Over the course of the 1980s, American horror cinema largely devolved into a by-the-numbers franchise-delivery system, with the stalk-and-slash antics of Freddy and Jason growing increasingly outlandish and supernumerary with every installment. Bleak and brutal, and often blackly humorous, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer stands as one particularly chilling exception to this rule. Writer-director John McNaughton takes a defiantly lo-fi verité approach to his disaffected docudrama, shooting on grainy 16mm around some of Chicago’s seamiest South Side locations, an aesthetic decision that adds considerably to the film’s eerie authenticity. Dispensing with the serial-killer genre’s usual fixation on detection and capture, McNaughton instead keeps the focus on the titular psychopath (Michael Rooker), his partner in crime, Otis (Tom Towles), and Otis’s hapless sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold).
The film opens with a series of stylized tableaux displaying the graphic aftermath of Henry’s latest murder spree. McNaughton seems to share Thomas De Quincey’s notion that murder can be considered as one of the fine arts: His camera unhurriedly pans across a crime scene, or executes a slow arc around a victim, while the soundtrack emits disturbing, electronically processed screams and snippets of shouted dialogue. Leaving it to viewers’ imaginations to piece together sound and image is far more unsettling in this context than the more direct approach would be, putting the film on a decidedly slow burn, so that when the violence eventually does erupt, the effect is all the more shocking for the buildup.
Anticipating films like Series 7: The Contenders or Funny Games, McNaughton consistently tinkers with audience attitudes toward screen violence. When Henry and Otis dispatch a despicable black-market dealer by smashing a TV over his head (and then plug it in), their actions come across as a tad cartoonish; more importantly, though, they seem perfectly justified by the man’s abusive behavior. This is the sort of purgation through violence that countless Hollywood films have conditioned audiences to find eminently gratifying. But the uses to which Henry and Otis subsequently put their purloined camcorder are likely to leave viewers feeling far more ambivalent.
McNaughton signals his intentions with an adroitly self-reflexive image: While recording a particularly Hobbesian bum fight, Otis turns the camera on the audience, our desire to impartially view the carnage deflected back to us. Later, we witness a brutal home invasion unfold in real time on a TV screen, until an abrupt cut reveals Otis and Henry together on the couch, enjoying their latest home movie. Otis grabs the remote, hits the rewind button, then plays it all over again, this time frame by frame. It’s a perfectly naturalistic moment, indicative of Otis’s uncontrollable desire to consume and re-consume his own destructive impulses, and yet the scene also works to fold us into an unwitting identification with these fellow audiences members.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer isn’t only about games of estrangement and implication. The film also manages to impart a real sense of pathos for the ill-starred Becky as it builds to one of the bleakest, most pitiless endings in modern horror. The story spends a good bit of time with Becky as she wanders like a lost sheep around downtown Chicago, gives vent to her deepest hopes and fears, and hesitatingly opens up to Henry. Not simply a killing machine, Henry feels genuinely protective toward Becky, even if he’s physically and emotionally undemonstrative to a rather terrifying degree. (Witness the deadpan absence of affect when he finally admits, “I guess I love you too.”) The film’s final shot isn’t exactly ambiguous about Becky’s fate (the implications are certainly obvious enough), but by keeping its cards close to the chest in its final moments, the film allows the full horror of its suggestiveness to linger in the mind all the more hauntingly.
The new 4K transfer of the film improves markedly on earlier editions when it comes to overall clarity and fine details. The color palette is brighter and more realistic, eliminating the "red shift" noticeable in MPI's previous Blu-ray release. Black levels are consistently dense, even in neon-lit nighttime scenes, while the frequently heavy grain is perfectly consistent with the film's origins on 16mm. The LPCM stereo track sounds solid enough, but the Master Audio remix really foregrounds the terrifyingly effective sample-and-drone score by Robert McNaughton, Steven A. Jones, and Ken Hale by opening it up across the front channels and lending it some real depth.
Dark Sky Films carry over almost all the supplemental materials from their earlier Blu-ray—absent only a half-hour TV show about Henry Lee Lucas—and add around two hours' worth of brand new extras. Among the older goodies, the John McNaughton commentary track and the making-of doc are both essential viewing, despite covering some of the same terrain. The new interview with McNaughton, moderated by filmmaker Spencer Parsons, serves as a career retrospective, spending most of its running time on the director's early years and filmography following Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Artist Joe Coleman talks about his initial exposure to the film and how he created the iconic poster art (available on the Blu-ray's reversible cover).
Stephen Thrower provides an excellent thumbnail history of the British Board of Film Certification, an in-depth analysis of the cuts and reedits to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer demanded by the BBFC, and an overview of the film's theatrical and home-video releases in the United Kingdom. "Henry vs. the MPAA" details the film's equally arduous release history stateside. (Interestingly, when submitted to the MPAA for recertification in 2016, the film was again slapped with the dreaded NC-17.) "In Defense of Henry" provides brief but perceptive analyses of the film's legacy from cult-film aficionado Joe Bob Briggs, documentarian Errol Morris (an early defender), director Joe Swanberg, film critic Kim Morgan, and film professor Jeffrey Sconce. Finally, there's an illustrated booklet that contains an essay from Stephen Thrower as well as technical specs on the 4K restoration.
John McNaughton's bleak and blackly humorous Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer gets a sharp new 4K transfer and a handful of edifying new supplements from Dark Sky Films.