If there’s one thing the latest wave of true-crime documentaries and dramas has proven once again, it is that we ‘normal’ folk have a real morbid curiosity about serial killers. But while recent adaptations have been often disturbing in their historical content, they’re largely becoming increasingly rather tame in delivery. The subgenre has become very accessible in the Netflix era. But back in 1986, one controversial gorefest took us right into the mind of a killer like never before or since, and it remains an unforgettably harrowing experience 36 years later. This is, and always will be, a very tough film to stomach.
Given a measly $110,000 to make a bloody horror film after the initial plan for a wrestling documentary fell through due to issues securing archive materials, first-time feature filmmaker John McNaughton knew his budget was too restrictive to make anything too showy. A creature feature was certainly not on the cards. The director was unsure how to proceed, until he serendipitously saw a television documentary on notorious killer Henry Lee Lucas. Here was a real horror that could be made cheaply but would ultimately be far scarier than any big, blood-thirsty monsters ever committed to film.
Deciding on a gritty, grisly fictionalisation of Lucas’ crimes, McNaughton brought in family, friends, and even members of the film’s crew to make up large chunks of the supporting cast alongside fellow first-timer Michael Rooker in the lead role. The result offers an uncomfortable realism in its approach, evoking chilling horror from real-life monsters in a film that often looks and feels like a documentary. Telling the entire tale from the perspective of the titular psychopath and not focusing on any police investigation, or the private lives of his victims, takes us right into his dark, twisted mind – all we as audience can do is sit and witness as he commits a parade of hideous crimes alongside his equally deranged acquaintance Otis (Tom Towles). One infamous sequence in the film in which Henry and Otis slaughter a family remains one of the most upsetting and distressing moments in cinematic history.
The film’s simple narrative follows Henry as he prowls the streets on a brutal and seemingly motiveless spree of murder while slowly mentoring Otis in his ways. When Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) moves in with the pair, it soon becomes clear that three is a crowd…
Similar in its gritty, 16mm visuals and horrifying subject matter to films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, Henry is a film you experience rather than watch. There isn’t one single shred of humour or kindness in the film, and even at a brief 83 minutes, it becomes something of an endurance test. With each scene packed full of disturbing, distressing shocks, and grimly intense between them, it is not a film viewers can soon forget. The experience is now more disturbing than ever thanks to a stellar 4K restoration supervised by McNaughton – and while this film is never going to look particularly clean or pretty, this is certainly the best and most impactful it has ever looked. Bleak and upsetting throughout, the film’s grainy visuals only support the feeling of being right there with Henry and Otis and further lend to the aforementioned feeling of gritty realism that the film exudes.
Henry has had a long, storied history with censorship – particularly in the UK – and the new release’s bonus features and limited edition booklet certainly offer fascinating insight into this with featurettes “Henry vs. MPAA” and “Henry at the BBFC”, while other aspects of the film’s production, content, and legacy are thoroughly explored too. For those interested in film censorship and release, this is an essential film to study.
As ever with Arrow Video, this is a truly definitive release that presents the film in its best possible quality while offering up a generous array of supplemental features. Fans of the film (if such a thing exists) will be delighted, and this is easily the best possible way for brave newcomers to experience the film. Over 30 years on, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer remains one of the most disturbing and upsetting films of its genre. While it’s not a film you enjoy, it’s certainly one that you will never forget. While your mileage may vary with how much of the film you can stomach, there’s no denying that it is a stunningly directed and performed journey into the mind of madness.
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER is available on Limited Edition Blu-ray and Limited Edition 4K UHD on 18 April 2022 from Arrow Video