John McNaughton’s low budget independent masterpiece of horror is a different kind of horror. While the more notorious classics 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' and 'Halloween' tell horrific stories of torture and murder through the eyes of its victims, McNaughton swung his camera around on the murderers, thus creating a film with an even more visceral kind of terror.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990) dir. John McNaughton
Starring: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles
By Alan Bacchus
I can take pretty much anything shown to me on screen, but Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer features one of a few scenes that truly terrifies me and compels me to turn the film off... but more on that later...
Otis and Henry (Tom Towles and Michael Rooker) are two uneducated ex-cons living in Chicago. Henry served time for killing his mother, and despite being free he still has a deep-seated need to kill and has been on a rampage of random but obsessive serial murders. Otis is unaware of his roomie's predilection until one night when they pick up a pair of hookers, Otis watches Henry inexplicably snap the necks of the poor women. Otis suddenly becomes intoxicated with the thrill of murder and follows Henry's trail of serial killing like a trade apprentice.
Complicating Henry's simple anti-social lifestyle is Otis's comely sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), who has come to live with Oits, thus making the twosome a threesome. Becky becomes enraptured with Henry's introverted shyness and reserved internal strength. Otis, on the other hand, expresses his sexually violent tendencies against Becky. Out of this threat emerges a protective side of Henry and a genuine love for Becky, which might just bring him out of his cycle of violence.
We never knew the motivations of Michael Myers or the freaks from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What does Michael Myers do when he's on his own, or when he's plotting his next victim? John McNaughton sadistically digs deep into the minds of these kind of madmen with a remarkably layered and sometimes sympathetic character study.
Henry was shot in 1986 independently for a mere $110,000. It was financed by a pair of indie producers, Malik and Waleed Ali, who were looking to make a quick buck with a disposable straight-to-video slasher picture. But when McNaughton delivered his complex, meditative and unslasherlike creeper, the Ali brothers didn't think it was good and thus shelved it. But finally, after a long and complicated journey, the film was discovered at film festivals years later and hailed as a masterpiece, thus earning its cult status.
It's a great success story, as Henry manages to achieve a kind of terror more horrific and viscerally frightening than anything before it. We don’t even see a murder until the 30- to 40-minute mark. Until then we see only the grisly aftermath of Henry's rage - single shots revealed via subtle camera movements of a strangled corpse or a mutilated and stabbed body floating in the river with the agonizing sounds of the ordeal.
Henry has much in common with Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. McNaughton’s depressed urban working class flavour has much the same effect as Hooper’s backwoods hillbilly approach. The flat, rough and colourless cinematography has the same amateurish aesthetic as Chainsaw. Even the simple music, which seems to have been played on a Casio keyboard, complements this grimy, unpolished feel.
Tracy Arnold as Becky embellishes all the simplicity of an uneducated, foolhardy and naive girl attracted to danger. Her conversations with Henry are sexually teasing, especially the ridiculousness of her enthusiasm at buying her 'I Love Chicago' t-shirt. It's pathetic, but serves as a sexual tease for both Otis and Henry, creating the fundamental teeth-gritting tension between the three. And from a screenwriting point of view her attraction to Henry serves as the engine for him to either turn his life around or perhaps make her another notch on his bedpost of murder.
The cycle of abuse characterized through stories and dialogue, and the implications of their squalor, actually sympathize with the killers - an internalized conflict which keeps the audience on edge. Michael Rooker's career-launching performance shifts with complete naturalism between fear, contempt, deviance, innocence, charm and even heroism. The violence he and Otis commit is choreographed with such unpolished, uncinematic realism it transcends the genre set-piece cinematic death scenes to which we had been desensitized from traditional horror films.
And as far as that disturbing scene which I struggle to sit through... anyone who has seen the picture knows it. For those who don't, it comes midway through the picture and shows the grisly murder of a family via a snuff-like VHS videotaping of the event, which is subsequently rewound and replayed again and again by Otis. It's wholly disturbing and brings to mind the heinous operandi of the Bernardo/Homolka and Luka Magnotta murders, certainly something I don't necessarily think everyone should see. But, for good and bad, it shows pitch perfect control of cinematic tone, however gruesome.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is so good at what it does, it requires lengthy cinemtic recovery time.