THE HANDMAID'S TALE

R, 1990, 109 minutes, closed-captioned, HBO Video, $89.99.

Volker Schlondorff's numbing adaptation of "The Handmaid's Tale" finds the Stepford Wives alive and well and living in the not-too-distantly futuristic Republic of Gilead. While not nearly so blissful as their foremothers, these wives are easily as soulless, so coldblooded they would take a babe still warm from its mother's womb. Adapting Margaret Atwood's novel, Schlondorff spins a yarn of '80s paranoias into a cautionary fable that by all rights ought to frighten women right out of their ultra-sheers, but he works so dispassionately that he fails to tease our terrors. "The Handmaid's Tale" looks at surrogate motherhood run amok in a society dominated by fascist Christian fundamentalists. Damned by a plague of physical as well as mental sterility, the barren ruling class procreates by proxy. More than 99 percent of the women have been rendered sterile because of ozone depletion, acid rain, venereal disease, abortions and toxic ooze. Those with working wombs are imprisoned in nunneries, indoctrinated through the flaying of feet and hands, then set off to bear the children of the powerful Commanders. Natasha Richardson exerts a mute eloquence in the largely passive role of Kate, a librarian who is captured trying to escape to Canada with her daughter and husband. Stripped of all rights and property and renamed Offred, Kate is given to a taciturn, remotely sexual Commander (Robert Duvall) and his former televangelist spouse, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway). Offred has little contact with either until she reaches her peak fertility each month, when the three engage in a bizarre ritual -- a ceremonial rape really -- derived from the biblical story of Rachel and her handmaid. If she does not become pregnant after four ceremonies, she will be judged an unwoman and sentenced to clean up toxic waste. Duvall does win some sympathy for his steely character, a henpecked killer, but Elizabeth McGovern provides the only real pepper as a foxy lesbian who despite her gender crimes becomes a handmaid and a friend to Offred. All told, it is intriguing stuff, but one can't help but wonder why a woman didn't direct this movie about women being dominated by men. Rita Kempley

HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER Unrated, 1990, 90 minutes, MPI Home Video, $79.98.

"Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" is the portrait of a predator, pure and simple, and in that, its ambitions are scaled back almost to the bone. The movie, which fictionalizes the story of mass murderer Henry Lee Lucas, isn't a psychological study in the conventional sense. John McNaughton, the film's director, doesn't attempt to put us inside Henry's thought processes. He and screenwriter Richard Fire restrict us to a cruel outside view. We watch horrified from a distance as Henry (Michael Rooker) goes about his murderous business, prowling, singling out his victims, making the kills. McNaughton's Henry is a man almost devoid of normal human feeling -- a beast, a killing machine. It's precisely Henry's cold-blooded affectlessness that is meant to disturb us. But the picture leaves us feeling more numbed than moved. The acting is clumsy, the dialogue awkward and the exchanges almost comically blunt. And yet there's a kind of "conceptual" white space surrounding the barbarity -- it lives in its own art bubble. Most of the film's action takes place on the seamier side of Chicago, in the squalid flat Henry shares with his drug-dealing friend Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis's sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold). Given this context, it's hard to know how to react to a scene like the one in which Henry and Otis torture a suburban housewife in front of her husband, snap her son's neck, then kill her. There's a grotesque horror in scenes like that, and it gets into your system. What you may wonder, though, is why you needed to be subjected to it. Hal Hinson

CRAZY PEOPLE R, 1990, 91 minutes, closed-captioned, Paramount Home Video, $91.95. Judging simply by the title, "Crazy People" would seem to concern itself with a subject that Hollywood knows very well. This feeble comedy about the world of advertising, though, isn't informed with anything close to special knowledge. The picture's central character, Emory (Dudley Moore), is an ad exec who's reached the end of his rope. He wants honesty at all costs, but when he attempts a straightforward, truthful approach to his ads, his bosses think he's cracked and have him committed to a mental institution. By accident, though, the ads are printed and to everyone's surprise are an instant phenomenon, making Emory's agency the hottest in the business. And because this honesty thing is such a foreign notion, Emory's superiors dispatch his partner, Stephen (Paul Reiser), to bring him back to work. In the meantime, Emory has found himself falling in love with a squirrel-brained Goldilocks named Kathy (Daryl Hannah) and doesn't want to leave. A kinship has grown too between Emory and his other loony-bin mates. There's a familiar movie sentiment in operation here, namely that crazies are in closer touch with the truth than normal folks. Director Tony Bill tries to give Mitch Markowitz's script a spirit of madcap abandon but instead achieves a kind of forced hilarity that's neither funny nor liberating. For her part, Hannah makes a delicious head case. She's as palate-cleansing as a dish of sherbet. But Moore seems to have just about exhausted his supply of elfin charm. The difference in years (not to mention stature) between him and Hannah brings their affair to the very edge of creepiness. Hal Hinson

DER ROSENKAVALIER Unrated, 1961, two tapes, 186 minutes, in German with subtitles, Kultur, $59.95.

The standards are uniquely high -- much higher than in most productions of Verdi or Wagner -- for video editions of Richard Strauss's bittersweet tale of aristocratic pretensions, young love and the inexorable ravages of aging in 18th-century Vienna. Besides this classic film of a Salzburg Festival performance, with Herbert von Karajan conducting, there are two other video "Rosenkavaliers" on the market that benefit from more modern technology and good performances: a 1985 Covent Garden production with Sir Georg Solti conducting and Kiri Te Kanawa, Anne Howells, Barbara Bonney and Aage Haugland in the cast, and a 1986 Munich production with Carlos Kleiber conducting Gwyneth Jones, Brigitte Fassbaender, Lucia Popp and Manfred Jungwirth. Any of these should make an opera-lover wildly happy, and a later von Karajan-Salzburg production is coming on a Sony laser disc. But despite imperfect lip synchronization and a medium-fi soundtrack, the 1961 version is now and probably will remain beloved as the classic video "Rosenkavalier." The reason is the cast: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac, Anneliese Rothenberger and Otto Edelmann -- performers deeply imbued with the special spirit of Viennese music (even when it is written by a native of Munich) and sensitive to the opera's pathos, idealism and wide range of comedy, from drawing-room to slapstick. This "Rosenkavalier," a favorite for years on the VAI label, is now licensed to Kultur, which has marginally cleaned up the soundtrack and added subtitles -- accurate, literate and very useful to non-Germans. Joseph McLellan