Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Part of Hoop-Tober

“I love you, Henry.” “I guess I love you too.”

Horror movies are a curious breed. If, as Roger Ebert suggested, movies serve their highest purpose as machines generating empathy, then horror movies are an especially high-functioning lot. They work in large part because they create empathy in the viewer, but in unconventional and disturbing ways. At its best, horror allows us to experience vicariously certain cathartic emotions—the very definition of empathy—and to process at a distance various traumas, both personal and societal. Audience identification with Marion Crane or Rosemary Woodhouse or Clarice Starling—or, perhaps more disturbingly, with Norman Bates or Minnie Castavet or Hannibal Lecter—gives horror films much of their (red-dyed corn syrup) juice.

At its worst, though, horror gives us some cheap titillation while actively rejecting the notion of empathy in favor of vacant cynicism. That’s not to say that T&A and gore and a good jump scare are unworthy elements, or that every horror film has to set its sights on cinema’s firmament. Going through the motions can make for a fun ride when done well. But there is an empty and dispiriting streak of nihilism in too much horror, actively encouraging moviegoers not to empathize with the victims or the killers, but just to root feebly for uninspired mayhem. Don't watch out of concern, or even out of interest. Watch just because it's there. Feed the compulsion; don't bother trying to understand it.

Henry (Michael Rooker) knows the feeling. So to speak, that is. Henry feels very little. As the camera scans tableux morts depicting Henry's crimes, the sounds of violent murder play. A hooker, a housewife, an elderly couple. The juxtaposition of the cold desolation left in Henry's wake and the flash fire that led to such destruction is startling. The victims are just nameless corpses, incapable of tugging at the heartstrings. Their deaths aren't about passion or thrills. There is no glee in the killing, only a sick dread. Henry is just feeding his compulsion; he doesn't bother trying to understand it.

Director John McNaughton's clinical documentary approach in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is grim and unnerving in its realism, but it perfectly suits its subject. McNaughton and his co-writer Richard Fire toy with the idea of explaining Henry's pathology by way of a backstory involving a disabled father and an abusive mother. But Henry's recounting of this story is an affectless jumble, full of coiled...well, not rage, exactly, so much as generalized hostility. Did Henry shoot his mother? Or did he stab her? It doesn't make much difference to Henry, for whom the act of killing is so jejune that specificity is beside the point, like remembering the details of every toilet in which you've ever pissed. You want murder and dementia? Well, McNaughton seems to say, this is what they really look like—the horror of the mundane.

Poor Becky (Tracy Arnold), the simple, desperate younger sister of Otis (Tom Towles), Henry's ex-convict friend and roommate, sees only the mundane and pitifully longs for it. The men in her life, from her sexually abusive father to her violent, imprisoned husband to Otis, a snaggletoothed moral black hole, have treated her so cruelly that Henry's reservation is mistaken for good manners and uprightness. Her fantasy of self-defense and a stable male companion lead her to yearn for the good in people. Henry's blankness provides a clean slate for her projection.

Behind that blankness, all Henry wants to do is kill. Not because he gains any pleasure from it (which he could pass on to us, the audience), and not because he is avenging some greater wrong (which would give us, the audience, a logical and narrative lifeline). He just kills because...well, because. He describes his philosophy to Otis as one of self-preservation—it’s either you or them—but this reasoning isn’t borne out by anything that occurs in the film. Henry’s victims aren’t trying to harm him. He simply lacks the capacity to care about the world outside of himself, and so he assumes his own malevolence must be omnipresent. Devoid of compassion, he can’t imagine its existence in anyone else.

Otis’ role is crucial to McNaughton’s grim project. Having abandoned a chromosome or two on his way to drug-dealing, solicitation, and Henry's reluctant friendship, Otis provides a counterpoint to Henry’s mechanical snuffing out of human life. Never trust a man for whom incest is an after-dinner snack, as the saying goes. So obviously repellent and so gleeful in his homicidal spree with Henry, Otis is a real-life perversion of the usual slasher film villain, getting kicks out of his terrible deeds but presented in such an unvarnished way that those thrills can't be enjoyed by the audience. Henry is precise in seeking an outlet for his impulses—varying his execution method, killing those to whom he has no connection, moving from town to town. The dim-witted Otis would prefer to kill the kid who buys his drugs but not his sexual advances and to keep souvenirs of his crimes. Watching Otis cackle at a home video of himself and Henry brutally murdering and molesting an innocent family, the viewer recoils in horrific self-recognition. Treating the snuff film as sitcom treads dangerously close to the heartless ethos of too many weekend entertainments.

The stoic Henry can only tolerate Otis’ flamboyant, reckless monstrousness for so long. But even the film’s brief foray into gore is treated solemnly. Dismember the body, dump it in the river, move along. No lingering over bloody images, no visceral thrills. Just the ugliness that comes with a profound lack of empathy. As Henry and Becky drive out of town with plans to head to San Bernardino, Henry would prefer to turn on the radio and block out the intrusion of Becky’s verbalized concerns. The most brutal moment in all of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer—a film as brutal as they come—arrives when Becky pathetically declares her love for Henry, the man she believes will finally stand up for her. Henry’s emotionless reply—a pale mimicry of observed human behavior—seals Becky’s fate, just as his vacant pleasantries condemned all the others before her. A sweet girl, willing to upend her life for the man she loves. No you versus them, just us. But Henry can’t see it that way. His sociopathy leaves no room for empathy. A kind and generous companion or a blood-streaked suitcase left by the side of the road—in Henry's eyes, it’s all the same.

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