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Entries in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer [1986] (1)


Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Like a Drifter, I was Born to Stalk Alone

I saw Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer for the first time in 1998. Back then, The Northgate Theatre in Addison, Illinois showed cult movies at midnight during summer weekends, and I went with a friend to see what all the hype was about.

The movie didn't disappoint; in fact, the experience of seeing it in a theatre freaked me the hell out. On top of the low-budget, pseudo-doc-realism that co-writer/director John McNaughton used to bring his story of a psychopath to life, there was also a creepy guy sitting in front of me. He spent the entire film leaning forward, his arms propped up on the seats in front of him and his head staring lovingly up at the screen. My friend and I left as soon as the end credits rolled, in order to not risk running into him in the parking lot.

For more than a decade, I've considered Henry the high-water mark of disturbing movies. But watching it recently, I was struck by just how much of the coal-black humor I'd missed the first time around. Yes, a good deal of the film chronicles the chillingly awful work of a drifter named Henry (Michael Rooker) who kills indiscriminately using a variety of weapons (guns, broken bottles, a TV set). The film takes place in Chicago, where Henry has taken a temporary roommate named Otis (Tom Towles), a green-toothed, drug-dealing pervert who can't admit he has a taste for teenage boys. Otis's initial revulsion on finding out about Henry's pastime turns to fascination and, eventually, to an eagerness for mentorship. Together, as he and Henry break prostitutes' necks and invade suburban homes to videotape murders and engage in necrophilia, the movie strays from the brutal realism of the opening twenty minutes and becomes The Odd Couple with a body count.

The main characters bicker, and Henry always has to keep a close eye on his sloppy partner to prevent him from, say, leaving one of their tapes running after he's passed out, drunk. Complicating matters is Otis's sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), who's left a bad marriage down south and hopes to regain her footing in the Windy City. She's instantly smitten with the quiet, muscular Henry. Even though he confesses to killing his mother while making small talk, Becky sees a chivalrous bad-boy in need of a good woman. Too bad for her, Henry has some competition--in the form of Otis, who aims his misguided, sexual rage at his naive sibling (no stranger to familial abuse, Becky's father raped her so often as a child that she eventually became blasé about that lost, terrifying decade).

I'd wager that, when this movie was released, every frame was deemed too horror-show for the faint of heart. But in the ensuing twenty-five years, after a heaping helping of pop-cultural desensitization, people may not find Henry as unbearable as they once did. Henry's revelation that, as a boy, his mother made him put on a dress and have sex with strangers was probably pretty shocking once, but now it just seems like piling on. Indeed, everyone has such a twisted backstory that they can easily been seen as functions instead of characters--essentially making Henry snuff porn disguised as a cautionary tale for the middle class.

Despite the "fun" factor (I've got problems, okay?), McNaughton does sprinkle some pretty amazing terror into his film. He includes Henry's crime scenes as interstitial flavoring, and it looks to me like he used actors for all of the corpses instead of dummies. This is quite remarkable, considering Charlie Lieberman's camera pans slowly around mutilated bodies that are clearly flesh-and-bone, but which sit perfectly, eerily still. The home invasion is also really effective, and I wouldn't be surprised if Rob Zombie studied it when prepping the hotel scenes in The Devil's Rejects.

I can't say enough good things about the principal cast. Rooker's Henry is a sweaty, oddly chivalrous monster, and every time he says more than five words it's unclear whether he has a mental handicap or just a head full of demons. Towles plays Otis as such a greasy, unscrupulous mound of crap that I could practically smell him through the screen. Arnold is the weakest of the three, but that's like being the third-best head on Mount Rushmore. My issue is not so much with her but with the fact that McNaughton and co-writer Richard Fire give Becky little to do except be trusting and get ogled.

A minor casting crisis becomes evident when considering the supporting players. To a person, actor delivers their lines with the worst Chi-caaaahgo ayuk-ccents I've seen outside the old SNL "Super Fans" sketches. I get that the director wanted to give a shout-out to his hometown, but not everyone in the city talks like an amusement-park Al Capone.

If you've never seen Henry and you're easily offended by relentless images of evil, you've been warned. If you haven't seen Henry in a long time and still think it's the most brutal film ever made, give it another whirl and see if you don't chuckle at least as much as you cringe.