Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (Blu-ray 4K) [Blu-ray 4K]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (25th June 2022).
The Film

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)

‘It’s always the same, and it’s always different [….] It’s either you or them, one way or the other’. John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was filmed quickly, over 28 days, in 1985. McNaughton’s picture took as its subject the late-Twentieth Century phenomenon of the serial killer: it’s important to remember that the phrase ‘serial homicide’ had only been coined about 10 years previously, by FBI Special Agent Robert Ressler, in a decade (the 1970s) during which the fabric of American society was going to be ripped apart by stories of serial murderers such as the Hillside Stranglers, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, the BTK Killer, and numerous others. One of the common denominators in many of these cases was the age of the killers themselves—with the bulk of them born in the 1930s and 1940s, raised in broken homes and in poverty, with overbearing and often cruel mothers, and fathers who were either absent or expressed themselves through violence (and who themselves were sometimes suffering from what would today be labelled PTSD, owing to their experiences as war veterans).

This framework of familial violence and cruelty is integral to Henry. It’s present in the stories Henry (Michael Rooker) tells Becky (Tracy Arnold) about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his cruel mother, rooted in the true story of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, and in the tale of Henry’s murder of this bitter matriarch. It’s also present in the relationship between Otis (Tom Towles) and Becky, which culminates in Otis’ attempt to rape his sister. (Henry’s response to this—killing Otis—seems to be driven as much by a puritanical antipathy to sex and sexual contact as by any sense of moral outrage in witnessing Otis sexually assault his sibling.) Played by Michael Rooker, Henry is a mercurial character: a seemingly compulsive liar, his stories about his past (which he tells to Becky) are incoherent and often contradictory: he tells Becky variously that he stabbed his abusive mother to death and that he shot her. (The assertion that he killed his mother seems never in dispute: it’s the details that change—‘It’s always the same, and it’s always different’.)

Like his screen counterpart, the real Henry Lee Lucas was a prolific liar. He claimed to have murdered over a hundred people but recanted many of these confessions. In childhood, Lucas (along with his father) was severely abused by his mother—he was brutally beaten and humiliated by her—and lost his left eye after it was injured in a fight with his brother. Lucas claimed to have committed his first murder (of a 17 year old local girl) at the age of 14, and spent several years in jail after being arrested for burglary. Upon his release, he lived with his sister for a period of time, but his mother tracked him down; in an altercation, Lucas stabbed his mother in the neck and she died of a heart attack.

For the murder of his mother, Lucas was thrown in prison with a 20-40 year sentence, but was released prematurely, after only 10 years, because the prison was overcrowded. He was almost immediately incarcerated again for attempting to abduct three young women. From the mid-1970s, after being released from prison again, he drifted around the Southern states of the US and formed an allegiance with another drifter, Ottis Toole, and became infatuated with Toole’s 10 year old niece, Frieda ‘Becky’ Powell. Together, Lucas and Toole committed what Lucas claimed were hundreds of murders—though Lucas was a habitual liar, and the number of victims of Lucas and Toole cannot be verified: his claims that he and Toole crucified and cannibalised some of their victims on the orders of a satanic cult were clearly untrue, and the number of people Lucas claimed to have murdered was most likely an enormous exaggeration. (He initially claimed to have killed 60 people, then a hundred, then several hundred.)

Lucas ‘ran away’ with Becky, telling people who encountered them that he and Becky were married. Lucas eventually murdered and dismembered Becky in 1982; she was just 15 years old. Soon afterwards, he murdered another woman, Kate Rich—an 82 year old woman for whom Lucas had worked as a roofer. In 1983, Lucas was arrested for the unlawful possession of a firearm, and he confessed to murdering both Powell and Rich. In prison, Lucas confessed to hundreds of other murders—though whether or not he was actually involved in any of these is heavily disputed, as it seems that Lucas was given preferential treatment in exchange for these confessions, and he was also claimed to have been given access to the notes on many of the cases to which he later confessed. His confessions were often inconsistent and incoherent.

In April 1985, an article in the Dallas Times Herald (by the journalist Hugh Aynesworth) cast doubt on the confessions of Lucas; this seems to have been the incident that spurred McNaughton and cowriter Richard Fire to write the script for Henry. (The final draft, included on this disc, is dated September 1985.) In adapting the story of Henry Lee Lucas, Henry was pipped to the post very slightly by Mark Blair’s Confessions of a Serial Killer (released in 1985). Blair’s film interweaves Henry’s confessions with depictions of the murders that he describes. Its horror movie stylings stand in stark contrast to Henry’s semidocumentary approach.

Henry’s memorable assertion within the film that ‘It’s either you or them’ speaks of the paranoid mindset of an individual raised in a dog-eat-dog family setting, where an aberrant mother’s cruelty may manifest itself without warning and extend beyond reasonable punishment into the realm of sexual sadism. However, the quote also resonates because of its relevance for the culture of the 1980s, and the ‘me first’ ethos of the era of the New Right. It’s difficult not to see Henry’s outlook on life as having some similarities with that of the yuppie psychopaths that characterise late-80s US cinema, such as Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987). Of course, this association of the serial killer and the yuppie found its most direct expression in Bret Easton Ellis’ 1989 novel American Psycho—though where Patrick Bateman exists in a moneyed milieu, Henry drifts through a society riddled with poverty.

Henry is ultimately a film that operates both as an example of exploitation cinema and something with greater aspirations. (McNaughton and Richard Fire wanted to title the film simply Henry but were encouraged to add the subtitle, Portrait of a Serial Killer, by the distributors.) Fire had a background in theatre; McNaughton was an acknowledged fan of exploitation cinema. With the influence of these two cultural traditions, Henry represents an intersection point between these two traditions, a self-aware mixture of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture—of art and exploitation—that presented a challenge to censors, resulting in extensive cuts made to the film for its delayed UK release both by its distributor (Electric Pictures) and the BBFC. This unsettling mixture of paradigms was compounded by the fact that Tom Towles was a trained improvisational comic, and though his character is loathsome, he brings an enormous amount of dark humour to his performance—with Rooker’s emotionless Henry almost acting as a ‘straight man’. In fact, Henry and Otis have much in common with vaudeville double acts (or with the parody of such in Becket’s Waiting for Godot).

The infamous murder montage, featuring shots of Henry’s victims, sets the tone for the film and was one of the sequences that suffered the wrath of the BBFC. (The BBFC removed one of the shots, of a dead woman with a broken bottle crammed into her face, from this montage.) These carefully-staged tableaux—particularly the first, which begins with a tight close-up of a dead woman’s eye before the camera rotates and pulls away from the body—recall the unsettling aftermath of the murder of Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s Psycho. (As you may recall, dear reader, after ‘mother’ kills Marion in the shower, Hitchcock’s camera dissolves from the water spilling down the plughole to a closeup of Marion’s glassy, staring eye; the camera slowly pulls away from Marion’s body to reveal her half-slumped on the tiled floor of the bathroom.)

At the heart of the film, of course, are some excellent performances. Rooker reputedly lived ‘in character’ during the production, to such an extent that his wife hid her pregnancy from him until production had been completed. He embodies Henry with an enigmatic intensity that few actors could conjure up: it’s one of the great screen performances in an American film from the last few decades of the Twentieth Century, and for this performance alone Rooker should be discussed alongside the likes of Brando and Monty Clift. (The fact that he isn’t simply shows how shallow and obsessed with the vapidly pretty that US film culture often is.) Tom Towles as Otis offers a foil to the intensity of Rooker’s performance as Henry. Towles had training in improv comedy, and his performance manages to be both stupendously sleazy and blackly comic, with the result that Henry and Otis sometimes seem to function as a dark parody of a vaudeville double act: this is particularly present in their murder of the shifty TV salesman. Meanwhile, as the naïve Becky, who is running from her own demons (an abusive marriage), Tracy Arnold injects a welcome dose of humanity into the narrative—until, that is, the film’s final scenes.


Shot on 16mm colour stock, Henry finds an outstanding presentation on Arrow Video’s new 4k UHD release. The film is presented in 2160p using the HEVC codec. The level of detail and clarity is outstanding. The film’s opening shot, of the dumped naked body of one of Henry’s victims (meant to reference ‘Orange Socks’, a young woman much later identified as Debra Jackson, that Lucas confessed to murdering), is almost three-dimensional owing to the clarity and detail. Colours are naturalistic, and contrast levels are very pleasing, with a subtle drop into the toe and evenly-balanced highlights. The grain structure of the 16mm photography is retained throughout the presentation, thanks to a robust encode to disc.

The film is uncut, with a running time of 82:16 mins (all previous BBFC cuts have been waived); the presentation uses the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.


Two audio tracks are present on the disc: a LPCM 2.0 stereo track; and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Both are in English.

Both tracks demonstrate excellent depth, clarity, and range—this is evident from the bass notes in Robert McNaughton’s opening theme. The 2.0 track is more true to the original soundscape of the film, and is the track purists will default to; but that said, the 5.1 mix displays some interesting, atmospheric swelling during the scenes that feature McNaughton’s score (and particularly during the opening murder montage).

Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included. These are easy to read, and accurate in transcribing the dialogue.


The disc includes:
- Three audio commentaries. One of these is by John McNaughton and recorded in 1999; the second is by McNaughton and moderator David Gregory and recorded in 2005; the third and most recent commentary is by McNaughton and producer Steven A Jones and recorded in 2021. There’s naturally much overlap between these commentaries, in terms of reflections on the production and release of Henry. McNaughton talks about writing the film with Richard Fire, and reflects on the casting decisions made. He discusses the origins of the murder montage in the ‘orange socks’ case (a presumed victim of Henry Lee Lucas who was unknown at the time, and referred to as ‘orange socks’ for many years before being identified in 2019).

- Scene Specific Commentaries. McNaughton narrates (with critic Nigel Floyd) over the three scenes that the BBFC censored for Henry’s original UK release, and which were removed by the UK distributors (Electric Pictures) before they submitted the film to the BBFC. These are the Opening Sequence (7:40) (the ‘murder montage’); Otis and the Broken TV (4:54) (in which Henry and Otis murder the television salesman); and The Home Invasion Scene (3:20). McNaughton and Floyd talk about Electric Pictures’ self-imposed edit to the murder montage, removing the shot of the corpse of the woman on the lavatory. The pair also talk about the differences (in function and methods of operation) of the BBFC and the MPAA.

- Deleted Scenes and Outtakes (21:25). These deleted scenes, for which sound does not exist, are presented with a commentary by McNaughton and moderator David Gregory. The original cut of Henry was about two and a half hours long, and subjected to some extensive editing in order to reach its final length. The footage includes: a scene in which Henry and Becky realise that the television isn’t working, and decide to play cards; a scene in which Henry and Otis discuss the sexual relationship they shared in prison before kissing; part of the ‘murder montage’ featuring severed body parts (a leg and hand) on a golf course; outtakes from the ‘murder montage’ featuring one of the actresses playing a corpse struggling to ‘play dead’; more footage deleted from the ‘murder montage’ showing blood leaking from a bag of refuse that a binman throws into a rubbish truck; outtakes from the scene in which Henry and Otis shoot the good Samaritan who stops to help them when they fake car troubles in a darkened underpass; a scene showing Henry fishing with a rod and line; a scene in which someone breaks into the apartment and assaults Becky, and Henry and Otis take revenge; footage of the body of the hitchhiker Henry picks up, dumped close to some railroad tracks; Becky, Henry, and Otis dancing and playing with the video camera; a scene in which a street preacher delivers a sermon, and Becky walks past; Henry consoling Becky after Otis assaults her; another shot of a dumped body, a man with his throat slit in a trashed car. McNaughton reflects that on the printed page (in the script) redundancy is a good thing, whereas on the screen it’s a distraction for the audience: he says that as his career progressed, he developed an eye for what would work on screen and what would need to be deleted.

- Trailers. This includes the original trailer (1:53) and the 30th anniversary trailer (1:46).

- Stills Gallery (15 images). Opening with a fantastic black and white 35mm shot of Rooker and Arnold, this gallery contains a plethora of behind the scenes stills (both colour and black and white). Behind the scenes stills of the production are intermeshed with images clearly intended to be used on promotional material, and portraits of the cast.

- The original script written by Richard Fire and McNaughton. This is the final draft of the script, dated September 1985, and presented as straight scans of the typed pages.


This writer finds it difficult to be objective about Henry, as the film was such an important part of my late adolescence. (In fact, faced with the prospect of writing this review, I struggled with how to address the film without being too ‘gushing’.) I was fortunate enough to see the film on its UK cinema release, though admittedly I was very slightly underage, and can remember being so impressed with Joe Coleman’s transgressive UK poster for Henry that I bought one of the t-shirts bearing the design that were being sold in the box office—and for sheer provocation, wore this throughout my A Levels. I was hugely impressed by Henry at that point in my life, and remain a fan of the film to this day. (McNaughton’s career afterwards, particularly Normal Life and his work on the superb Homicide: Life on the Street, was also integral to my youth.) Henry is a transgressive, combative film, certainly—and it’s also often deeply blackly comic.

Arrow’s new 4k UHD release of Henry is outstanding. The main feature presentation is gloriously filmlike and a huge improvement over the older Blu-ray releases. In addition to this, the disc is packed to the gunwales with some superb contextual material. There is some overlap in this material (eg, between the three audio commentaries), but nevertheless Arrow’s decision to compile these extra features on this new release is to be commended – and results in a release that is, it’s fair to say, exhaustive.


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