John McNaughton created one of the most important independent films of the 1980s with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer—although for the most part audiences couldn’t see it until 1990, outside of the festival circuit and furtively distributed copies. McNaughton was inspired by an American TV special on 20/20 about Henry Lee Lucas, and the resulting film uses documentary aesthetics to tell a narrative story about a serial killer. That veneer of reality is what makes the film so disturbing, and also launched twin trends for films centred on serial killers and horror films using documentary techniques.
McNaughton had been making documentaries, including one on gangsters in 1930s Chicago, and his experience is reflected in his effective use of grainy 16mm footage. However, the most disturbing scene in the film is one where Henry and his sidekick Otis are getting off on watching home movies of their own crimes, at which point audiences also have to recognise their own complicity in watching true crime as entertainment.
Michael Rooker’s performance of Henry was almost method-acting-level in its believability. It centres the film, which was intended to be more like a fly-on-the-wall-style docudrama, but ended up having rigid and well-composed shot compositions after the departure of the original cinematographer. Despite the change of plans, it still feels very “real”—and that’s what makes Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer so interesting. There are also some aural treats in store for those who keep their ears open, like the use of The Sonics’ “Psycho” in a party scene.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is not a sensationalist film, which is why nearly 40 years later it still manages to be effective. Like the best horror films, from Psycho to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there is almost no violence on-screen. Instead, it’s a portrait of a man and his disturbed mind delivered almost entirely through Rooker’s inspired performance, and also avoiding the easy trap of blaming it all on childhood trauma.
The release from Arrow Video has two options, either UHD or standard Blu-Ray. The extra includes not one, not two but 3 commentary tracks from John McNaughton. The most recent one is with the film’s producer Steven A. Jones, the other two are solo. Nigel Floyd and McNaughton do scene specific commentary as well.
The rest of the extras are the making of documentary from 2005, a 2016 in-defence of featurette, various archival interviews with John McNaughton, even Joe Coleman who did the amazing original poster design is interviewed. Various features on the MPAA and BBFC censorship as well alongside deleted scenes, trailers and much more. It’s a definitive package, only thing missing is the old doc on the Henry Lee Lucas but I’m sure you can find a better one on YouTube. Lots of paper extras such as a poster, large booklet etc. are included in the limited edition.