The controversial low budget independent film from (then) first time feature director John McNaughton is released on Blu-Ray in all its gory glory. But how does it stand a quarter of a century on when censorship has changed and the face of the horror genre has become more extreme and violent?
Henry comes across as a regular guy. He has a part time job and lives in a seedy apartment with his friend Otis. But Henry is a killer who derives pleasure from engaging in savage and brutally instigated acts of murder, whether his victims be male, female or children. Henry is clinical and meticulous when it comes to homicide. And he teaches Otis how to become a serial killer. Matters become more complex when the pair are joined by Otis’s sister Becky who comes to live with them while she tries to earn money having recently broken up with her boyfriend. Henry and Becky are attracted to each other, but can they possibly form a relationship?
When the film was initially released in the UK it had to deal with much more stringent censorship regulations which meant that it was released in a cut version because it was considered to be so extreme. However, attitudes to violence have also moved on in the intervening years, particularly with the emergence of notable horror sub-genres such as the torture porn of the Saw and Hostel franchises, which were designed to dwell on the suffering of the characters, but also the approach to brutal criminality in noir and crime television series such as Dexter and CSI.
Despite its age Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer remains a deeply disturbing film. Although marketed as a horror film on its initial release, it defies such simple categorisation. Yes, the murders depicted are brutal and ruthless but the film doesn’t simply rely on shock value. Indeed it takes an almost documentary approach to the analysis of its titular character. Looking beyond the horrific act of murder, it also makes a point of depicting the mundane elements of Henry’s everyday life – the routine, the boredom. The acts of brutal violation have not become less shocking in the years since the film was first released. The scene where Henry and Otis murder an entire family and film it using a stolen video camera then watch their actions afterwards emphasises the relentless and remorseless nature of their characters and makes the film such a powerful viewing experience.
By no means an easy watch Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has not dated. It feels surprisingly contemporary and is still shocking. The Blu-ray does offer strong pictorial transfer but the main interest lies with the additional material, including a commentary and interviews with director John McNaughton and the documentaries Portrait: The Making of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas (a real serial killer about whom Henry was ostensibly based).