James’s review published on Letterboxd:
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a sobering response to the 'murder as entertainment' slasher craze that took hold during the decade of its conception. By evoking a chilling sense of realism it makes us, the audience, as uncomfortable as possible whilst forcing us to question our culpability for enjoying such horrific violence.
John McNaughton's feature debut benefits from its very low budget much in the same way that John Cassavetes' forays into independent filmmaking do by capturing a rawness and authenticity that feels real because much of what we see is authentic. Actual locations around Chicago are captured on grainy 16mm and the cast of actors are given the freedom to improvise, leading to fluid and naturalistic performances. Michael Rooker gives a chilling portrayal of a deranged killer whose various murders are shown mostly off-screen as short inserts of mutilated corpses overlain with an unsettling score, a decision that is thematically much more powerful than showing the act itself.
It borrows stylistic choices from both grindhouse and arthouse, the result of which is a curious and unique piece of social-realist horror that satiates our desire for brutality then admonishes us for it. One scene in which Henry and his dimwitted friend and accomplice Otis, played for comedic relief by Tom Towles carry out a murder is textbook gratification. The antagonist is clearly set up, we all know what will happen and when it does there's deep satisfaction. By stark contrast the infamous home invasion scene is utterly repulsive, as the camera pulls back it reveals we are literally watching it after the fact on VHS in a living room with the two killers, Otis gleefully rewinding it to view it again as the scene concludes.
Vile and deeply unpleasant, this is a thought-provoking film in a genre saturated with mindless artifice.