Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) (R)
Films love villains. Audiences love villains. Who doesn't like a good serial killer? Why is it that we enjoy scary movies? Anthony Hopkins hypothesized an answer to the question that goes something like this: being scared is part of being human. When an adult looks down at an infant, why is it that we sometimes say "boo!". The intention is not to scare the child, but it reveals that there is something perhaps perversely enjoyable about being scared and scaring.
"Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" tries to capture the mind of a killer while still holding the man at arms length. That's the only problem with the film. To see it done almost perfectly, watch "Clean, Shaven" which embraces the shattered mind without the pretenses that it can define it.
The movie's opening shot is a cadaver, naked, laying in a field. It's clear that the victim has been murdered and by the title of the movie, we assume that the next person we see will be the killer...and we're right. Henry (Michael Rooker) drives in his car. As he's cruising for another kill, we see the destruction of his previous murders, played out with strongly synthesized echoes of the women's screams, for yes, he does seem to favor the fair sex.
He drives and picks up a hitchhiker (a woman) who has a guitar with her. Not much violence is actually seen for the first part of the movie, the fade-out implies much more than we'd like to think about. The film is more potent this way.
We are introduced to Becky and Otis, brother and sister. Becky has just moved to Chicago to be with her brother while she escapes a bad marriage. Otis seems to be an oaf, he's constantly teasing his sister about being an exotic dancer. There is something uneasy between them.
The apartment that Otis lives in he shares with another man, Henry. Clearly neither of the siblings realizes that this man is a serial killer and that's the entire point of the movie. On his surface level, Michael appears to be a functioning adult, but just beneath the skin, he's a unhinged mind, justifying his killings with competition. It's kill or be killed in his mind, that gives him the right to take a life...it's self-defence.
Becky is immediately attracted to the man, perhaps it's his shy charm or his non-typical good looks. She asks Otis how the two of them met—he tells her they became friends in prison. More curious than her own good she asks what Henry was in prison for—he killed his mother.
She is shocked by this revelation and although she swears not to tell Henry that she knows his secret, it doesn't take long before questions tumble out of her mouth.
One of the most pivotal scenes in the movie involves Henry and Becky playing cards after dinner on night. Perhaps she thinks that revealing her own secrets will make Henry more open—she decides to tell him of her abusive father. Her story gets more and more gruesome as the incestuous rapist skeletons fall out of the family closet. Then she asks him why he killed his mother.
In Henry's story, his mode of killing keeps changing from stabbing to shooting, we also hear of him beating her to death with a baseball bat.
Throughout this scene, "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" is slyly asking if murderers are caused by the nurture in 'nature vs nurture'.
Otis goes out with Henry one day and experiences first hand the killings. He becomes an apprentice of sorts of Henry, one that is a different type of murderer all together. Henry kills out of necessity, Otis kills out of perversion and pleasure.
"Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" is not a pleasant movie, though it does seem to sympathize with Henry a lot. It blankly states that Henry cannot help himself, he is who he is.
This film got halted by the ratings system for years, eventually released as "unrated". Since then, it has been deemed "R" by some sources and seeing the movie, I don't think it merits a stronger rating.
Perhaps a bleak picture and certainly a hopeless one, but a low-budget masterpiece, "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" binds its own villain in heroic clothes and then slowly strips him bare. The result is an uncompromising and shocking look at a person and not a generalization.
Posted by Micah Jones