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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Dark Sky Films
Blu-ray Disc Released: 9/29/2009
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 10/6/2009, Updated 12/1/2016
What I'm about to say is going to say negative, but trust me, it isn't. I'm a huge fan of The Silence of the Lambs. I read the book years before the film came out and I was able to attend a special preview screening of the movie and simply loved it. (I was skeptical about Demme directing it, but he won me over.) However, despite the fact that The Silence of the Lambs is certainly a jarring and creepy movie, I think that it's fair to say that it glamorized serial killers. Not so much with Buffalo Bill, but Hannibal Lecter is certainly the epitome of the gentleman killer. Did the film do a dis-service to its audience by presenting killers in this way? That's an important question to ponder, given that just 5 years earlier a film had been released which stripped the serial killer genre to the bone. That film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, is now available on Blu-ray Disc.
Michael Rooker stars in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as the titular character, a drifter who is currently living in Chicago. Henry lives with a roommate, ex-con Otis (Tom Towles), and works odd jobs. Otis' sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), comes to town looking for work, and moves in with them. While she and Otis have an oddly hostile relationship, Becky finds herself drawn to Henry. If only she knew Henry's secret: Henry likes to kill people. When not working or at home, Henry is out stalking his prey. When he kills someone in front of Otis, he draws his friend into his murderous world and the two go on a killing spree together. Ignorant of this, Becky is enjoying playing house with Henry. Can she convince him to lead a normal life?
I'm not going to lie to you, I like slickly made films. If a movie has a nice look to it and appears that those involved put a lot of work into it, that goes a long way with me. Having said that, there are some movies which benefit from having a cheap, dirty look. The ultimate example is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Another great example is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The movie was shot for a little over $100,000 in Chicago and it certainly looks like it. The image is grainy, the sets are dirty, and the locations are clearly real. There's nothing glamorous (or even appealing) about the clothes these characters wear, the cars they drive, or the place where they live. The movie is as much about the working class as it is about a murderer, and we get a true sense of their situation. All of this lends a scary dose of reality to a movie which takes an unflinching look at a week in the life of a killer. (This isn't to imply that the movie is poorly made. The opening sequence clearly shows that Director John McNaughton is a skilled filmmaker.)
As you can see from the above synopsis, there's not a lot of story in this movie. We are introduced to Henry, Otis, and Becky and we then watch this trio play out a very disturbing scenario. But, a shortage of plot doesn't mean that there's not a lot of story happening here. We learn that Henry is a very complicated individual. Although apparently illiterate, he has street-smarts and he knows exactly what he needs to do to get away with a crime. We also learn that Henry has a definite code of morals -- while very twisted, he has a clear sense of what he considers right and wrong. Becky is a damaged soul, the kind of woman who doesn't like to be alone, but always ends up with the wrong man. She's come to Chicago to get away from a bad relationship and finds herself attracted to a killer. (We learn that Becky was an abused child.) Otis, dim-witted and apathetic, simply does what he's told, and doesn't seem to have strong opinions on anything. The attitudes of these three characters makes for an intense experience. Becky is clearly desperate to better herself, but she doesn't have the tools to do so. On the other end of the spectrum, Otis is happy with TV and beer. In the middle is Henry, the killer who is looking out for himself.
The aforementioned look and feel of the film is aided by the strong acting. After seeing Rooker in this role, it's hard to imagine anyone else playing it. Henry doesn't look evil -- he's a pretty normal looking guy. But, when he gets angry, Rooker is able to bring all of that evil to the front. Of course, this lead to a career of playing heavies for Rooker and it's what makes his performance in Mallrats even funnier. Towles and Arnold are great as well, and both excel from their willingness to let it all out. With his comb-over and dull stare, we immediately know what kind of guy Otis is. Similarly, Becky's plain clothes and sensible, yet not fashionable hair, communicate everything that we need to know about her. With these initial impressions, the actors inhabit their roles and bring them to life.
Over 20 years later, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer still packs a punch. Interestingly, there isn't any on-screen violence until 34-minutes into the movie, but the scenes which follow (specifically the home invasion) will stay in the viewer's mind. While many, many serial killer films have been released in the past two decades, few have the raw power of Henry.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer goes TV shopping on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Dark Sky Films. The film is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which I can only assume was the film's original format. The Disc contains a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps. The image is sharp, but grain an defects from the source material are visible throughout. The image is a tad dark, and the colors are somewhat muted. There are no haloes around objects and the image isn't "muddy". The bottom line is that this looks like a low-budget movie. The Disc carries a Linear PCM 2ch stereo audio track which runs at 48 kHz and a constant 1.5 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Essentially, most of the audio comes from the center channel. During street scenes and a few scenes in the apartment, there are some noticeable stereo effects.
On December 6, 2016, Dark Sky Films released a new 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Disc of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The film has been framed at 1.33:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 32 Mbps. Again, the film was shot on 16mm film and the transfer reveals the pros and cons of that medium. The colors look very good. Despite the fact that this is a dark movie, Naughton didn't shy away from allowing colors to look very natural. However, the image is plagued by a sheen of shimmer video noise which is quite distracting. It looks like it's snowing in the frame. The level of detail is good and the picture does not look flat. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 2.3 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. It certainly has more presence than the stereo track featured on the old release, especially from the music. There aren't an abundance of surround effects, but we get a few during some key moments.
This new release contains several new extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director John McNaughton. "In Defense of Henry: An Appreciation" (21 minutes) is a very interesting featurette in which people like Errol Morris and Joe Bob Briggs talk about their affection for the film and how it flew in the face of horror films of the 80s. "Henry vs MPAA: A Visual History" (11 minutes) begins with a look back at the origins of censorship in films and then morphs into how the film was originally given an "X" rating which affected how the film was distributed. This line of thinking is continued in "Henry at the BBFC: An Interview with Nightmare USA Author Stephen Thrower" (27 minutes), which looks at how the film was received in Britain and how it was labeled a "Video Nasty". "It's Either You or Them: An Interview with Artist Joe Coleman" (9 minutes) examines how the film received an early screening in New York City, and allows Coleman to wax on the film. "In the Round: A Conversation with John McNaughton" (28 minutes) has filmmaker Spencer Parsons asking the filmmaker about his history and the legacy of Henry. The last of the new extras is a "30th Anniversary Trailer".
Review Copyright 2009/2016 by Mike Long