Film Review: HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986)

Film Review: HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986)

Oct 31, 2018

IMDb: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Director: John McNaughton
Stars: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles

When I had the chance to see “Henry 2“, I wasn’t really sure if I had seen the first one, because so much time has passed since its release and the commotion it caused back in ’86. Now having had the chance to see the 20th Anniversary Edition from Dark Sky Films, I’m not so sure that I didn’t remember it, as much as I didn’t WANT to remember…

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John McNaughton presented the indie world with his calling card via this film, and simultaneously raised the bar for what “realism” is in these kinds of horror movies. And where the true horror lies is the way in which it deconstructs and de-glamorizes the image that Hollywood has created for serial killers. This is not a chronicle of a super-intelligent monster like Hannibal Lecter, or even the “channeled” virtuosity of a “noble” murderer like Dexter Morgan.

This could be anybody you walked past down the street yesterday, or saw at the stop light on the way home from work. And make no mistake about it…he works at a job, pays rent and buys groceries like anybody else. And if you happen to catch yourself alone with him at the wrong time, the next time anyone will ever see you again is at the morgue. Count on it.

Based loosely on the exploits of multiple murderer Henry Lee Lucas, “Henry” was the breakout role for Michael Rooker (Slither), and together with co-stars Tom Towles as his dim-witted sidekick, Otis and Tracy Arnold as Otis’ emotionally blasted sister, Becky, they paint a documentary-style picture under McNaughton’s guidance, of how some people living on the fringes of society behave. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re wild-eyed, foaming-at-the-mouth-crazy, and therein lies the scariest part of all. These are the kind of blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth types that you might dismiss without giving a second thought…but the time might come when you do so at your own peril.

From the opening frames of the movie, you know you’re in territory that’s far removed from the usual slasher film. Henry is seen doing mundane, everyday things – buying cigarettes, finishing lunch at a local diner – and juxtaposed with those scenes are absolutely horrific shots of dead, mutilated bodies, as the sounds of how they died careen and crash underneath the discordant music along the soundtrack. Sorry, kids, but this isn’t The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In that picture, as within this one, a time and place is firmly established. But if you don’t live in Texas, part of you can sort of remove yourself from the horror that wants to seep into your subconscious and stay there.

With Henry, it becomes obvious that the locale is somewhere in metropolitan Chicago, but the urban landscape is familiar enough that it could be Atlanta, Detroit, Boston, New York, anywhere. It could be the city where YOU live now.

And by writing the characters and the events they’re involved in with a totally detached, non-judgmental eye, McNaughton and writing partner Richard Fire reveal a horror more numbing and penetrating than a thousand Freddy Kruegers or Michael Myers. There are people in the world who actually do these kinds of things, and they’re out there NOW…and it’s only by the grace of providence or some cosmic lottery that we’ve won, that we don’t ever run into these people…or that some of us unfortunately do.

Enough has already been written about the remarkable performances of all the actors involved, so the only thing I can add is that if you’ve never seen Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, you need to watch it all the way through at least once. I can safely say that you will see why horror is the way it is today, and how so many filmmakers have misinterpreted what director McNaughton was saying with Henry.

With the searing images still fresh in my mind, I can only say this…I feel like I need to take about a hundred hot showers, and none of it will ever wash away how nasty and horrible it made me feel. Which I believe is exactly what the makers of this film were trying to accomplish.

I sincerely hope that once you’ve seen this, you would feel the same. And I would be really worried about anybody who doesn’t, or worse, who said they “enjoyed” it.

Trailer:

Originally published  June 16th, 2016