Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

31 Days of Halloween: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Now this is more like it.

Tonight I watched Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer with koriandrkitten. This is one that I've been curious about for years, but not so much that I bothered tracking it down, and I gather that she was in very much the same position.

Henry is based on the real-life confessions of Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to 600 murders between the '60s and the '80s. Wikipedia says that his real body count was probably closer to 350, but uh, that's still horrifically impressive.

Anyway, Michael Rooker (who you remember as Grant Grant from Slither, and the naked guy who ate the pretzel in Mallrats) underplays Henry as a soft-spoken loser who regularly kills people for no particular reason. The film opens with a montage of the corpses left in the wake of his daily minutia -- pesticide application, breakfast at a diner, and so on. He lives with his friend Otis (Tom Towles from, geez, everything. The Devil's Rejects, for example). Both men met in prison, where Henry was serving time for killing his mother. Otis is a casual pothead and though we never find out what his crime was, it was probably drug-related. They live in a very unglamorous apartment in mid-'80s Chicago.

Into this happy home comes Otis' sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold, who looks familiar but isn't), who recently divorced her husband. Otis informs Becky in confidence that Henry murdered his mother, and she finds this exciting. An inappropriate love triangle forms: Tracy is attracted to Henry who doesn't know how to handle it, and Otis is attracted to both of them. Henry is disconcerted by Otis' attempts to mess around with his own sister, so he takes Otis out for a beer. They pick up a couple of prostitutes, and Henry kills his. Otis and his girl freak out, but she doesn't get away before Henry snaps her neck. They dispose of the bodies and get some fast food. Otis can't handle what has happened.

Over the course of the rest of the movie, we witness a change in Otis. At first he is beyond appalled, but eventually becomes curious, confident, and finally, too violent and bloodthirsty for Henry to keep him around. He doesn't survive the film. Neither does Becky. It's not a surprise.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a famous movie, and an infamous one. The MPAA held up its release for three years because there was no way to cut it down to an R rating. Finally, it was released without a rating in 1989. The gore is tamer than that in contemporary movies, but it's so much more disturbing. The movie is flatly realistic. There are no neat camera tricks or stylish effects. Slasher movies tend to wink at their audience, constantly reminding us that hey! It's only a movie! Henry doesn't revel in torture or drawing out the violence, except in one scene during which Henry and Otis watch the video they recorded of themselves slaying a family. It is uncompromisingly stark, and incredibly disturbing. Henry, who usually makes quick work of murder, doesn't much like watching that tape, either.

The film was directed and co-written by John McNaughton, who I should probably be familiar with, given that I've seen so many of his films: Mad Dog and Glory, Wild Things, and Haeckel's Tale, to name a few.

It isn't a pleasant viewing experience, and I wouldn't watch it again soon. I can only imagine how it was received by audiences expecting a run-of-the-mill slasher gorefest in 1989. I'd have felt like the kid who, after being caught smoking, is forced to finish off the whole pack. It doesn't hurt to experience a rude awakening every once in awhile.

Here's the trailer.
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