Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Film Details
Overview: Arriving in Chicago, Henry ‘Michael Rooker, in what is undoubtedly the finest performance of his patchy career’, moves in with ex-con acquaintance Otis and starts schooling him in the ways of the serial killer.
Tagline: The shocking true story of Henry Lee Lucas.
Review: It’s hard to know where to begin evaluating a film like Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. Buzzwords like “dark,” “gritty,” and “disturbing” don’t even come close to summing up the grueling visceral horror that permeates every frame of this chronicle of depravity. “Shocking” certainly applies here, but a trivial designation like that doesn’t even remotely encompass the sheer nihilistic weight of the abominable acts Portrait’s audience will be required to sit through when they commit to viewing this film. I could throw out a dozen adjectives in the vain hope of adequately describing why this bleak journey deserves to be unquestionably recognized as one of the most harrowing and powerful horror films ever made, but the word I invariably arrive at to most succinctly essay the brutal brilliance and lasting potency of Henry is actually a noun: “masterpiece.” Though it arrived in the middle of the splatter decade, Henry was and remains wholly unlike any of its genre contemporaries, and while history has since shown us that it’s possible for films about serial killers to win Oscars, the audiences of Portrait’s era had never been exposed to an unflinchingly realistic study of pure human malevolence quite like this. The fact that it was branded with an X-rating upon its release should underscore exactly how much resonance Henry had at the time, and though there is certainly enough nudity and violence here to push the boundaries of “R”, the most objectionable aspects of Portrait, and in my opinion the ones that drew it the “X”, are the film’s unyielding intensity and its refusal to offer the viewer any sense of pathos or release. Henry is a film that wraps its fingers around your throat and squeezes until it has exhausted its 83-minute run-time, and when its devastating finale fades from the screen, you’ll come to the realization that you haven’t been entertained, you’ve been assaulted. This is certainly extremely bloody fare, but Henry is far from a splatter film. In truth there’s only one high-impact gore effect in the entire affair, and its obvious reliance on a rubbery prosthetic head actually renders it the least realistic moment in the movie. Even the most horrendous sequence in Portrait, where Henry and his lunatic sidekick Otis menace and murder a suburban family in their home while Henry captures the whole thing on video, leaves most of the bloodshed off-screen. The majority of our glimpses of Henry’s victims are shown to us after the killer is long gone from the scene, presented as slowly-panned, lingering snapshots that resonate like crime scene photos, but the savagery displayed in these images tells the entire tale for us, and this tactic of suggesting rather than showing and requiring our imaginations to paint the broader pictures actually makes the violence in the film far more loathsome and effective. The repulsively immersive documentary feel and staggering brutality wouldn’t have nearly the same jarring impact, however, if not for the stunning performances that bring these ugly characters in this ugly world to life. The minuscule budget director John McNaughton had to work with required him to rely on then-untested actors to populate his reels, but the portrayals here are so impressive that it’s hard to imagine a more seasoned cast improving upon the presentation one bit. Michael Rooker’s menacing lead turn is by far the most affecting and multifaceted character study of a serial killer ever committed to film, and the most frightening aspect of his depiction of Henry is his chilling sociopathic ability to be deceptively charming and endearing at times even after we’ve seen what he’s capable of. Yet Rooker always keeps Henry’s meticulously masked rage coiled and within reach, which makes a seemingly mundane scene like Henry asking a woman on the street about her dog seethe with suspense. Tom Towles strikes the perfect balance of predatory and pathetic as Henry’s tag-along pupil Otis, and his fearless portrayal is also noteworthy. However, the biggest surprise the film has to offer is Tracy Arnold’s arresting and heart-breaking performance as Becky, a deeply damaged walking casualty who has the unfortunate distinction of being both Otis’s imminently doomed sister and the object of his unsettling incestuous lust. Arnold’s emotionally wrenching essay of tragedy here is utterly magnificent, and it’s truly amazing that she never built up a substantial post-Henry resume. McNaughton manages his lean running time perfectly, establishing an astounding amount of nuance and subtext at a whip-crack pace while still staying focused on the heinous deeds of his subject. Yes, these random and remorseless murders are glimpses into the darkest recesses of humanity that are sickening to behold, but one of the most clever and cruel tricks the film plays is forcing us to partially understand what drives these killings and the animal behind them. It’s not a pleasant epiphany, but the reinforcement of man as the most sinister monster of all proves to be the nexus of the piece, and McNaughton wisely allows this epistle to bubble to the surface instead of expounding on it, again engaging the audience by urging us to locate the method in the film’s madness. There are too many more superlatives I could bestow here for me to mention in the space I have, but if you get anything out of this write-up, I hope it will be my insistence that Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer is mandatory viewing for anyone who considers themselves even a casual connoisseur of the horror genre. This film isn’t fun to watch, but it is absolutely riveting to behold, and even if you only see it once, there are scenes in Portrait that will remain with you forever. If you have the stomach to undertake this haunting and unforgettable journey, you’ll find yourself in the callous clutches of an undeniably peerless classic.
Duration: 83 min
Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama, Horror, Thriller
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