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Monday, July 27, 2009

DRIFTER: HENRY LEE LUCAS -- DVD review by porfle

Director Michael Feifer seems intent on chronicling the lives of every vile, lowlife bastard who comes to mind when you think of the term "serial killer." Now, in addition to "B.T.K.", "Boston Strangler: The Untold Story", "Bundy: A Legacy of Evil", "Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck", and "Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield", comes DRIFTER: HENRY LEE LUCAS (2009), a well-made and fairly engaging account of one of the most notorious killers who ever stalked the countryside.

Most of us know at least the basics of Lucas' story--abused physically and mentally by a sadistic mother, he grew up to be a prolific serial killer who traveled with his equally-demented buddy Ottis Toole and Toole's 12-year-old niece Becky, with whom Henry had a romantic affair. After his capture, he confessed to hundreds of murders but later recanted, making it unclear just how many he was actually guilty of.

The screenplay by Feifer and Wood Dickinson generally sticks pretty closely to the facts. The story of Henry's nightmarish childhood proves most affecting, with Ezra Averill as an 8-year-old Henry and Caia Coley giving a frightening performance as his prostitute mother Viola. In addition to making him watch as she has sex with strange men, the monstrous Viola beats Henry brutally, once putting him into a coma with a wooden board, and also abuses her legless husband. When a teenaged Henry (Nicolas Canel) finally kills Viola in what he claims was self-defense, it's pretty much a fist-in-the-air moment.

We see the adult Henry (Antonio Sabato Jr., "The Bold & The Beautiful") commit the first of his serial murders and his fateful meeting with fellow drifter Ottis Toole, played artlessly but with a lot of energy by "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo"'s Kostas Sommer. (The fact that grungy, homely Lucas and Toole are portrayed by a couple of relatively hunky actors is a little disconcerting.) Kelly Curran is good in her debut role as Becky, whose eventual murder by Henry is shown near the beginning of the film and revisited later.

The very familiar John Diehl of such films as "Jurassic Park III" and "Pearl Harbor" plays Sheriff Larabie, a fictionalized version of the actual sheriff who was accused of using Lucas as a "confession machine" in order to clear up hundreds of unsolved murders. Farino, the skeptical D.A. is portrayed by John Burke, whom I know mainly as the co-host of "Personal FX: The Collectibles Show." While there really isn't much of an ending to Lucas' story, the final scenes with him being interviewed by Farino do tie things up rather well and bring the film to a satisfactory conclusion.

Despite several opportunites to do so, director Feifer refrains from filling the screen with excessive blood and gore. One of the more lurid death scenes has Henry forcing his way into a woman's kitchen, knifing her in the back, and then strangling her from behind as she crawls away. Another sequence features the strangulation of a hitchhiker and Henry's subsequent necrophilic violation of her body. A movie theater patron gets his throat cut for daring to "shush" Henry and Ottis, and there are several knifings.

For the most part, however, the violence is quick and Feifer doesn't linger over it, preferring to concentrate on the story. The only drawback to this is that the sheer horror of Lucas' crimes is rarely adequately conveyed by this matter-of-fact approach. Direction and photography are consistently good, displaying a fair amount of style and imagination that helps keep things interesting even though there's not really that much of a plot.

The film is presented in 16 x 9 anamorphic widescreen with 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo audio. My screener contained no bonus features, but the DVD should include a commentary with Feifer and Sabato, stills gallery, and Spanish subtitles.

DRIFTER: HENRY LEE LUCAS does a pretty good job of showing us, in effect, "How to Make a Monster." The scenes of Lucas' childhood are harrowing and sad, yet Antonio Sabato Jr. manages to convey the idea that there's just something inherently evil about Henry (albeit an infinitely banal evil) regardless of his upbringing. While "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" and the lesser-known gem "Confessions of a Serial Killer" remain the last word on the subject as far as I'm concerned, Michael Feifer's version of the story is both visually interesting and perhaps somewhat closer to the real facts than its predecessors.

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