‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,’ the ’80s anti-slasher, has gotten a new lease on life

09.27.16 1 year ago

In the 1980s, moviegoers were treated to a steady diet of slasher films in which human life was expendable and “kills” were packaged for maximum entertainment. Murder was “fun,” victims were almost invariably young and beautiful, and death was something to cheer on and even laugh about. And then, like a stink bomb at a party, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer dropped into the middle of it all and ruined everyone's good time.

Okay, so not exactly. Shot in 1985 for $110,000, John McNaughton's film centering on the brutal crimes of the title serial killer (Michael Rooker) and his companion Otis (Tom Towles) wasn't actually released until 1990, after screening at a variety of film festivals in the latter half of the last decade and garnering attention (much of it negative) for a series of gritty, no-holds-barred murder scenes that refused to serve audiences a glossed-up version of death. McNaughton's intentions in this regard are announced very early on, most memorably with a slow pan shot through a motel bathroom that shows a dead, half-naked woman slumped on a toilet with a broken bottle shoved into her mouth. This, the director seemed to be telling us, is what murder actually looks like.

The film floundered for a distributor for years and after finally being given an “X” rating by the MPAA, Henry was acquired for limited distribution. Around the same time, it picked up its greatest defender in the form of Roger Ebert, who called the film “a low-budget tour de force that provides an unforgettable portrait of the pathology of a man for whom killing is not a crime but simply a way of passing time and relieving boredom.” That's an apt summary of a film that mirrors and more importantly challenges the growing desensitization of mainstream moviegoers raised on a steady diet of Friday the 13th sequels.

Having seen Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, I can attest to the film's brutal power. It is a movie so unflinching in its depiction of violence and human degradation that it is difficult to sit through, which is also, of course, part of the point. It has been said that Rooker remained in character for the duration of the shoot. That commitment to the role shows in his performance, which is chilling in its suggestion that — as Ebert's colleague Gene Siskel once deftly pointed out — human life is to he and Otis no more precious than a broken-down TV set.

As terrible as it is to watch, Henry's critical stature has only grown in the years since its release (as evidence of this, it finished at No. 54 on HitFix's Ultimate Horror Poll last year). Now the film is getting a 4K restoration rerelease from Dark Sky Films, 30 years after it first premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival. Fittingly, the restoration's premiere will take place at that very festival on October 14 with McNaughton and Rooker in attendance, with the former also scheduled to attend subsequent screenings in New York on October 21 (at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema) and Los Angeles on October 28 (at the Laemmle NoHo). If you haven't seen the film, I highly suggest checking it out either in theaters or on home-viewing formats. But be warned: 30 years later, its savage power remains undiminished.

You can watch the re-release trailer above. Limited theatrical engagements begin October 21.

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