Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)


*. $110,000. It’s hard to even think of that as a budget for a feature film. Originally the money was supposed to be for making a wrestling documentary, but that was going to cost too much so the producers signed off on this.
*. John McNaughton knew his limitations, and chose to make a virtue of them. There is a low-budget filmmaking aesthetic, one that makes a cheap look work for you. If your characters are dirt poor transients, as they are here, why spend money trying to make their lives look good? Just take your camera out on the street, shoot in 16 mm, and don’t bother decorating sets because the apartment Henry and Otis live in wouldn’t be decorated. Eschew fantasy. Embrace the rude and the raw.
*. This was, in turn, the major complaint that censors had with the film: that it was too gritty and raw, too realistic (it was originally rated X and then released unrated). That seems mistaken to me. Not because we’ve since moved on, and younger fans of films of this genre have grown up with much harsher fare, but rather because the shots of the victims of Henry’s violence are presented in such a stylized manner, like artfully arranged mannequins, with bizarre music and vocals playing in the background (presumably a stylized soundtrack of their murder). This is not realistic or gritty.
*. What does strike me as realistic, and perhaps even more disturbing, is Michael Rooker’s portrayal of the psychopath Henry. There is more to this than mere flatness and lack of affect. There’s also the casual and convincing way he lies about anything, and most of all the minimal thrill he gets out of killing.
*. We’re used to seeing serial killers portrayed as tortured souls consumed by their violent passions, driven to kill to slake a psychopathic blood lust. No doubt that’s what’s driving Henry here as well, but especially in the murder of the family captured on videotape we see how quick and momentary the release is. Henry wants to kill, but then he snaps a neck and it’s all over. The bodies are left in their death poses, or else disposed of as garbage.
*. People bounce off Henry. My favourite part of the film is when he listens to Becky tell her grim family history and only replies when she’s done: “You didn’t really get along with your daddy, huh?” This is a relationship that’s going nowhere. We don’t need to see his unresponsiveness when she takes him behind the curtain that serves as a doorway in a vain attempt to seduce him. In the earlier scene where she changes her top, Otis is the one who tries to sneak a peek at her. Henry isn’t interested.
*. What Henry’s feelings are toward Otis are anyone’s guess. He doesn’t need him as an accomplice, and doesn’t seem to care for his company much either.
*. The story was inspired by, rather than based on, the criminal career of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis (two t’s) Toole. I don’t think it’s necessary to drag them into it. This movie really doesn’t have much to do with them, and I think that after getting the initial idea from a television news special McNaughton went his own way.
*. McNaughton never went on to much, did he? I think he’s probably best known, outside of this film, for Wild Things and Mad Dog and Glory, a pair of movies that I don’t think will last (or have lasted). He also did one of the episodes on the first season of Masters of Horror that I saw. That doesn’t seem like much after such a notable debut.
*. I wouldn’t want to deny this movie the place it has won in the hearts of genre fans. It does do a lot with a little. It has a distinct, almost unique, look and feel. Michael Rooker and Tom Towles are both good. The family murder is harrowing. I really like the ending. If it leaves me cold, I think that’s by design.

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