Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Screenplay : Richard Fire and John McNaughton
MPAA Rating : NC-17
Year of Release : 1989
Stars : Michael Rooker (Henry), Tracy Arnold (Becky), Tom Towles (Otis), Mary Demas (Dead Woman), Anne Bartoletti (Waitress)
Made in 1985 for a budget of only $100,000, "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" sat on a shelf until 1989 when it was finally shown at a series of film festivals, then made its rounds on the midnight theater circuit. Many critics lavished it for being brutally honest about its subject matter, which in some ways, it is.
Unfortunately, like so many small budget movies, the lack of money shows through at times. The film is a bit grainy, and some of the shots are too dark, and the mostly unknown actors (save Michael Rooker in the title role) are a bit awkward in the more intimate moments. Nonetheless, this film, which is a fictional account of the Texas mass murderer Henry Lee Lucas, does possess a raw power because it refuses to get inside the head of the title character.
The director, John McNaughton, has said that one of the most horrifying thing about Henry (and most serial killers, for that matter) is that he doesn't immediately appear evil. His true self is boiling and churning on the inside, and only people who get to see are those he kills. "Henry" makes sure to stay back from its serial killer, never trying to explain why he does what he does. It simply shows what he does, and lets the audience assess it for what it's worth.
The story involves Henry and his drug-dealing roommate, Otis (Tom Towles), both of whom are typical white trash. Otis' sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), comes to live with them for a while, and it becomes immediately clear that something is starting between her and Henry. It isn't long before Otis is getting in on Henry's killings, with Becky standing just outside them. The scenes between these three people never work quite as well as they should, because the actors aren't quite up to the task. Rooker gives a good, dead stare performance as Henry, but both Towles and Arnold are often clumsy and almost insecure in their roles.
This film generated a heap of controversy because of its subject matter. One of the reasons it sat on the shelf for so long was because the MPAA slapped it with an X-rating. When it was finally released, it remained uncut with an NC-17 rating, and it was banned in several countries. Although the film is violent (made immediately clear with the opening shot which slowly draws over the dead body of a woman), much of the intensity it drowned out by an annoying, shrieking Psychoish music score that comes up whenever Henry strikes. The only scene that really disturbs is when Henry and Otis massacre an entire family in their living room while filming it with a video camera. The scene plays out just like it would have in real life, and the audience is put in the uncomfortable position of having to watch the grisly proceedings through camera's viewfinder.
In moments like that, this film is undeniably disturbing and enlightening. However, the film is compromised because it's never sure what it wants to be. Part of the time it's art house cinema, the rest of the time its horror schlock. They should have picked one or the other.
©1997 James Kendrick