Forgotten Film Friday: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

 By Michael McNulty

It’s Halloween week.  So, it goes without saying that we’re all looking for films to get the scares in.  For those of you looking for a break from the Slasher films of yesteryear and their countless reboots, prequels, sequels and mash ups here’s a chilling alternative, John McNaughton’s 1986 film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Although Henry was released in 1986 it didn’t really see much screen time until 1990.  This was largely due to the fact that it was slapped with an X rating (the MPAA reportedly found the film so disturbing that they didn’t know where or what to cut to reduce the rating).  After a few festival and midnight screenings, the film was released, without a rating, slowly across the country and has since garnered a quiet cult following.

Henry substitutes supernatural monsters, theatrical gore and jump scares for something all the more frightening: stark, unflinching realism.  Although the film’s narrative is completely fictional, the characters are based on real life serial killer duo, Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, who claimed to have committed over 200 murders across the United States (claims that were later proved to be untrue).

The Henry (Michael Rooker) of the title is a soft spoken drifter who has taken up residence in the home of Otis (Tom Towles), a friend he made whilst the two did time together.  We are introduced to Henry in a sequence that intercuts the everyday of his life with a series of murders, after the fact, that sit like brutal tableaux pulled straight from a police file.  The camera pans over bodies lying in pools of blood as the struggles and screams of the murders play hauntingly over the top.

Becky (Tracy Arnold), Otis’s sister and former stripper, escaping her abusive husband, moves into the apartment and after learning that Henry killed his mother finds herself drawn to the man.  The relationships descend into the sordid.  Otis’s may harbour homosexual tendencies and his incestuous advances towards his sister are only kept at bay by Henry, who himself, seems uncomfortable by the touch and affection of women.

One night, whilst out, Henry and Otis pick up a couple of prostitutes and Henry, in a fit, kills them both.  This sets the two in motion, sending them on a killing spree, picking victims at random and murdering without remorse, sometimes for sport, sometimes out of frustration and sometimes for release.

A home invasion murder (the scene that caused the film much of its ratings grief) is shockingly disturbing.  Henry and Otis break into a suburban home and taunt and murder a husband, wife and their son.  Otis, wrapped around the limp half naked body of the wife, proceeds to try to have sex with it, only stopped by the barked command of Henry, “No, Otis.”

We watch the scene unfold through a television set, the act itself having been filmed by Henry.  The two sit in morbid fascination as they pause, rewind and play it in slow motion.   For many, what may have felt like gratuitous murder porn is actually something much more.  McNaughton’s uncompromising depiction of violence is devoid of any Hollywood finesse, it is stark, grainy, and blisteringly frightening in its reality.  But, that is what it is, uncompromisingly honest, as if he were saying “violence, horror, murder doesn’t look like that, it looks like this.”

And this is where Henry really sets itself apart.  It is a truly horrifying document that’s stripped of humanity.  The characters’ actions are motiveless; they are dispassionate and most frightening of all they are the people that blend into the reality of the everyday.

Michael Rooker puts in a skin crawlingly nuanced performance.  His soft spoken frustration and penchant for murder are carried with such quiet confidence, adding a disturbingly flat edge to the character that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

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