Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Directed by John McNaughton
Opens October 21 at the Landmark Sunshine
Anyone who browsed a video-store shelf in the 90s should recall this infamously grisly yet peculiarly restrained X-rated slasher—particularly if, like me, your name is also Henry. In recent years, its cultural position has diminished, but this new restoration, timed to its 30th anniversary, ought to restore some of its influence, especially because the original 16mm really benefits from new digital clarity. Some horror classics, such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, worked well on VHS—its macabre sets looked even more desolate and forlorn on washed-out magnetic tape. But Henry’s volumes-speaking images now speak at a louder volume than ever: the bold bloodreds of the various crime-scene tableaux pop; the constant, crawling camera movements are more effectively unsettling. Director and cowriter McNaughton’s artistry now overshadows his grindhouse titillations.
Though they’re still to be found aplenty, eventually, in this otherwise wannabe Dielman-esque study of a crime spreer. You will see a body partially dismembered in a bathtub. But for the first 35 minutes, the murders are suggested only in aural flashbacks: we hear screams as the camera rubs its lens all over the now-silent bodies of murder victims, arranged in morbid, almost-classical poses. But the actual acts of violence go unseen; we see only the aftereffects—the contorted, blood-soaked corpses. (The first violence we see is a lady gutting a fish for supper.) In one scene, Henry gives a lift to a guitar-toting hitchhiker, and, in the next scene, he gifts a guitar to his roommate. Fill in the blank!
Henry, as played by a meek and muscular Michael Rooker, is shockingly polite, even at times gentlemanly, in between stalkings. He’s hardworking, with a soft, high voice—a really banal kind of evil. Many of the best horror movies make you spend the first few reels with the victims, humanizing them, making you identify with them, so the violence they encounter feels that much more personal, and thus scarier, to you. Henry dares to try the opposite: you spend time with the killer (loosely based on the self-aggrandizing Henry Lee Lucas), so you feel more sympathetic to him; the movie highlights his likable, working-class ordinariness, with domestic scenes shot with an unobjectionable static plainness. Later, the crimes will be staged with more flair, but by concealing such action for so long, McNaughton makes us believe that Henry might not be so bad, especially given what we see of the world he inhabits, where fathers rape daughters, brothers rape sisters, sons kill their mothers, husbands beat their wives and parents beat their kids. For every horrid Henry, it seems there’s someone else even worse, the world an infinitely deeper hole of horribleness.
Henry’s motivation is unsurprising, if icky: his mother was a “whore” who made him wear a dress while watching her have sex with men; his roommate, Otis (Tom Towles), whom Henry enlists as a serial-killing mentee, is a repressed homosexual. But McNaughton makes them defy standard profiling: they follow no MO, provide no consistency; law enforcement might not even know they exist, chalking up the bodies they leave behind to this mean old world. (Henry moves around a lot, too, but the film is set during a stay in Chicago.) For Henry, it’s about the ends, not the means: he and Otis are two id-crazed killers mistaking the real world for Westworld.
When they steal a camcorder and start filming their acts, McNaughton further implicates us in their violence, which also becomes more disturbing: there’s nothing sympathetic about the way they humiliate, sexually assault and execute a generic suburban family, which we watch from start to finish, then rewind back to start. Disturbing crimes are followed by disgusting ones, followed by sad ones. Henry is one righteous yet irredeemable dude; defying Hollywood, he can’t even be saved by the love of a good woman (Tracy Arnold, who looks like she could be Maria Bramford’s mom). Even worse, we feel all tied up with him emotionally, because of how McNaughton has allowed the action to unfold, even while we push Henry away. (Also, he has the same name as you, at least if you’re me.) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is not just grim and gross or even disturbing; it’s hurtful.