Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

31 Oct

You'll be surprised both by Michael Rooker's intense performance and his aw-shucks handsomeness.

A good supernatural horror movie can give me some shivers and shocks while I’m watching it, but it’s the monster-next-door that really unnerves me. Once a film ends, ghosts and ghouls don’t continue to creep me out, but serial killers aren’t as easy to laugh off. These people are out there, hopefully not as much as they seem to be in horror movies, but they do exist. Often, a horror film of the serial killer variety will give you some twinge of the supernatural, or veer into some comfortably unbelievable territory. Not “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” a movie that has lost none of its power to unnerve in the past 30 years.

A nude woman lies dead in a field. The camera roves over the body tersely, as if chronicling properly filed marriage certificates or some other mundane thing. We hear screams, and the camera cuts to Henry (Michael Rooker), finishing up a meal at a diner, leaving a tip, paying his bill, but all this normalcy is intercut with scenes of dead bodies, most of them naked and mutilated, and the muted sounds of screams and struggle continue. There’s a flashback to the diner Henry was just in, only this time his waitress is dead, but there’s no way of knowing which of Henry’s realities is the true one. We watch him stalk a woman at a shopping center and follow her home.

The action cuts to an airport. Becky (Tracy Arnold) has just arrived in Chicago from some small town, seeking refuge with her brother, Otis (Tom Towles) from an abusive relationship. She isn’t aware Otis has a roommate. Becky seems interested in Henry from the moment they meet, although he seems either unaware of or unresponsive to her flirting. He awkwardly excuses himself from the room. He works as an exterminator, and the uniform and equipment win him entry to the home of the woman he followed earlier. He leaves, and we are shown her body propped into a sitting position on her couch.

Though Otis met Henry while they were both in prison, and Otis knows Henry was serving time for killing his own mother, he’s unaware of Henry’s more current activities … at first. As Otis and Becky both show more and more interest in Henry, although for very different reasons, they are each drawn into his world, and must face the resulting consequences.

This innocuous still is deceptive; the sequence it's taken from rates high on the disturbing scale.

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” retains its power to unnerve through its intense performances and its unblinking treatment of the subject matter. From its startling opening montage of dead bodies through the escalation of violence, culminating in the torture and execution of a family during a home invasion, this is a film which absolutely refuses to glamorize any of its title character’s actions. It’s such a striking contrast to, say, Hannibal Lecter’s grisly, yet at times darkly funny, appetites, or Mickey and Mallory Knox and their stylish bloodbath across America. Henry is not without charisma, but Michael Rooker’s boyish appeal is counterbalanced by his cold detachment from his crimes.

Though Henry seems sexually fixated — his victims are often women, and he often leaves them in some state of undress — he later confides to Otis that he knows better than to allow himself to develop an M.O. He doesn’t exactly rebuff Becky’s increasingly forward interest in him, but his disinterest is somehow more jarring. It would be more acceptable for us if he would say something to her, anything; “Becky, I’m not the kind of guy you want to be with.” But he doesn’t, and that’s worse, because we have intuited that all those women from the opening sequence showed some interest in Henry also.

The pivotal, relatively early sequence between Henry and Becky at the dinner table, where she openly asks him about killing his mother, is masterful. We don’t know much about Becky at this point. She bluntly asks Henry about his crime, even though she’s been warned by Otis not to. Henry is at first guarded and somewhat irritated but as he opens up to Becky, he begins to relish getting to tell his tale — and relive his crime. He answers Becky’s question by saying he stabbed his mother, then explains that he hated his mother because she slept with men for money and made him watch, in addition to other abuse. At the end of his tale, Henry references shooting his mother, and Becky corrects him. She shares that her father molested her, and her mother knew about it but didn’t do anything. For Becky, it’s a moment of bonding. For Henry, it’s just another reality.

Poor sweet Becky. To have to endure everything her character goes through AND that hairdo? Tragic.

By the end of the scene, we’re not sure whether Henry ever killed his mother, but the chilling ways he describes the act — devoid of  most emotion, perhaps just a trace of lingering anger — makes whether he did or didn’t irrelevant. It’s more disturbing in some ways to think he has committed himself so fully to a matricidal fantasy. It’s entirely possible he did kill his mother, but all we have is Henry’s word for it. The sequence also lays essential groundwork for Becky. The dialogue and acting subtly tell us that she isn’t ignoring all the signs to stay away from Henry; she’s simply not seeing them. The act of her asking about Henry’s crime so clumsily, after being warned off the subject, tells us she’s not overly bright. Her own background explains her awkwardness with Henry and also why she’s so singularly focused on him. But Becky simply isn’t equipped to understand that, while they had similar experiences in their youth, the effects were vastly different. My heart sank as I began to see what Becky could not possibly be expected to: She’s tragically overmatched. Henry is her physical superior, that much is obvious, but he’s also her mental superior. At that moment I knew I had underestimated Henry, both as a character and as a film.

The brilliance of the movie comes through in that tantalizingly simple concept. By underestimating Henry as a one-trick-pony, by insinuating that he kills hookers because he has mommy issues, the film sets up its gut-wrenching reveal of just how frighteningly intelligent and coldly calculating its main character really is. And that’s the type of thing that gets you to check those locks one more time before going to bed, even though it is, as they say, just a movie. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer“: Rated R. Starring Mary Demas, Michael Rooker, Anne Bartoletti, Elizabeth Kaden, Ted Kaden, Denise Sullivan, Anita Ores, Megan Ores, Cheri Jones, Monica Anne O’Malley, Bruce Quist, Erzsebet Sziky, Tracy Arnold and Tom Towles. Directed by John McNaughton. Written by Richard Fire and John McNaughton. Cinematography by Charlie Lieberman. Original music by Ken Hale, Steven A. Jones and Robert McNaughton.

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  1. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) | Old Old Films - June 30, 2011

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