The Ninjabot

Week End Horror- Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Posted on August 31, 2013 at 10:00 am by Jason Byard

Henry PosterIt’s a certain special subcategory of movie serial killer who can count the romantic relationships of his viewers amongst his victims. And so it was one night in 2006 when my girlfriend broke up with me after I asked her to watch John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It was the home invasion sequence that did it. She ran about in a huff, spouting off about how disgusted she was and asking what kind of a person would actually watch such terrible acts being depicted for entertainment purposes and on and on and on. I was indignant at the time of course, but in retrospect, I don’t know what else I should have expected. After all, I’m pretty sure there have probably been liquor store robberies that have been less viscerally intense than Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Filmed on a shoestring budget in 1986 (but not released until 1990) Henry is a radiantly depressing movie to watch. Part of this is due to the atmospherics, filmed on location in Chicago, which coat the proceedings in a cheerless layer of grimy urban decay. Another factor is Henry’s narrative structure, which plays out as a sort of “day in the life” type docudrama. Only instead of following around some sports hero or celebutant, it details the lifestyle of a guy whose vocation is unrepentant human slaughter. It’s basically Dirty Jobs: The Ted Bundy Edition. The murders themselves are probably among the most truthful ever committed to film. No painless action movie shoot ‘em ups here. Over-the-top slasher movie gore theatrics, you ask? Nowhere in sight. What we have instead are killings so inelegant and without catharsis they practically demand to feel credible. The aforementioned home invasion scene being the most appallingly convincing of the lot. It’s just one of those things you can’t unsee. Its arbitrariness and cruelty is so far removed from the sanitized carnage of Hollywood it still manages to stun, almost 30 years later.

But it’s the characters, and the actor’s playing them, that anchor all of this. The performances are all uniformly strong, beginning of course with the Michael Rooker’s “star” making turn in the title role. He somehow manages the amazing feat of imbuing Henry with both brooding intensity and cool detatchment, piling body on top of body with an air unassuming working-class nonchalance that leaves him impossible to easily hate. And while you never do manage to find yourself actually rooting for him, when the end comes you’re almost sorry that there will be no redemption for him, however undeserving of it he may be. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Tom Towles as Henry’s fantastically grotesque sidekick, Otis. If you ever could find your way to actually liking Henry it could only be because Otis is pretty much the only one you have to compare him with. Where Henry kills because he can’t help being the monster that he is, Otis adopts the custom the same way someone takes up scrapbooking. It’s just something to do. A time-filler. It doesn’t help matters that he also has a Caligula-like capacity for all shades of depravity. Finally, there’s Otis’s kid-sister Becky, played by Tracy Arnold with a sort of starry-eyed naiveté that would seem mawkish in the hands of a lesser performer. She’s the moral center of the film. She’s the only one truly deserving of audience sympathy. She’s also doomed, her ultimate fate serving as the nucleus for one of the bleakest endings in movie history.

Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer

In the final analysis, what makes Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer unique as a film, what gives it its potency, is that it’s a movie everybody should see, but it’s not a movie for everybody. While commonly classed as a horror movie (and it is indeed horrifying) it really isn’t. Or, at least, that can’t be ALL that it is. It’s just too damn convincing. Too damn distinctive a beast to be lumped in alongside the Leatherfaces and Pinheads of the world. It’s a concept neatly summed up by the film’s chilling tagline: “He’s Not Freddy. He’s Not Jason. He’s Real”. And therein lies the mistake I made with my ex-girlfriend all those years ago. I had assumed that a person who had gotten through movies like The Exorcist and Dawn of the Dead and High Tension with scarcely a whimper, should be able to capably grapple with what Henry dishes out. Nope. Not by a long shot. But that wasn’t due to weakness on her part. There’s no sort of splatter movie boot camp that can suitably prepare someone for the cinematic combat shock of this film. It’s something that isn’t so much experienced as it is endured. Not so much unforgettable as it is haunting. And it’s those qualities that serve to make Henry into something that very few, if any, conventional horror films manage to become: Truly Powerful.

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