Most horror films are like roller coaster rides—we get thrills and chills, but we also laugh because we know we're safe. It's only an illusion of fear, not fear itself. John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) just might be fear itself. We cannot laugh after this movie, cannot recount its most famous scenes with pleasure, cannot quote it for humorous effect, because this film stands as one of the bleakest, despairing, most relentless depictions of a murderer ever put to celluloid. It's all there in the title; this is practically a documentary.
Poster by Joe Coleman
This film is light years from Hollywood treatments of serial killers. Sure, Se7en and Silence of the Lambs are exciting, well-made movies, but when did you ever hear of a murderer with such an M.O.? Henry, as played by Michael Rooker, is an emotional blank, a human cipher. He's not sympathetic at all—no wisecracks, no catch-phrases, nothing that we can latch onto to understand him.
Therein lies the power of the movie. If Henry reveled in his bloodshed, we could despise him. If he suffered crippling feelings of guilt afterward, we could pity him. But we can't do either. We just kind of watch him, hoping he won't go too far... that he'll stop soon... that some tough detective will track him down... But none of these things happen.
"It's always the same, and it's always different," Henry tells his friend Otis (Tom Towles), who eventually ventures out with Henry on his killing sprees. Why? Because he's stupid, restless, filled with unfocused loathing. What more of an explanation do you need? "It's either you or them, one way or another," Henry continues. That's all the rationale you'll get for Henry's compulsion, and it's as good an explanation as any.
The plot, such as it is, takes a twist for the worst when Otis's younger sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) comes to stay with him and Henry in Chicago. Lonely and destitute after the break-up of her marriage, she finds Henry someone she can talk to because he's not "judgmental." Read: he's a blank slate upon whom she can project whatever she wants, and right now she wants someone to understand her. In one subtly chilling scene, she tells Henry how she, as a teen, had been beaten and raped repeatedly by her father. Henry simply responds in his deadened rasp, "Didn't get along with your Daddy, huh?"
Henry's normally placid demeanor dissolves only when he talks about his abusive mother. I like how he mis-remembers how he murdered her. That strikes me as true and accurate; serial killers are like this. "It ain't what she done," he says, "it's how she done it." We see how brutality breeds brutality, how violence and despair and rage are almost in our genetic code. But the director McNaughton isn't making a message movie; we can only infer his message from these clues.
Like any sane person, I cringe when I see realistic violence in a film, but unlike many, I can't turn away. Some media critics state that this depiction of violence in movies ultimately desensitizes the viewer, but nothing could be further from the truth in Henry.
Can anyone watch the infamous videotape sequence, in which Henry and Otis slaughter an entire family in a home invasion, and not be left feeling disturbed, violated, empty? These murders are virtually bloodless, and yet it may be the most unsettling screen violence I have ever seen. I wanted it to... go away... stop, just stop (I did indeed turn off the VCR for a break at this point when I first saw it in 1990). But then, real violence makes you feel that way. That's what makes Henry brilliant—no cheap thrills here. We need films this raw and immediate and rough to explore such foul things; you can't expect Hollywood to do it. McNaughton is playing for real.
"But if you strangle one, and stab another, and one you cut up and one you don't, then the police don't know what to do," Henry explains. And there's the moral center of this movie. Sorry. This is not about good and evil, because there are no such things in the serial killer's world. Don't pretend that there is. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a horror film in which the truly horrified are not the characters on the screen, as it too often is, but the audience itself. This is not an enjoyable movie by any means, but it is one you must see.