HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER(director/writer/producer: John McNaughton; screenwriter: Richard Fire; cinematographer: Charlie Lieberman; editor: Elena Maganini; music: Steven A. Jones; cast: Michael Rooker (Henry), Tracy Arnold (Becky), Tom Towles (Otis), Mary Demas (Dead Woman), Anne Bartoletti (Waitress); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NC-17; producer: Waleed B. Ali; Greycat Films; 1986)
“A brutally honest intimate portrait of a serial killer that makes you feel rotten inside.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A brutally honest intimate portrait of a serial killer that makes you feel rotten inside. Director and writer John McNaughton’s film is loosely based on the case of Henry Lee Lucas, a confessed and convicted serial killer. McNaughton takes Henry’s raw story and slaps on a chilling character study that plumbs the depths of a twisted mind. First-time feature director McNaughton started shooting this graphic mass murder tale in 1985 with a cast of talented unknowns — drawn mostly from Chicago’s Organic Theater Company and a paltry budget of $120,000 and four weeks to finish the film. The film wasn’t released in the US until four years later, as it endured an acrimonious relationship with the censors who aimed to kill it off with an X rating.
The quietly withdrawn Henry (Michael Rooker) and his loud-mouth drug-dealing Chicago apartment roommate Otis (Tom Towles) are white trash pals from their prison days. Soon Otis’ timid sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), comes to live with them for a while, and she makes an effort to become involved with Henry, who despite going on a killing spree still appears alarmingly as a regular guy. It isn’t long before Otis is drawn into Henry’s obsessive killings–as these casual killers capture their murder on videotape and enjoy sitting on their sofa watching them at their leisure. The most gruesome scene is watching Henry and Otis massacre an entire family in their living room while gleefully filming it with a video camera, which is enough to make your blood boil. At first the violence is presented as a series of awful tableaux accompanied by the victim’s chilling sounds in their death struggle. Later the film picks up in intensity and becomes disturbingly more graphic. It’s always creepy, even that scene where Henry scans a parking lot looking to choose at random an innocent woman to become his next victim.
Henry is a reminder of Michael Powell’s 1959 Peeping Tom classic in tone and purpose and achievement. I doubt if any serial killer film brings us any closer to a full understanding of such sociopaths, but these disturbing films have a strange fascination that can’t be denied. The unblinking realism of “Henry” and the cold detached way it is presented, not glorifying nor moralizing against the crimes, but showing in a non-judgmental way how murder is viewed by a serial killer as natural as taking a walk in the park, makes this one scary film. It leaves almost no room for hope that society can ever rehabilitate such individuals or that they can prevent all the other Henrys out there from carrying out the same foul deeds. If anything this haunting film, which might be considered an art film, disturbs more for being so authentic in its characterization of the serial killer trying to act normal rather than in all its lurid scenes.
REVIEWED ON 4/6/2004 GRADE: A
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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