Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

4 out of 5

Directed by: Robert McNaughton

Once I became keen on watching horror movies, trawling the Blockbuster aisles, I’d see the box for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and, despite being aware of its reputation, figured that a positive Roger Ebert review and a starring role from an actor I recognized – Michael Rooker – couldn’t promise much in terms of effectiveness. Perhaps producer Waleed B. Ali, hiring writer / director Robert McNaughton (according to wiki) to make a straight up horror film – presumably in the popular, money-making slasher model – would’ve agreed, as the end result is far away from a traditional Michael Myers job, and also surely isn’t the gore-fest my Evil Dead-soaked brain thought all good horror movies should be.

But more than three decades later, the film remains stunningly chilling and effective – no easy feat in the wake of hundreds of imitators of its style – and rather proves that Ebert, and the viewers who gave the film its status, knew what they were talking about.

‘Portrait,’ depending on how you define the term, is just that. If considered as a more robust exploration, delving in to the history and hows and whys of something, then… no. But as a snapshot, of standing back and capturing a still that possibly also captures the essence of its focus, ‘Henry,’ inspired by real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, is fittingly titled: the film hardly offers any explanations, or even judgment, necessarily. Viewers are clearly in love with serial killers, given how many movies and TV shows have been made about them, but there’s always some hook to allow us “inside,” be it background explorations, or a POV cop character or somesuch, and McNaughton completely sucks all of that out of Henry. In one of the film’s most telling moments, Henry (Rooker) recalls some details about his youth to the sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold) of his flatmate, Otis (Tom Towles), but then when getting around to the part of the story in which he kills his mother, he flubs the details. Becky – more fascinated than disturbed – presses him on it, and he waves it off: this is not a movie concerned with laying it all out for us in some kind of linear path. This fits with Henry’s stated modus operandi, of never sticking to a pattern, and so the kills we follow him on (or, more often, see the aftermath of) are chillingly random. The nastiness of a home invasion which he tape records, and watches afterwards with his recruited kill-buddy, Otis, is just a one-off; the sloppiness with which he strangles and stabs and shoots and leaves the bodies where they fall is hauntingly disconnected from any internal logic. It’s vaguely “us versus them,” according to Henry, which, of course, is meaningless.

There’re some other elements sneaked into this by McNaughton: acknowledging that killing prostitutes won’t draw the attention of the police the way Otis’ more emotionally-fueled rage toward, say, a young high school kid might; linking Henry’s desire to kill – without stating it outright – to some issues with his sexuality, and giving him a weird moral line that has him preventing Otis from turning their kills into more deviant sexual thrills. He surrounds this duo with a lot of vice and crime: “nice” characters are killed offscreen, or simply never seen or heard, suggesting something further to that voyeuristic centerpiece of rewatching the home invasion video. At the same time, the American Psycho cartoonishness of the excessive quantity and frequency of Henry’s kills feels a little silly, even for the 80s, and the most relied-on method of neck-snapping for the murders, along with super loud sound effect, goes against the brutal “realism” of those moments, dispatching victims in a way that was probably more convenient for the movie’s budget. There’s also one line – “plug it in,” – that feels like it belongs in the more indulgent slasher-type flick McNaughton wasn’t making.

But the grainy, grimy cinematography and reserved method in which McNaughton shoots and paces the whole pic, along with Rooker’s incredibly cold performance (Towles and Arnold are also excellent, making the relative naivety of both their characters believable) absolutely makes a lasting stamp, resulting in a movie which still feels unique today, achieving an absolutely frightening ‘portrait’ of a killer that refuses to give its audience any easy outs.