Apr 16, 2022

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer 4K [18]

Dir: John McNaughton 

The Film 
For years, Henry was whispered about. It began screening at film festivals in 1986, but went unreleased in the US until 1990, largely because its producers were upset that they hadn't been given a more classical slasher film. In fact, director John McNaughton’s second film, The Borrower, would have beaten it to cinemas by two years, had its original distributor not closed. The problem for Henry wasn’t that it was bad, it was well-received by festival audiences and critics, but its subject and matter of fact, disturbing, presentation led to problems finding distribution and with the MPAA (to say nothing of the fights with the BBFC when it came to the UK). Before release, the film was apparently passed around industry circles on VHS, and in a way that’s still how it feels like it should be seen: a grubby artifact passed under the table. The fact it’s getting a 4K release seems almost antithetical to the movie it is.

McNaughton had made a couple of TV documentaries for producers Waleed and Malik Ali; profiles of gangsters composed of archive footage. When a planned series on wrestling fell apart, they simply offered him the same budget to make a film, stipulating only that it should be a horror movie. After being shown a segment of the TV show 20/20 about Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to around 300 murders (few, if any, of which it is now thought he actually committed), McNaughton determined that this would be the subject for his film. 

In many ways, though set and shot in Chicago, Henry is reminiscent of the New York set exploitation movies of the 70s. At a production level the circumstances are similar: it was shot on 16mm, without permits, for a shoestring budget, by a cast and crew who, almost to a man, were working on their first film. More than that though, it has a gritty street level feel that permeates the film. Everything, from the back alleys where Henry (Michael Rooker) and Otis (Tom Towles) kill their victims to the very walls of the apartment they share with Otis’s sister Becky (Tracy Arnold), seems streaked with the accumulated dirt of the city. 

There are, intentionally, exploitation elements to the film that serve to lull us, as an audience, into a sense of security. The most classical of these is the murder when Henry and Otis go to buy a TV. The stolen goods dealer who is showing them their options is a slob, more than that he’s rude, abrasive, and insulting. Throughout the scene we know he’s going to get his ‘comeuppance’ (never mind that he’s a much lesser offender here; rude, rather than a serial murderer), we’re anticipating it, and when it comes it goes to almost silly lengths. It’s a very traditional death. What it sets up, however, is the central and most disturbing, sequence in the film. 

Before the TV murder, Henry looks largely at the before and after of murder, whether it’s the series of tableaux of victims that opens the film, or Henry walking into the flat he shares with Otis with a very nice guitar. Asked where he got it he says “I picked it up”, but we’re privy to the context, we just haven’t seen the body of the hitch-hiker who was carrying it before. We see Henry stalk potential victims, spotting them in public and following in his car; locked in, but able to abandon any that don’t present an opportunity. Rooker’s nonchalance in these before and after moments is chilling. When we see killings play out, Henry is little more affected, at least by his own actions. Otis is another matter. If Henry is controlled and careful, picking his victims, varying his MO to avoid detection, Otis is all abandon, the two are equally destructive, but Henry has a line, a sexual one, that he won’t cross and is upset when Otis does. 

This is where the film’s most controversial, and most pivotal, scene comes in. Where Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (in either version) looks into camera and goads us to justify our relationship to the depiction of violence on screen, McNaughton does the same thing in a much more insidious way. As we see the terrorisation and killing of a whole family unfold on a TV screen, we understand that we’re watching back something Henry and Otis have filmed, but it’s only late in the sequence that McNaughton breaks and shows us that they too are watching, and that Otis then rewinds the sequence, and puts it in slow motion. The film doesn’t have to come out and say it, the implication is clear: you’re doing the same thing as these monsters. How do you feel about that? It’s a sequence that echoes through the audience’s relationship to not just this film, but the serial killer genre as a whole. 

Between killings, Henry, both film and to some degree character, is almost banal. Rooker looks like every blue-collar guy, you believe the sense that the film puts across that he’s in no danger of getting caught not because he’s particularly smart (certainly he has no forensic awareness) but because he’s someone you wouldn’t look twice at. Until the moment, he doesn’t appear dangerous. In this way, Henry’s outward ordinariness becomes terrifying. It perhaps this, along with the fact that she seems to have been conditioned to expect and accept the very worst from men, that draws Becky to Henry. Through her eyes, Henry’s psychopathy isn’t as troubling as it should be, because she sees it directed at protecting her from Otis and his incestuous advances. 

These are difficult characters to play; all damaged, two of them irredeemably evil. Becky is the innocent of the group, naively looking past Henry’s nature, even after he disconnectedly tells her how he killed his mother. Tracy Arnold’s performance is the overlooked gem of this film; she gives us Becky’s innate decency, but also the damage that has resulted from her tough life and in her looking for someone to trust anywhere she can, even in a psychopath. Rooker and Towles dive deep into their reprehensible characters, giving horribly compelling performances. Towles’ Otis is a pathetic monster, emboldened by Henry to the worst of his violent impulses, but driven by his own urges to sexual crimes. If not exactly star-making, Rooker’s performance certainly gave him a career, and it remains his finest work. The only sense we get of acting is the fact that we sometimes sense Henry first trying to appear normal, and the mask slipping for a moment. This is most notable in the sequence when he’s playing cards with Becky, the distance in his eyes and his answers showing the blankness of the monster beneath his facade of normalcy. It’s a terrifying piece of work. 

Henry is the kind of film that could only have been made under the circumstances that it was: tiny budget, full creative freedom, and the luck of some incredibly talented people coming together. It’s among the bleakest and most pitiless films ever made, and even though the confessions it’s based on turned out to be fabricated, the reality is that somebody did these things (or things very like them) and it’s probable that the person was just as outwardly ordinary and often was just as free to go on with their life as Henry is by the end of this film. The film itself is a horror masterpiece, but what’s truly frightening about it is that we can be sure there were, and are, many, many Henrys out there. 

The Disc and Extras 

In this new edition, Henry looks outstanding. Presented in native 4K from a new restoration, the film almost certainly looks better than it ever has. The print is free of blemishes and, while grain is present, it doesn’t swarm the picture. The detail is excellent, accentuating the down and dirty feel of the film. It’s perhaps not up with the very best 4K presentations, but that's down to the limitations of the source format rather than the quality of the work here. 

The extras package is beyond exhaustive. Two booklets collect several essays on the film and the complete storyboards. There are three commentaries, all featuring John McNaughton. I’ve not had time to listen to them yet, but based on his contributions elsewhere, I’m sure they’re all engaging, but I suspect there’s also going to be significant overlap. A collection of deleted scenes and outtakes is interesting. It’s a pity the sound has been lost, but McNaughton’s commentary fills in the gaps. A 2005 documentary, running 50 minutes, is a useful overview and, happily, features all the key people, including Tracy Arnold, who doesn’t seem to have commented on the film that often outside of this feature. 

Elsewhere are filmmakers appreciations of Henry, a documentary on killers with cameras in cinema, and video essays on the film’s history with both the MPAA and the BBFC. Interview features with McNaughton are provided from around the time of the film’s release in 1990 as well as in retrospect, from 1998 and 2016. Finally among the video extras is an interview with the designer of the film’s startling theatrical poster. It will take you several full days to work through all the content here. Take into account the package: a hard case with new poster art, as well as a double-sided poster and 6 postcards, and this must qualify as one of 2022’s most comprehensive and best releases. 

Apr 5, 2022

Spider-Man: No Way Home [12]

Dir: Jon Watts 
There have been many tries at adapting Spider-Man to the screen. Most have strengths, but all have their weaknesses. Sam Raimi’s films got Peter entirely right, with Tobey Maguire perfectly cast, but Spider-Man’s wisecracking wit got left behind somewhat. While Kirsten Dunst was good, the screenplays sanded off Mary Jane’s edges, and often leaned into cheese. The second of Raimi’s trilogy remains a hugely entertaining blockbuster, but even that one suffers from the wider problems of its franchise. I hate the Amazing Spider-Man films. Andrew Garfield clearly earnestly wanted to do the character justice, but only a couple of scenes throughout his tenure capture the character properly, and the problems are legion (reviews here and here). 

The Marvel Cinematic Universe initially couldn’t use Spider-Man but, with rights issues negotiated, he finally showed up, in the form of Tom Holland, for Captain America: Civil War, before the MCU embarked on what has become the Home trilogy of films. Like the other franchises centering on the character, it’s had its ups and downs. The first film, Homecoming, confirms what Civil War suggested: Tom Holland is a great choice, and this time not just as Peter Parker. For the first time, that film consistently nails down the persona of Peter’s Spider-Man; a witty kid who has a quip ready for every occasion. We get the sense here that the Spider-Man costume empowers him to that end, drawing a better-defined distinction between Peter in and out of costume than ever before. However, it’s not entirely a Spider-Man film. Far too much time is spent in service of the larger MCU, especially of featuring Iron Man. The film is at its best when Peter is doing his ‘friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man’ thing, and particularly when he’s in his own costume. The suit that Tony Stark made for him undermines Peter’s trademark intellect and ingenuity by, first of all, having to be something he got from another brilliant scientist, and secondly by doing too much for him. The sequel, Far From Home, doubles down on these problems while also stripping out much of Spidey’s wit. The use of Mysterio’s illusions is fantastic in a couple of late action scenes, but otherwise, it’s a weak film. 

That brings us to No Way Home. The marketing had me worried, the reliance on Dr Strange, the use of the Multiverse, which suggested nothing so much as a desperate attempt to make a live action version of Into The Spiderverse (still, hands down, the greatest Spider-Man film). Happily, this is easily the best of the MCU’s Spider-Man series, and probably one of the best films to feature the character. 

No Way Home picks up directly after the ending of Far From Home. Peter’s secret identity has been revealed to the world by J. Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons, reprising the role from the Raimi series, only this time as an Alex Jones style ranting commentator). This has major repercussions, as Spider-Man is thought by many to have murdered Mysterio, and the effects reverberate onto Peter’s friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), and his aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Most consequentially, the controversy means that Peter, Ned and MJ are all rejected from what should have been almost sure thing places at MIT. Wanting to set things right, Peter goes to Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to ask him to cast a spell that will make people forget that he is Spider-Man. In his haste, he makes Strange change the spell so many times as it is in progress that it goes wrong, creating a crack in the multiverse that lets in anyone who knows, in any universe, that Peter is Spider-Man. 

I’m sorry for that long introduction, but it was important to set the pieces here, because that crack in the Multiverse pulls in many of the villains from the earlier Spider-Man franchises. No Way Home is soaked in Spider-Man lore, both from the earlier films and from the comics (often drawing the earlier versions of the characters much closer to their source material). There is no way to cover this without spoilers, so if you’ve not seen the film yet, beware. 

The first 40 minutes of No Way Home are MCU Spider-Man as we’ve come to expect, in both good and bad ways. I struggled with the point of Ned in the first film in the trilogy. The writers struggled with the point of him in the second, saddling him with a romance so prosaic they wrote it out at the end of the film. Here though, the dynamic between Peter, Ned and MJ feels much more balanced. They’re not well established as a trio in the first two films, but this film depicts them as much closer. It’s a little clumsy, but well played. There’s a sense that an offscreen friendship is bleeding into the film, and we do get a little invested in them all going to college together. The consequences of Peter’s identity being discovered could have been heavier (perhaps an alternate version would have leaned into a certain cameo and given us a trial of Spider-Man narrative), but what does weigh on Peter feels authentically life-altering for a teenager. I buy into the idea of Peter, used to fixing things with superpowers, looking first for that kind of solution. As ever, the points at which the film has to service the expansion of the MCU are its weakest. Worse, you can barely tell a difference in tone between the writing of Dr Strange (or many other characters) and Peter, when it comes to wisecracking, which is a perennial problem for the series. Overall, the first act is fine, but nothing new. 

The bridge scene is when things kick into gear, with the appearance of Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus. Molina positively relishes the part, and Jon Watts stages an imaginative action scene, with the fact that Doc Ock’s tentacles are now fully CG giving them somewhat greater freedom. It’s also a well-written scene when it comes to Peter’s character; he’s curious about why this man has suddenly appeared and attacked him, but it also incorporates some of Spidey’s humour, especially in his delight when he discovers how the nanotech of the Iron Spider suit interacts with the tentacles. It’s a tremendously entertaining sequence that combines all the best qualities of Spider-Man. 

Bringing the old villains in one by one allows Watts and writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers the chance to do a soft reboot on them, fixing some issues that fans had with the original cinematic incarnations. Jamie Foxx still plays Electro, but he’s no longer the Edward Nygma knockoff of Amazing Spider-Man 2; his powers have given him a swagger that Foxx is much more comfortable with, while a late change in look gives hints of the original comic character’s lightning bolt mask, without going for the full silliness of that look. Similarly, the Green Goblin of the Raimi films is retconned a little. Willem Dafoe continues to play him with the same glee he had in 2002, but the Power Ranger mask is smashed early on, and Norman takes on a look much closer to the classic John Romita design, purple cowl intact. For someone who has always loved the character, it’s a near perfect mix of something credible within its world and preserving the comic book look. 

What works best about the film though is that while the fanservice is present and correct, it’s not what the film is about. With great power, every Spidey series tells us, comes great responsibility, and even before that phrase has been uttered in this continuity, that’s what this film has Peter embracing. It’s also worth noting that the twist on how that maxim is delivered here works well. It hit me emotionally, both because of an affection for the characters its between and how it pays indirect tribute to the way it’s usually shown. The villains Peter encounters may have been teleported in from other dimensions, but he feels a responsibility to them and to the other people in those dimensions not to simply kill these people, but to cure them: to send them back as the decent people they once were. It’s a great encapsulation of the main lesson of Spider-Man and just one of the ways that this—finally—is an MCU movie about Spidey himself. Dr Strange may facilitate the mechanics of the plot here, but this isn’t about Peter’s relationship to him, or his place in The Avengers the way the other films in this series are. This is a film about finally becoming the hero that his powers make it possible to be, whatever the consequences. It’s also a film about connection: to friends who are essentially family, to a parent like May and, of course, to the only people Peter knows who share his experience. 

Even though Andrew Garfield denied it repeatedly, it was always clear that he and Tobey Maguire would be reprising their roles, playing alternate Peter Parkers (Peters Parker?) What was a pleasing surprise to me was how substantial their roles are in terms of screentime and what they contribute. If the reclaiming of the old characters and the moving of them closer to the established lore is largely subtext, one scene with Garfield makes it supertext. In a pep talk the others comfort Garfield’s Parker as he does himself down—clearly a reference to the Amazing series' critical and fan reception. Garfield is great here, it seems that this is everything he ever wanted his Peter to be, and there are some lovely moments as he relates to older and younger versions of ‘himself’. His excitement at being along for this ride is both palpable and contagious. No, it doesn’t mean the  Amazing series is suddenly good. Maguire seems a little less sure about being back, but that works for his older and more reflective Peter. It makes me wonder if he’s still doing the superhero thing in his part of the multiverse. The reference to his MJ is sweet, but I do wish we’d seen Kirsten Dunst reprise her role. 

Pulling three Spideys and something close to a full Sinister Six together for the final action sequence does mean the film’s ending is busy, but it’s also pretty exciting and surprisingly easy to follow. Watts and team break the sequence into a series of mini setpieces, and the costumes and styles are distinctive enough that it doesn’t get lost which Spider-Man we’re following at any given time. The theme of responsibility, and of the cost Peter was trying to avoid, comes full circle with the ending (which also has one image that nods poignantly to the ending of Raimi’s first film). It’s here that I really felt the point of spending so much time with Ned in the two previous films. While Homecoming was a teen movie, the ending makes this one feel like a true coming of age story for Holland’s Peter. There’s an innocence the character used to have that we’ll likely never see again. 

No Way Home has many of the flaws familiar in MCU films. Ultimately it’s just as anonymous looking as any of them, and I don’t doubt that any of the Marvel directors could have delivered much the same movie, given the same second units. That said, this was never intended to be auteur cinema. If the MCU delivers films almost as a mechanical process, this one feels like it’s been delivered by a machine that has been tinkered with, retooled to work at its highest potential. It’s the MCU Spider-Man film I’d been hoping for, and while it’s not perfect (and hasn’t a single image as indelible as Spiderverse’s ‘falling upwards’ shot), that feels like as much as I could have asked of it. 

Apr 4, 2022

Much Ado about Much Ado: Interview with the Shakespeare sisters

In this audio interview, I spoke to Hillary and Anna-Elizabeth Shakespeare, screenwriters and directors of Soundtrack to Sixteen, which I've been a big fan of since its premiere in 2019 about their new film, Much Ado: a British, teen movieesque take on Much Ado About Nothing.
Much Ado

We talked about adaptation, working as a directorial team, delivering 400 year old dialogue casually and much more. You can listen to our discussion below, and head over to Hey U Guys for my review of the film.

If you want to know more about Soundtrack to Sixteen, Much Ado, or their upcoming projects, you'll find Hillary and Anna on Twitter and Facebook.