Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Director: John McNaughton

Apparently this film actually began life as, of all things, a wrestling documentary, but when that fell through the producers gave McNaughton the money that had been raised for it—about $100,000—and told him to make a straight-to-video horror film instead. Apparently expecting a regular “let’s kill teenagers” movie, instead they got this loosely-based-on-fact chunk of nastiness… the producers dithered about whether or not to release it at all meant it didn’t really start to spread until 1990; it was probably a couple of years after that I first read about it (and its mounting censorship misadventures) in Rolling Stone. Ebert’s review from that time ends with an observation from the film’s Telluride screening, that response seemed to be divided between the film did its job brilliantly and the film should never have been made; Ebert himself was in the former camp. Scroll down, though, and you have someone calling Henry “porn dressed up as an edgy exploration of the criminal mind”. And I’m… somewhere in between the two, leaning a bit more towards the latter. It’s, I suppose, well enough made within its limitations (hundred grand, 16mm, no stars), and it’s interesting that it tries to underplay as much as possible (apparently the influence of McNaughton’s co-writer Richard Fire; McNaughton apparently envisaged something more conventionally exploitative), going for a pretty flat realism that does serve to enhance the grimness of the material. That flatness of approach, however, combined with the basic repulsiveness of the characters (and though Henry may be the “hero” of the film, it’s actually Otis who is, in some way, the worse of the two), kept me at a distance from it—even the infamous family massacre scene didn’t really grab me—and I don’t think the “portrait” offers anywhere near as much insight into the serial killer as it perhaps thinks. Henry’s not one of those serial killers who dares the police to catch him—indeed, the police are notably absent from the whole film—and knows to shake up his MO so his killings won’t be linked to each other, but we’re offered no real insight into why he kills in the first place beyond the mere fact that he seems to enjoy it. It’s a good performance by Michael Rooker, but on the whole Henry just struck me as fantastically unpleasant and essentially empty; I wouldn’t call it a bad film as such but it’s one of the least likeable things I’ve seen in some time.

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