Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer October 4, 2019
1 Hr., 22 Mins.
ou get what you think you’re going to get with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). So is it worth watching? The film is expectedly unpleasant, but the unpleasantness is never needless. The unpleasantness is something of a bracing act of protest. It seems not just a rebuttal to the sensationalized slasher stuff plaguing the era's horror movies but also to society’s obsession with true crime, particularly tales that involve
serial murders. So often does our fascination with violence, and how a single someone or someones in cahoots can readily inflict it and for a time get away with it, have a mythological undercurrent. Sometimes, then, getting acquainted with true-crime stories comes with some unpremeditated lip-licking. We sympathize with victims, but ugly truths frequently fuse to make riveting narratives that can push away a full vision of reality.
A movie like Henry is next to insufferable. But the purpose it serves is significant, at least in the sense that it’s the rare movie that deals with serial murder without also featuring gussied-up genre bents. I can’t say it’s watchable or particularly compelling dramatically. I was repulsed. As Henry unrolled, it felt like someone was dangling a cut-out organ on a string in front of me, imploring me to touch it.
But the none-of-this-matters mutedness is interesting. The movie’s closest ancestor, probably, is Maniac, from 1980. Though that movie did admittedly sometimes resort to gutsy pageantry — its serial killer protagonist scalped women and used their bloodied tresses to cover the bald heads of mannequins, for example — it too had a nihilistic undertow that made it feel like film-length contrarianism. It was a low-key but pronouncedly sour-tasting antithesis to the shock-tactic-steeped true-crime notes regularly played by the media and the movies.
Henry covers a brief window in the life of its title character. He’s a drifter, and as of late has shacked up with Otis (Tom Towles), an old prison buddy with rotting, crooked teeth. Henry is played by Michael Rooker with dead-eyed menace. I got shivers whenever he spoke. When having a conversation for too long, Henry tends to start getting visibly irritated, and his mouth does this thing where it slowly curls and curls between every word until he seems about ready to start spitting, hitting.
Henry and Otis live in relative poverty. The latter works at a gas station a couple of times every week, and unsuccessfully deals drugs on the side. I didn’t catch whether Henry has a customary blue-collar job. Then again, I’m not sure he could have one based on his lifestyle. Most days, he's hunting prospective victims. His murders have a nonchalance to them. Henry at one point kills a pair of waitresses working at an empty diner; another afternoon he spots a shopper getting into her car. Once she exits the parking lot, he follows her home, memorizes her address, and later returns to bludgeon and brand her. Henry is the obverse of the majority of serial killers we meet in the movies: While most are visions of chaos, he possesses an eerie equanimity — as if murder were his business.
Otis doesn’t at first know what Henry does, though he does know that his roommate killed his mother in childhood. But after he witnesses Henry snap the necks of a pair of sex workers, he gets interested. Seeing the power in Henry’s askew us-versus-them ideology, he enthusiastically becomes his roommate’s partner in killing. Their modus operandi entails they have no modus operandi. Henry, wisely — albeit terrifyingly — understands that you have to randomize how you kill to mislead police. (Henry and Otis’ kinship was in part based on the collaborative murders by Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole.)
The feature is provided something of a moral compass by Otis’ sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), who arrives at Otis and Henry’s flat early in the movie. She’s running from her abusive husband, and earnestly is looking to start her life anew. Not long into the film, she gets a job as a hairdresser. Even though Becky eventually catches wind that Henry has murdered his mother, she doesn’t know what the former and Otis have been up to on the side. She’s more so fascinated by their slanted dynamic and how she fits into it.
There is a semi-love story featured in Henry. It’s between Henry and Becky, though it’s assuredly one-sided. Henry, being a homicidal misogynist, cannot love. But otherwise, Becky’s place in the relationship of these men begets some intrigue. Not only is she a stand-in for us, in a way — she’s also a living reminder that serial killers are sinisterly a part of real life. They could easily be your brother and your brother’s roommate. I dug Arnold’s performance — it has a corporeal woundedness and a false sense of hope undergirding it. She’s shattering. Without Arnold, we might infer that John McNaughton, who helmed the movie, had become so ensconced in violent criminal life that he’d momentarily forgotten his own humanity.
McNaughton’s co-writing and direction is something of a feat. How do you make a movie about a serial killer without accidentally featuring Grand Guignol extravagancies? McNaughton knows what to do: rarely show the actual act of killing, instead highlighting the existences of these murderers and the amorality in which they live. (Longer-lasting moments — like a glimpse at a videotape Otis recorded of him and Henry killing a family inside their home and a lethal run-in with a black-market salesman — are so shadowed by unemotionality that they’re simply horrific, no traces of buzzing suspense found.) There’s a finely tuned realism driving the movie that gets to us. It’s unlikely that someone finishes Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and thinks they’ll watch it another time. But how it deals with a wrongfully, often recklessly practiced mode of storytelling is something to see. B+