Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – USA, 1986

 

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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a 1986 horror film directed and co-written by John McNaughton (The Borrower; The Harvest) with Richard Fire about the random crime spree of a serial killer who seemingly operates with impunity.

The film stars Michael Rooker (The Dark Half; SlitherThe Walking Dead) as the nomadic killer Henry, Tom Towles (Night of the Living Dead 1990; The Pit and the Pendulum; The Devil’s Rejects) as Otis, a prison buddy with whom Henry is living, and Tracy Arnold as Becky, Otis’ sister. The character of Henry is loosely based on real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas.

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On December 6, 2016, a 30th Anniversary Blu-ray was released in North America by Dark Sky Films. The film is restored in 4K from the original 16mm camera negatives with a new 5.1 audio mix from the stereo 35mm mag reels, all approved by director John McNaughton. Special features:

  • In Defense of Henry: An Appreciation
  • Henry vs MPAA: A Visual History
  • Henry at the BBFC
  • It’s Either You or Them: An Interview with Artist Joe Coleman
  • In The Round: A Conversion with John McNaughton
  • Portrait: The Making of Henry
  • Deleted scenes & outtakes
  • Audio commentary with John McNaughton
  • 1998 interview with John McNaughton
  • Original trailer
  • 30th anniversary trailer
  • Still gallery
  • Storyboards

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Buy: Amazon.com

In 1984, executive producers Malik B. Ali and Waleed B. Ali of Maljack Productions hired a former delivery man for their video equipment rental business, John McNaughton, to direct a documentary about gangsters in Chicago during the 1930s. Dealers in Death was a moderate success, and was well received critically, so the Ali brothers kept McNaughton on as director for a second documentary, this time about the Chicago wrestling scene in the 1950s. When that was cancelled, Waleed and McNaughton decided that the money for the documentary could instead be used to make a feature film. The Ali brothers gave McNaughton $110,000 to make the film, with the provisos being that it was to be a horror film with plenty of blood.

McNaughton commented: “The monster is indeed real, he walks among us in the world, from town to town – perhaps even yours – and he is waiting outside the cinema for his next victim to be chosen at random”.

HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, Michael Rooker, 1986

Although the film was made in 1986, it was not released in the US until 1990 partly due to repeated disagreements with the MPAA over the movie’s violent content, partly due to the executive producers not knowing how to market it, and partly their not thinking it was a very good film. The film was given an X rating by the MPAA but ultimately released in the United States without a rating. In Roger Ebert’s review of the film, he writes that the MPAA told the filmmakers that no possible combination of edits would have qualified their movie for an R rating, indicating that the ratings issue did not simply involve graphic violence.

In the UK, the film has had a long and complex relationship with the BBFC (see Wikipedia for full details of the film’s censorship history).

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In 2003, Optimum Releasing again submitted a fully uncut version of the film for classification for home video release. In February 2003, the BBFC passed the film completely uncut, and in March 2003, the uncut version of the film was officially released in the UK for the first time.

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A sequel, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part II, was released in 1996.

Reviews [click links to read more]:

Henry is not a pretty picture. It’s well acted, brilliantly written, and all technical aspects of the film are better than average for such a low-budget excursion. But this isn’t a film to turn on for a good time. If you want to be disturbed and be bombarded with perverse killings, then flip on Henry.” Casey Scott, DVD Drive-In

“Taking his cues from Peeping Tom and snuff movies, first-time director John McNaughton delivers a self-mocking sideswipe against screen violence in this subversive 16mm shocker … Like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, this is a movie so cheap and dirty that it almost feels real, with a sense of raw immediacy that no amount of budget could ever replicate.” Tom Huddleston, Time Out

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Buy: Amazon.co.uk

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a dark, brooding and all too honest attempt at a character study of the unlikeliest sorts…an almost ‘sympathetic’ serial killer. The question as to how much of what’s told here actually carries over to the real world is more than debatable, but in the end, doesn’t lessen the impact or importance of the film in the least.” Lawrence P Raffel, Monsters at Play

“I see Henry as a Halloween tale for grown-ups: skilfully made, convincing while it lasts, packing a few nasty twists and some seriously disturbing images, but not ultimately rooted in any deep understanding of what makes a psychopath, and so not chilling in a way that outlasts the taut running time. Maybe I’m just desensitised?” David Cairns, Electric Sheep

Offline reading:

There is a detailed chapter on the film in Horror Films by James Marriott (Virgin Books) – Buy from Amazon.co.uk

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The artwork by Joe Coleman was deemed to be too strong and dropped in favour of a still (see below)

henry portrait of a serial killer 1986 movie poster

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