****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+
starring Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles
written by Richard Fire & John McNaughton
directed by John McNaughton
by Walter Chaw John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (hereafter Henry) is one of the great black comedies. At its heart is the basis of Judd Apatow's gross-out flicks: body horror, deviant sexuality, deep ignorance-unto-actual stupidity, questionable decisions and their consequences, and brilliant bits of deadpan humour dependent upon timing and situation. Similarly, it derives its effectiveness from a keen observation of male heterosexual relationships and the peril implicit therein. The sole distinction, really, is that Apatow and his followers believe in conservative, family-values resolutions whereas Henry ends in essential, sucking nihilism. It's a distinction that draws the line between something that's considered to be a comedy and something that's widely discussed as possibly the most unpleasant American film ever made. What most have identified as pessimistic, however, I would just call vérité, now more than ever. At least for me, Henry had about it an almost palpable air of taboo. Though shot in 1986, it was released in Denver in 1990, when I was 17. I read Roger Ebert's cautionary, celebratory review of it, which made me afraid. When I saw it, I saw it alone. For its wisdom, it's never quite left me.
There are several big laugh lines in the film, though it took me at least three viewings to find humour in it. And when it does strike me as funny now, it makes me feel slightly manic--hysterical, sour. My favourite laugh is when Becky (Tracy Arnold) says they should call the police following a particularly grisly series of events, and Henry (Michael Rooker) replies, off-camera, "I don't think that would be a good idea." Another good one is when, after Becky tells Henry she loves him, he drones, inflectionless, "I guess I love you, too." There's also the entire sequence in which Henry explains how the key to getting away with murder is varying your tactics and his buddy, Otis (Tom Towles), requires some subtle clarification. The timing is impeccable, and the cast, for all the praise Rooker gets, is underestimated for their attention to detail.
Otis, on further reflection, has as much an interest in Henry as a potential sexual partner as does his sister, poor Becky, who asks Henry if it's true that he murdered his mother and receives three separate responses in the course of one conversation--not as to whether he has (he's pretty sure he did), but how he did it. It's a neat inversion of the romantic-comedy trope of the "getting to know you" chat and the planting of the seed for temporary separation before the inevitable joyful reunion. "But I thought you said you stabbed her," Becky asks incredulously. "Oh yeah," Henry says, rapture in his eyes. When he talks about his whore mother making him watch, it has the exact cadence of H.I.'s cellmate in Raising Arizona talking about eating sand. To her credit, Becky falls in love with Henry anyway. Substitute George Clooney and Julia Roberts and suddenly you have one of the Coen Brothers' pitch-black comedies about the tragedy of being human.
The picture's influence can be felt, too, in the '90s' shift from analog to digital as new technologies began to make impossible things commonplace. It's Forrest Gump inserted, Zelig-like, into analog history. It's the Titanic sinking again. It's eventually this seepage into the modern psyche that reliable visual documents are a thing of the past: Everything is subjective; and everything is subject to manipulation. We no longer trust the evidence of our eyes. It's a dangerous Kantian philosophy that's constantly abused by the very powerful and the very stupid (sometimes one and the same). It's Orwell's prediction of state propaganda literalized. Consider how McNaughton approaches the subject with a now-legendary (it's all legendary, let's face it) scene where Henry and Otis "go shopping" for a back-alley television set from the world's most loathsome pre-Trump human (Ray Atherton, who should've gotten an Oscar). They discover among his hoard a camcorder. Otis asks what it is. A light goes on.
Henry itself is only really possible because of the home-video phenomenon: It was funded by videocassette producers on a shoestring budget with the intention of exploiting the newish direct-to-video market. The notorious home-invasion sequence in the middle of the film, which we witness on a television playing a grainy, consumer-grade tape, speaks not only to the immediacy offered by the format, but also to the phenomenon of illicit materials worming their way from houses of disrepute into middle-class living rooms. It predicts, too, the floating-bag sequence in 1999's fin de siècle American Beauty, the film whose thesis is that the only character in control of "truth" is the guy wielding the camcorder. The light that goes on for Otis is one indicating religious discovery: he's found, literally, his Maker. The age of film as a trusted source of information is effectively over. Henry is as existentially devastating and prophetic of the coming disintegration of meaning as its contemporary, sex, lies, and videotape.
Henry is based loosely on Henry Lee Lucas, a self-confessed serial killer who claimed hundreds of victims but probably only murdered dozens. The movie depicts Henry's mute day-to-day choosing victims and working as an exterminator before settling into a domestic rhythm as he bunks with Otis ("Ottis" in real life) and Becky in a tiny apartment. They eat the food Becky cooks, have meaningless, venal conversations about nothing (it plays almost as Pirandello in the repeated homilies that comprise their dinner conversations), and occasionally Henry and Otis venture out in the world to kill people. Nothing seems to excite Henry, but he does get angry when Otis occasionally tries to incestually rape Becky. The vision of their existence at once evokes Socrates's death-bed dictum that an unexamined life is not worth living and provides surprisingly-sympathetic insight into what those lives not worth living look like. They're products of abuse, mental disorders, poverty, and the yawning inability of any sort of civil or social service to correct them. Henry in a very real way is a conversation about an entire, festering subculture of the uneducated, uncouth, and deplorable. There's a brilliant moment where it's revealed that Henry is not merely illiterate, but hopelessly illiterate. He can't read an "I ♥ Chicago" T-shirt. Henry, remember, is the teacher in this film--the mentor, the love interest, the model of masculinity. The wisdom of that, of his interactions with a fawning Otis--who needs to be sternly brought to heel now and again--and of Becky's attraction to this glowering Quasimodo, is subtle enough to pass as subtext, though in reality it's almost the totality of Henry's power: It's not "evil" that's magnetic, it's the recognition of the collective lizard brain. In 2017, we recognize the devastating impact of what happens when lizard men tap into that primal thrum. Reality remolds itself. We recognized it in 1936, too. Nothing much has changed with us. In fairness, evolution tends to take millennia.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of the key documents of our time. It's a predictor of everything because of its ability to ask ultimate questions; a keen anthropologist of human cultural evolution. Recast Henry, Otis, and Becky as macaques in a zoo exhibit and the tensions are identical. The pastimes, too. Apes don't generally read, have enlightened conversations, come and go talking of Michelangelo, as it were. Apes want to fuck, kill each other, eat, rape if that's an option, sit around, hoot--you know, the finer things. The film is brilliant in how it frame humans as a subset of primates, particularly when the humans in question are too stupid and/or damaged to aspire to anything else. It's a sequel-in-spirit to Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and an even stronger statement on the idealism of civilization and its glaring limitations when it comes to controlling its base constituent. When Henry passes knowledge to Otis, it's Tarzan in the jungle passing tribal wisdom. There are elements of the social activism of Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair, the idea that there are leaders in the wilderness and the led--that the real horror in our insular worlds comes when the predated-upon produce predators. What's terrifying to the Right is the Left's sometimes-tone deaf, often-ignorant championing of social activism. What's terrifying to the Left is the Right's open celebration of bullying and ignorance. Each have taken it as birthright to oppress a certain kind of person. Henry offers a hero of the Right in the full flower of his power. He's stupid. Worse, he's massively incurious. He creates his own truth. He brutalizes the weak (a scene where he and Otis murder a good Samaritan is chilling, from the slack-jawed taunts to the senseless slaughter). He brutalizes women. He is driven by sex and power, and, eventually, he brings down his own house because of his appetites. He is Mr. Potter. He's Donald Trump.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Dark Sky brings Henry to Blu-ray again in honour of the film's "real" 30th Anniversary, and the presentation is frankly revelatory. Pillarboxed to 1.33:1, the 1080p transfer is sourced from a new 4K scan of the original 16mm negative, completed on a "pin-registration Arriscan film scanner." Subtle details flood to the surface, and there's a depth of colour that simply wasn't there before, warming the image in ways not ungratifying. Grain has intensified but also looks more natural, while a significant increase in dynamic range avoids the black crush of the previous DVD and Blu-ray. (Now you can catch Otis making eye contact with the camera at one point, but the moody naturalism of the overhead lighting in the shot hasn't been sacrificed, nor has the depth of shadows elsewhere.) All of it is impressively rendered without the artifacts that tended to pop up now and again on the 2009 Blu-ray, despite a slightly-underwhelming average bitrate of 29.8 Mbps. Those who, like me, are most familiar with the film from VHS will honestly be a little shocked it looks this good, or even that it could. I'm touched, too, that this effort was expended on a film so notoriously difficult to champion. The new, "sweetened" 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is similarly laudable, respecting the original stereo mix (also on board, in 2-channel LPCM) while bringing it up to date in the sense that it sounds fuller and broader. The documentary tone of the dialogue recording--save two lines, all of it impressively captured on set--remains unchanged.
A note that I met director John McNaughton in 2015. He was one of several guests we invited over the course of October to the Alamo Drafthouse in Denver. We screened Henry and spent hours talking movies and music. He's an exceptional human being: smart, principled, well-spoken. His films are due for critical revision. Moderated by David Gregory, McNaughton's feature-length commentary, first recorded for the 2005 DVD, is filled with rich anecdotes. I particularly like the story, which he re-told during our post-screening Q&A, about a woman fleeing an early screening of the film, deeply upset by it. Rooker was standing outside the theatre door, and she ran right into the arms of Henry himself. This is a great yakker, amiable and intelligent. Henry's detractors would do well to give it a listen.
"In Defense of Henry" (21 mins., HD) has folks like Errol Morris--who picked Henry as one of his curator selections at the 1989 Telluride Film Festival (where he wondered if some people mistook it for Kenneth Branagh's Henry V)--and Kim Gordon discussing the movie's importance and the unpopular opinion that, yes, it's really funny. "Henry vs. MPAA: A Visual History" (11 mins., HD) is a very fine walk through the origins of the MPAA and the film's battle against an X-rating. Take it as a piece with "Henry at the BBFC: An Interview with Stephen Thrower" (27 mins.), in which the writer/historian talks in great detail about the parallel issues Henry faced in the UK during the peak of censorship hysteria. Fascinatingly, the BBFC not only excised footage from the home-invasion sequence--they re-edited it to reveal, earlier, that we're watching a recording with Henry and Otis. Thrower is learned and reasonable.
"It's Either You or Them: An Interview with Artist Joe Coleman" (9 mins., HD) profiles the artist of the 1989 poster for Henry (left), which I actually own. When I showed it to McNaughton, he commented that it was rare. All I knew is that it's one of my favourite pieces of poster art from that period. Dark Sky includes it on the flipside of the Blu-ray jacket. You can invert it: wear its insides out, as they say. I recommend doing so. Coleman relates Henry at one point to Badlands. I love that. He says "there's nothing obscene anymore," an amazing thing to say, and he says that in his art he wanted to capture the essence of Henry's humanity. Joe Coleman is a hero. "In the Round: A Conversation with John McNaughton" (28 mins., HD) has Spencer Parsons interviewing McNaughton, going over some of the filmmaker's background and touching on the class issues in Henry. McNaughton talks about how his vision of America was learned from his father and is based on the idea that you should always fight for the underdog. It's enough to make you cry, really.
"Portrait: The Making of Henry" (52 mins., SD) is the Blue Underground-produced doc from the previous release, going into wonderful detail about the ideation, making, and execution of the film. McNaughton and Rooker reflect on the challenges of the shoot, including stuff like Rooker's need to separate himself from the character (ha) and how difficult that was. We learn that Rooker modelled a lot of Henry's behaviours on his own disadvantaged family, and that the production was too poor to afford wardrobe, forcing Rooker to take off his jacket before he killed people because it was his jacket and he didn't want to get blood on it. In addition to Rooker, the late Towles and Tracy Arnold contribute to the piece. Both are obviously smart, dedicated artists. It's lovely to hear their thoughts.
Elizabeth Kaden, the actress who plays the wife in the home-invasion video, reveals that McNaughton nixed a necrophilia sequence. It's interesting that he did, as it offers another opportunity for Henry to demonstrate his particular code of ethics. Arnold admits to having passed out for real during her rape scene, waking up to apologize for missing her cue while everyone scrambled to call 9-1-1. This doc is the definitive piece on this film; there will never be a better one. Twenty-one minutes of deleted scenes are presented in SD with commentary from McNaughton and Gregory. There's no native sound to the outtakes, unfortunately. These elisions contain some character-development stuff McNaughton found redundant. I love that he says "sometimes you try too hard not to be obvious." That's brilliant. Entire film-school semesters should be about that. Also: "Redundancy is death in cinema." There's a scene here that uncovers a literal homosexual backstory for Henry and Otis, which mirrored the true story, I think, although McNaughton saw it as perhaps feeding into too much potential opportunity for (erroneous) motivation. I usually don't get much out of discarded material, but the stuff McNaughton shares here about his process is vital, insightful. He spends a few of the clips just giggling. In another deletion, an intruder tries to rape Becky but she is saved by Henry. It's gone mainly because that would make it too obvious, I think, why Becky loves Henry. Brilliant. Anyway, I watched these twice. I never do that.
An "Interview with John McNaughton, 1998" (31 mins., SD) from the long-OOP MPI DVD sees the director expounding on his influences, as well as his obsession with television and film. In our conversations, he mentioned a memorable double-feature where he finished watching The Exorcist, turned around, and bought a ticket for Mean Streets. (That's a good day at the movies.) This is another great chat featuring admirably little overlap with the other segments and a great sidebar on the revolutionary invention of the Sony Portapak, the camera that Henry and Otis use. A restored original trailer for Henry (2 mins., HD) took me right back. The special 30th Anniversary trailer (2 mins., HD) is surprisingly good as well. An extended stills gallery comprises press-kit material, BTS outtakes, and other ephemera, while a separate feature showcases the fantastic storyboards Frank Coronado prepared for the film. It rounds out the disc proper. Thrower's liner notes are essentially the script for his interview, but the last page of the insert booklet offers up technical notes on the transfer that will be invaluable to the A/V geek.