fleshtones and all that red blood.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Audio is provided in 2.0 stereo, and it delivers a clean, distortion free mix with little in the way of theatrics. Rooker is a little mumbly, and his voice is always audible.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Henry: Portait of a Serial Killer 2, The Manson Family
15 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by John McNaughton, David Gregory
Extras Review: For this 2-disc set, MPI has included an admirable set of supplemental material, beginning with a commentary track from director John McNaughton, along with moderator David Gregory. The track is properly serious, with McNaughton discussing everything from the scoring to the story development in a well-structured and detailed track.
Disc one concludes with a Stills Gallery and a couple of trailers, including one for the feature and its ill-fated sequel.
Disc Two kicks off with Portrait: The Making of Henry (52m:32s) an anamorphic widescreen doc where Michael Rooker grimly states "you cannot bring this shit home with you". A lot of the same material covered on McNaughton's commentary gets addressed here, but with a wider range of participants covering all ranges of the production. It's clear this was not an easy film to be part of, emotionally.
The feature is cut into 14 chapters.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsIt's difficult to heartily recommend this film because it is so brutally intense and disturbing. It is quite powerful as well, but a journey not really right for all.
MPI has put together a solid two-disc set commemorating the film's 20th anniversary, and if your psyche is strong enough, I give this my sincere but cautious highest recommendation.
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