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

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

This review may contain spoilers.

Film #7 of my Hoop-tober Horror Challenge!

"I'd like to kill somebody..."
"Say that again."
"I'd like to kill somebody."
"Let's you and me go for a ride, Otis."

For a long time, I've had a strange interest in cinematic ugliness. Not visual ugliness, but rather thematic ugliness (though these often go hand-in-hand). While this could definitely be traced back to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, arguably the movie that really jump-started this strange obsession was Cannibal Holocaust (a film I've only seen twice and don't really have any desire to re-watch any time soon). It seems strange that someone would willingly watch movies that make them uncomfortable, and on rare occasions even disturb them. I cannot even quite put my finger on it myself. Perhaps it's some way of testing my limits from a safe distance: getting as close as possible to the true terror out in the world from the safety of my home. We, as an audience, have a strange desire to see violence. It's what makes Kill Bill Vol. 1 so satisfying, what makes the Friday the 13th films so fun, what makes Braindead and Evil Dead II so hilarious. But this type of on-screen violence is too stylized, too dramatic. There's a certain sense of distancing in it. We see blood and gore, but it doesn't mean anything. We see murder and we're able to come out the other end entirely unaffected. Some movies, however, don't grant us this luxury. Some films give us the true chaos, the true senselessness of violence. Violence breeds violence: never ending entropy. One of the few films in cinema that can effectively communicate this (along with Angst and Funny Games) is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

I once read a story about the premiere of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Someone was in the audience when they just became too overwhelmed (completely understandable), and ran out of the theatre, only to come face to face with actor Michael Rooker (Henry), who was running late to the showing. I'm not sure if this story is true, but if it is, I cannot even begin to image the terror they must have faced in that moment. Nearly 30 years later, Henry still retains the same level of repulsion that it had upon its release.

The film's plot, if it has any, is following a short time span in the life of prolific serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. His roommate, Otis, has his sister Becky come live with them after escaping an abusive relationship. Becky walks out of one trap and right into another, as Otis is a sleazy, incestuous sexual predator and eventual rapist, but since sexual abuse appears to have always been a part of Becky's life, she doesn't even seem to think anything wrong of it (or perhaps she'd been trapped so long that she was no longer able to fight back). She meets Henry and is instantly captivated by him, mistaking his cold detachment for being a gentleman. Even after finding out that he killed his mother (whether by gun, knife, or baseball bat we never know), she is not swayed. As Henry sweeps Otis up into his life of murder and cruelty, Becky also becomes swept into Henry: entranced with him until it's too late.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a dark film. There is no light at the end of the tunnel for any of these characters, no salvation. Even Becky, the only of the three main characters deserving of any redemption, isn't able to be saved. Henry sees the world in simple terms: dog-eat-dog. "It's us or them," he tells Otis. Ultimately, Henry consumes everything in his wake because he knows it as the only method of survival. Destruction follows closely behind him, too fast for the police or any form of justice to catch up.

What really stuck out to me in this viewing of Henry is just how well director John McNaughton manipulates his audience. Take, for example, the television kill. This scene is classic slasher: we see the two killers trying to buy a TV from a black market salesman, and they are repeatedly insulted and made fun of by the salesman. Henry and Otis being the only characters we know in this scene, we begin to sympathize with them: putting ourselves in their shoes. When Henry and Otis brutally murder the man, Henry's line "Otis, plug it in," even feels, well, awesome at the time, we even believe that this man deserved to be murdered by Henry and Otis. After stepping back from the film and thinking for a moment, we can of course come to the conclusion that this man obviously didn't deserve to be stabbed and electrocuted, but for just one brief second, McNaughton made us think like Henry and Otis. And it's terrifying. In the scene immediately following that, we are watching Henry record Otis and him brutally murdering a family of three (Otis sexually assaulting the woman). After the murder is done, the camera cuts to Henry and Otis sitting on the couch (similar to how most viewers at home are watching this film), making our role in the murder as a complicit accessory. These are just two examples in a film full of wonderful audience manipulation (something which can annoy me, but when it's done as well as it is here, I simply cannot resist).

In this viewing, I also sympathized with Becky far more than I ever had (though I always have). By making Otis such a deplorable character (Henry is awful, but at least he is somewhat stoic whilst murdering, the way Otis takes pleasure in it, coupled with his sexual assault, makes him more despicable than even Henry), we even begin to see Henry as a bit of an anti-hero (there's more audience manipulation for you). When Becky (an instantly sympathetic character, just for the situation she's in) latches on to Henry, simply because we want Becky to be happy, we want Henry to respond to her. When he says "I guess I love you, too," it shouldn't make our skin crawl. But the delivery of that line from Michael Rooker is so flat and emotionless that it's one of the scariest parts of the film. We want to see Becky victorious over Henry, the Final Girl trope most slasher movies have, as some way of consoling the audience, but that doesn't happen here. Perhaps my favorite thing that I noticed this viewing is when Becky stabs Otis, her brother and rapist, using the sharp end of a comb, subverting the symbol of her femininity that Otis mocked earlier in the film. It's very possible that I'm reading too much into this, but I don't think I am.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was not an easy assignment. If anything, this film has become even more powerful since the last time I saw it. Each line from its three principal characters adds to the film, making it more and more unbearable. The term "documentary style" of film-making is thrown around a lot, especially in the horror genre. I don't consider The Exorcist to be "documentary style", or Night of the Living Dead, or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or any other titles that has that term attached to it. However, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer really is shot like a documentary. The realism to it, the casual shots, the lack of character development, lack of police involvement, every single thing in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is real.

Henry Lee Lucas may not be alive anymore, but other serial killers identical to him still are, waiting for their next victim, indistinguishable from those around us.

And that's just about the scariest thing I can think of.

Up Next: The Amityville Horror (1979)

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