Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)

Now it could be debated that John McNaughton's low-budget fictionalized account of a Henry Lee Lucas-type serial killer is not an honest-to-gorsh horror film, but damned if it isn't scarier than most films branding themselves as horror. Originally commissioned to be a low budget, mindless slasher exploitation flick, McNaughton and his cast (mostly comprised of members of the Organic Theater Company) created something substantially more intelligent, honest and disturbing.

Despite not being particularly bloody per se (there's much more gore in Friday the 13th or even such PG-13 fare as The Ring, if I recall), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was released unrated, since the MPAA said that no cuts would qualify it for an R-rating. Despite my several issues with the MPAA and its inconsistent and erratic policies on granting R or NC-17 ratings, I'm actually inclined to agree with that institution in this instance (for reasons I'll go into later).

Now, I'll admit up front: yes, Henry has some very hammy acting and some very clunky dialogue. Nosedive vet (and former roommate) Christopher Yustin walked out after 15 minutes of the movie because he just found it too cheesy and heavy-handed. I can't - and won't - argue that the dialogue in McNaughton and Richard Fire's script leaves something to be desired.

Then again, we're not watching a movie like Henry for passages of purple prose. And, if you're patient enough to get past Henry and Becky's stilted, awkward and portentous conversation about how and why Henry killed his mama, you'll be witnessing some of the most disturbingly realistic and believable scenes shown in a horror film. In fact, the slight awkwardness of the film's first few opening scenes lets down your defenses (or at least, they caused me to let mine down the first time I watched it; and boy, have I learned from my mistake).

Henry has no interest in getting into the psychology of its titular character. Aside from oblique references to being raised by an abusive mother, and Henry's glib justification that, "It's either you or them one way or the other," the film doesn't offer any real explanation as to why Henry does what he does. (Though, to be fair, is there really any explanation that viewers would find satisfying?) Despite this, the film doesn't portray Henry as a two-dimensional monster: he is a very real and plausible character.

Here's what Roger Ebert wrote in his original review for the movie:

"Unlike typical 'slasher' movies, 'Henry' does not employ humor, campy in-jokes or a colorful anti-hero. Filmed in the gray slush and wet winter nights of Chicago's back alleys, honky-tonk bars and drab apartments, it tells of a drifter who kills strangers, efficiently and without remorse. The movie contains scenes of heartless and shocking violence, committed by characters who seem to lack the ordinary feelings of common humanity."


The film opens with a young woman named Becky (played by Tracy Arnold) who moves in with her brother, Otis (Tom Towles, in a performance that makes the skin crawl) after leaving her husband. Around the same time, Henry (Michael Rooker), after having served time for murdering his mother, also moves in with Otis after being released from prison (Henry and Otis met in prison a few years earlier). Despite being nervous about Henry's past, Becky finds herself drawn to her brother's friend.

We find out that Otis also has incestuous feelings for Becky, and regularly attempts to molest her (at first done in the name of just playing around, though we can clearly see otherwise), much to the disgust and dismay of Henry.

One evening, Henry and Otis get it on with two prostitutes. During this, Henry kills both women without provocation. Though not feeling any sense of remorse or horror, Otis is worried about the police catching them. Henry reassures him that everything will be okay, and before long, Henry takes Otis under his wing and shows him the ropes of killing strangers just for the fun of it.

During one of their exploits, the pair gets a hold of a video camera, which they use for the one scene that no doubt prompted the MPAA to insist on an NC-17 rating. In one scene shown through their camcorder, unbroken by any cuts, we witness Henry and Otis torturing a family to death in their home.

I have no other way to describe it except in this way: it appears as though we're watching a snuff film. Lack of gore does nothing to diminish the power and intensity of the scene. In fact, the lack of gore may add to the scene's brutal and unflinching realism.

The scene can be found below (it begins around the 2:19 mark). Now, let me be clear: not only is this scene not work-friendly, it is most certainly not for the squeamish. Just don't say I didn't warn you.



When the film was first released, as is the case with most effective horror films, there were two main opposing viewpoints from viewers and critics: "those who felt the film did its job brilliantly, and those who felt its job should not have been done at all," as Ebert points out. (Ebert was apparently of the latter mindset when the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre came out: sure, it was well made, but damned if he could figure out why it was made.)

Obviously, I'm in the former category: yes, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a portrait of a psychopath, but at least it's an honest one, and not created out of a desire to titillate its audience.

Never pulling over for a stranger again,

James "Bad Samaritan" Comtois

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4 Comments:

Blogger Joshua James said...

Scariest fucking thing ever.

And I believe the movie is based on two real life drifters (I believe in Northern California) who would pick up hitchhikers, torture them and tape record the whole thing (I think that one of them is even named Otis, though it's been awhile since I went through those books).

The recordings are what did them in. And like Henry, they had no real motivation except that they liked it.

Which is, when you think about it, why anyone does anything. Because we like it.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

It may genuinely be the first time in my adult life I’ve had to resist the urge to leave the room or fast forward something. I was simply stunned and horrified when I first watched it.

Yeah, it’s apparently a fictionalized account of the exploits of Henry Lee Lucas and…crap. Was it Lucas who recorded the murders? I can't remember. The FBI consultant for Silence of the Lambs talks about these killers on the Criterion commentary. Oh, crap. Now I’m blanking on their names and of course looking like a complete ignorant boob. (Though, hey, maybe people will cut me some slack for not being a serial killer expert.)

12:55 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

While I did bristle at the clunky early dialogue and could not get over Becky's absurd lack of self preservation with her baffling attraction to Henry. (He killed his Mama! But well, look who she's rooming with so far, and women in horror movies are always opening doors they shouldn't. A topic for another Jamespeak entry, Jimmy? Titled "Girlie, don't open the goddamn door and wear better shoes for running in".)

I could see in the bleak an sordid tone and content where this picture was going and at noon-ish on a Sunday wasn't up for a snuff film that once seen I could never un-see. A testament I think to how well the film achieves its desired ends, (I have seen other films not for the squeamish e.g. Meet the Feebles, Eraserhead, TX Chainsaw, etc.) and that I am a thoroughbred sally who upon seeing films like this sleeps with the lights on.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Right. I’m working under the impression that I wasn’t using you as a subject of ignorance or mocking but as a caveat for viewers that yes, the first few minutes of the movie may make them scratch their head and groan at the clunky-ness. Yeah, on one hand, I am shaking my head in dismay at Becky’s naïveté, but on the other, look at her freakin’ brother! At least the mama-killer treats her with a modicum of civility and respect (and, unlike her brother, isn’t trying to get in her pants [say it with me, everyone: “Ewwwwwww!”]).

And no, this may not be the ideal Sunday afternoon movie. Hell, I'm not the most squeamish guy around (oh, you've noticed?), but when I got to That Scene I nearly bolted out of the room.

12:19 PM  

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