Dir: John McNaughton
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.
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.