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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

EvidenceProf Blog's 3rd Annual Halloween Movie Pick: John McNaughton's "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer"

It's Halloween again, which means that it's time for EvidenceProf's Blog's third annual Halloween movie pick (after "The Gift" and "Homecoming"). For this year's pick, I'm again digging into the archives from my days reviewing DVDs and pulling out a review. This one is of John McNaughton's "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," a film loosely based upon real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, the only man that George W. Bush granted clemency while he was governor.


When Maljack Productions commissioned John McNaughton to direct "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," they expected a standard slasher flick, much like Morgan Creek presumed Paul Schrader, the man who created Travis Bickle, would make its "Exorcist" prequel into the type of schlocky horror flick Renny Harlin eventually crapped out. Instead, McNaughton subverted serial killer movies against the backdrop of mid-80s Chicago, just as "Taxi Driver"  deconstructed "Death Wish" vigilante thrillers in mid-70s Manhattan. In fact, "Taxi Driver" director Martin Scorsese was so taken by this directorial debut that he later produced McNaughton's "Mad Dog and Glory," which personalized the gangster genre by focusing on the connections between a kingpin, his mol, and a lonely cop.

Henry is loosely based upon real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, and it also hones in on a trio: Henry, his scuzzy apartment-mate Otis, and Otis' newly arriving sister Becky, who jumped out of the frying pan of an abusive relationship and into their crossfire. It's ironic that "serial killer chic" flicks like "Saw" practically beg audiences to root for the quirky sociopath and get R or even PG-13 ratings, while the objective and unglamorous Henry was slapped with an X rating based on "disturbing moral content" for strapping the audience into the passenger seat of Henry's beat-up green sedan and forcing us to question our reactions to violence.

McNaughton doesn't even cede us establishing shots, instead dropping us into scenes with tight shots that slowly retract and rotate to give us context, such as during the first act's dystopian tableaux of Henry's victims whose grotesqueness is only gradually revealed. It's an unsettling technique later tweaked by Ray Lawrence to open his twisty "Lantana." Ratcheting up the disquiet is Robert McNaughton's score of throbbing drums and shrill piano as he contrasts the lifelessness of Henry's corpses with the imprint of their reverberating screams. The only false notes struck are some synthesizer riffs that date the film (like "Manhunter").

McNaughton and the film's co-writer Richard Fire had documentary and theater backgrounds respectively, and they create a Cinéma vérité feel in scenes unfolding in flatly lit Chicago backalleys, while the spareness of Henry and Otis' mouldering apartment allows for the intimacy and emotional rawness of a stage production. Michael Rooker ("Eight Men Out") plays Henry as affable but affectless, a sharp duality that matches his soft yet gravelly voice. Like Owen Wilson's serial killer in "The Minus Man," he's scary precisely because he's the low-key guy sitting next to you at the diner, not a hockey-masked or muzzled monster.

The intentionally grainy film is presented in a full screen transfer from its original 16mm print with Dolby Digital 2.0. Two documentaries and a commentary track by the director and moderator David Gregory are engrossing and comprehensively cover the making of the film and Henry Lee Lucas' life. McNaughton also provides keen commentary on about 20 minutes worth of deleted scenes, which don't have sound, and there's also a still gallery and a superb collection of storyboards.

-CM

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