One of the things I like best about re-visiting horror classics around this time every year for our annual Halloween round-up on this site is occasionally finding one that’s not just every bit as good as what I remembered, but even better. Sure, the years haven’t been kind to many flicks I once thought of as being seminal examples of the genre, but once in awhile I take a fresh look at something and find that it’s not only held up damn well over the ensuing decades, but that it’s an even stronger and more effective work than what I remember it as being.
Such is definitely the case with John McNaughton’s groundbreaking shot-in-1986-but-not-released-until-1990 effort Henry : Portrait Of A Serial Killer, a not just street level, but gutter level piece of ultra-low-budget guerrilla film-making based (loosely, I grant you) on the exploits of notorious sociopath Henry Lee Lucas and his semi-retarded cousin, Otis Toole — specifically on their brief time in the Chicago area.
Yeah, sure, this film’s been available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Dark Sky Films in an impressive “special edition” package loaded with extras (but no commentary, damnit!) and featuring a reversible cover with Joe Coleman’s stunning poster art (as pictured below) on the “flip side,” but for all of you too cheap and/or broke to give this movie a permanent place on your shelf, the good news is that it’s also now featured as part of Netflix’s instant streaming queue as well — so watch it, will ya?
Honestly, you’ll thank me for it later. I admit that even though I actually do own this one, it had been several years since I’d given it a spin, and that’s well-nigh unforgivable of me because it really is “all that” and then some. From the “cinema verite” direction of McNaughton to the “goddamn but he/she absolutely nails it” performances of Michael Rooker as Henry, Tom Towles as Otis, and Tracy Arnold as Otis’ sister/Henry’s nominal romantic interest Becky, everybody here is firing on all cylinders creatively, and the end result is a flick that flat-out burns a path into the deepest recesses of your subconscious and never loses its grip once there. You want a truly memorable viewing experience? Look no further, my friend.
Henry seethes with menace from the word “go,” but it’s also not afraid to fuck with your sentiments in a very careful, methodical way as well — you really do sorta hope, for reasons you’re never able /comfortable enough to put your finger on, that our brooding anti-hero might be capable of turning over a new leaf and making a go of it with Becky, but shit —- you also know you’re doomed to be let down on that score, because he is who he is and ain’t nothin’ gonna change that. Still, when he offs her at the end (shit, did I just give too much away?), it still packs a mean wallop even though by all rights it shouldn’t.
McNaughton’s got a lot to say about the nature of what most of us right-thinking (honestly, I swear I am!) folks consider to be “evil” here, and about how a leopard can never change its spots, but he does it in such a free-form, unpretentious manner that you never feel like he’s lecturing you. Why he never went on to become an “A-list” talent as a director I’ll never know — an unwillingness to put up with Hollywood bullshit is probably at the top of the list of reasons — and the same can be said for all the principal players involved here, most of whom have had pretty nice careers (Rooker’s been in everything from Oliver Stone’s JFK to, most recently, The Walking Dead, for instance), but none of whom have ever earned quite the recognition level they deserve.
Oh well. They can all look back on this one with a hell of a lot of pride.
And you should look back on this one, as well — immediately. Horror doesn’t get any more real, or any better, than this — and neither do movies in general. I may just give it another go when I get done writing this myself.
I’ll close on a weird historical note : while governor of Texas, George W. Bush is infamous for supposedly never granting a single appeal to a convict facing “Ol’ Sparky” — he signed enough warrants of execution to mark him as a pretty goddamn prolific serial killer himself, in fact. You name ’em, he killed ’em — an elderly grandmother who shot her husband dead after decades of physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse? He fried her. A guy whose “defense” lawyer slept through his trial, showed up drunk more than once, and belched and farted throughout the proceedings? Bush figured he got a fair shake and deserved to die. But his reputation for never granting one solitary stay of execution? That’s false. He commuted the death sentence for one — and only one — convict in his tenure as governor. Can you guess who was the recipient of his sole act of compassion?
You got it —Henry Lee Lucas, despite being convicted of over a dozen murders and confessing to well over 300, a number which would make him number one on the all-time list by a wide margin, was granted a stay of execution by the guy who would later go on to implement torture of poor Afghan and Iraqi goat farmers and teenagers as “intelligence-gathers techniques” in his endless “war on terrorism.”
Curious, isn’t it? People who were convicted of murder despite the only eyewitness testimony to their supposed crime coming from somebody who was dead drunk, people who had airtight alibis that placed them out of the state when they supposedly killed someone — Boy George didn’t give them a break. But Henry Lee Fucking Lucas? Bush figured he deserved some leniency. Why would that be?
Well, far be it from me to say I have anything more than a strong hunch here, but Lucas has claimed on numerous occasions that many of the murders he committed were actually contract killings for the CIA disguised to look like “random” and “senseless” acts of violence. And we all know who used to be in charge of “The Company” — the guy the entire Bush clan playfully refers to as “Poppy.”
Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe real life is is even more twisted — and scary — than McNaughton’s film.
I leave it for you to decide. But either way — this is a movie that has richly earned your attention, whether for the first or fiftieth time.