In a culture where popular film endorses conservative views of morality, there exists in the bloody underground of independent horror cinema a dangerous breed of celluloid. These films stare too far, too deep into the abyss, striving for genuine unease and lingering dread, not simple shock or splatter. In its simplistic, unadorned approach to violence, amoral presentation of a likeable serial killer, and decidedly naturalistic presentation of violence, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was such a film. Loosely based on the confessions of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, and filmed in 28 days on a $11,000 budget, Henry dismayed censors with a casual approach to murder and non-judgmental treatment of a surprisingly likeable killer, who calmly enthuses about killing hookers while eating french-fries. Employing deceptive gorilla tactics that popular cinema would never allow, McNaughton toyed with expectations fostered by an audience weaned on predictable plot formula. Henry whispered with disconcerting nonchalance one moment, yelled with bloody fury the next. Originally completed in 1986 after just four weeks of filming, the MPAA held back its release until 1989 when it debuted video. It was than slapped with an ‘x’ for its “moral tone.”
Lacking the uncompromising realism, naturalistic brutality, or imaginative fervor of the original, Henry (2): Mask of Sanity also lacks its predecessor’s originality. While the original brought an unprecedented seriousness of tone, style, and story to the modern horror film, rooting its graphic violence deep within the context of internal alienation in a culture that creates its monsters, the sequel, while far from a bad film, is more concerned with pulp violence than philosophy — not a bad thing if you‘re in the mood for a gory good time, but not as memorable as a philosophical subtext. To its credit, Mask of Fear doesn’t really try to be anything other than a serviceable fright film. Director Chuck Parello (of the chillingly believable Ed Gein and far seedier The Hillside Strangler) attempts to break new ground, focusing on the same soft-spoken madman but with a unique — if not always successful — emphasis not on Henry himself but his influence on a man who befriends him.
The original film, you may recall, also dealt with a sinister relationship between two deviants, as Henry taught Otis his unique method of stress release. In the sequel Parello focus more intently on this sub-pot, achieving a maximum of stress by studying how one man’s amoral, violent nature may warp another, and the ensuing struggle between personalities. Meanwhile he does a commendable job of establishing the overwhelming shadow of an amoral universe that cares little for right or wrong. No one cares much about anything until its far too late, and therein is the dark heart of the story, creating moments for drama, tragedy, and sheer exploitation. This sad, stark truth is by far as frightening as any moment of physical carnage, hitting us where it hurts most.
Beginning where the original let off, Mask of Sanity charts the restless wandering of serial killer/drifter Henry (Neil Giuntoli) — a hell of a nice guy when he isn‘t disemboweling you! Still on the run, moving from place to place to avoid capture (and as a result of his unsatisfied, restless nature), Henry is staying at a homeless shelter. Eventually finding work at a portable toilet supplier, he re-emerges into society, disguised as an average working Joe. This façade of everyday normalcy lends an undeniable degree of complexity and fear to the story, suggesting the ease with which anyone can deceive by simply looking a part or acting a role, all the while thinking of how delightful it would be to break your neck. When one of Henry’s co-workers, Kai (Rich Komenich), offers him a room in his home, Henry accepts, sharing the comfy surroundings with Kai’s wife Cricket (Kate Walsh) and niece Louisa (Carri Levinson). In a situation more stable than the twisted three-way triangle of the original film, Henry determines to make the best of this new life. A surprising amount of suspense is built during these scenes of domestic bliss, for the audience is waiting from the outset for the frayed ends of sanity to break. In a nice ironic twist, Henry’s dark instincts are awoken not by his own rage, but, surprisingly, by a dark secret that Kai harbors. An arsonist who torches buildings for percentages of the insurance money, Kai invites Henry along. When they discover vagrants loitering at the scene of one of their ‘jobs,’ Henry resorts to his old tricks, and introduces Kai, a rather small time criminal, to the dark pleasures of savagery. Before long, like Otis from the original, Kai becomes an enthusiastic apprentice, exalting in the freedom. Finding subversive catharsis, random murder is depicted as not only enjoyable but indispensable for the men’s peace of mind. As each murder reaches new levels of depravity, we see a process emerge where Henry and Kai fuel one another’s mistrust. And what starts as a mutually beneficial partnership soon spirals into a numbing explosion of violence.
Whereas the first Henry dealt unashamedly with such taboo subjects as incest, rape, and murder in a surpassingly introspective manner, Parello’s vision isn’t as nihilistic or sensitive as McNaughton’s. Neither is he capable of maintaining as disturbing an amount of sympathy for the characters. Thus the film looses something of its power to disturb. One of the chief achievements of Henry was its director’s ability to forge in the title character an enigmatic, likeable, yet murderous figure whose very ‘niceness’ made his amoral approach to life and death all the more terrifying. While Mask of Sanity treats Henry’s personality with respect, knowing quite well that the story demands dramatic flexibility from his character, this Henry is neither as mysterious or likeable as he was in the original. Yet Henry remains fascinating despite these flaws, remarkable as a result of his unchecked spontaneity and total lack of conscience. Henry’s character shifts from placid and helpful to enraged and murderous, satisfying on a base level. Similar to the classic Greek hero, who was often as demonic as the villains in ancient Literature, Henry is as much a victim to his rage as a victimizer.
Mask of Sanity, if disassociated from its predecessor, is a well made psychological nightmare of culpability and brutal death. As emotionally provocative as it is outlandishly gory, it’s is far more graphic than its namesake, wading through rivers of blood. Delighting in creative set pieces, the tone comes close to being cartoonish without quite crossing that line, instilled with a mean-spirited sense of suffering. Chuck Parello is no slouch at creating scenes of emotional dread, which explode during key scenes with the same ferocious uncertainty as the generous displays of physical violence. He also makes skilled use of the camera, using it to tell the story, and displays creative use of lighting, mirroring character’s moods. More importantly, he employs setting as a mirror of soul, not only as a physical backdrop. Dirty, depressing, desperate, and filthy, the contradictory domestic home interiors and gritty streets are no less believable as the breathing characters.
Accomplishing much with a story brave enough to build on a legend, Parello has crafted in Henry (2) a worthy if flawed follow up to a historically important film. Finding terror in family relationships, the film is most impressive when exploiting the fine line between petty crime and more serious violence. In no way a sermon, proudly anchored in the tradition of shock for the simple sake of titillation, Mask of Sanity is also surprisingly reflective, treating its characters as people with histories, goals, and desires rather than with the nonchalance so often seen in this genre. One almost wishes that the film had been slightly altered, re-titled, and offered independently, free from the stigmata of its insurmountable namesake. Either way, the story succeeds as both moral investigation and ferocious splatter. More importantly, it tackles the stealthy build up of internal fear and anger, capturing with a decadent elegance those horrid, tragic moments when masks are shed, and the true nature of beasts are revealed.
While Henry (2) stands on its own merits, its gut-punching effect wouldn’t be half so powerful if not for the grim artistry of its atmosphere, captured by Dark Sky in a print that exchanges the murkiness of the original home video release for this cleaned-up edition in 1.85 anamorphic widescreen. The film suffers from no grain, splotching, lines, or surface jumps. The picture is clear and even, and the colors enhance the dismal mood of Parello’s downbeat vision. Audio is likewise acceptable, in 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo, both of which do their job with a minimum of fuss.
Extras for this rather eccentric if compelling nightmare are surpassingly good. The audio commentary with director Chuck Parello is a lively discussion covering all aspects of the film, including his take on the subject, and both the pleasures and strife of the production. A bit gushy, carried away by what appears to be good nature and enthusiasm, he is knowledgeable about his craft and a pleasure to listen to. I’ll take his friendly demeanor over the brash rudeness of the typical celebrity any day. Mentioning his feelings of the original Henry and how he wanted to direct the sequel, Parello also expounds upon specific day’s filming, the cast and crew, and the film’s critical reception. Of equally substance is the “H2: The Making Of a Madman” featurette, which is the first significant piece on the film I’ve ever caught. Covering areas that the commentary leaves out, a deeper appreciation of the film is encouraged by this rare footage. Next is an assemblage of outtakes and deleted scenes, most of which lend greater enjoyment it not significant story elements, and a photo gallery. An unapologetically graphic descent into the darkness of the human spirit, Henry 2: Mask of Sanity makes up for in intensity and craftsmanship what it may lack in originality. Dark Sky’s release of this underappreciated film is a welcome event!