film

John McNaughton directs the 1986 low budget Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

On the outset, despite its name, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (HPOASK herein) isn’t quite as extreme as one might expect. Whilst it is by no means a nice film, it is never as in-your-face or confrontational as you’d expect from a film billed as being so extreme. But that’s kind of the point. The violence is explicit and uncomfortable, but the master stroke with HPOASK is its ability to make the audience sympathise with a character that is, for all intents and purposes, a despicable creature.

There are a number of things that work in the film’s favour, not least of which is its limited budget. This is the filmic equivalent of a garage band, with the film-makers using whatever money they can scrape up to make the film work. It literally looks as though it’s held together with spit and glue, which, whilst feeling a tad cheap (something that is unavoidable), adds to its effectiveness. It feels seedy, dirty and nasty, with the muted direction adding a stale aesthetic that not only refuses to gloss over the subject matter but emphasis its bleakness and reality. Henry isn’t Freddy Kruger or Jason Voorhees, he’s you neighbour, the quiet man next door who is polite but oddly chilling.

This may go on to explain why brother & sister Otis and Becky are drawn to him. By the time Becky comes to visit, Henry and Otis are room-mates who spend their evenings watching shit TV and drinking beer. It’s only when Henry kills a prostitute with Otis present that they become killing pair, a fact that remains oblivious to the naïve Becky, who falls for Henry’s supposed quiet vulnerability. Yet despite knowing what atrocities the pair commit, it is Otis who effectively becomes the main antagonist. The casual nature in which the violence is instigated is chilling yet Henry has his own morals. In Otis, however, it is clear that his initial misgivings at Henry’s indifference to murder make way for a full blown monster. Henry has unlocked a beast that ironically leads to the eventual downfall of the principal characters. During the infamous house invasion sequence both Otis and Henry take sadistic pleasure in tormenting and molesting their victims (husband, wife and son respectively) yet Henry immediately turns aggressive when Otis begins molesting the corpse of the woman.

And this is where HPOASK becomes uncomfortable. Every act of violence is repugnant and reprehensible yet somehow the objections Henry has over the sexual desires of Otis compels the audience to feel one type of violence is more repulsive than another. It’s an interesting dilemma posed by the film-makers, one that is subtly confrontational. Does one killer’s dislike for sexual violence make his own acts of violence ok? The answer is, of course, no, but so successful is the film’s ability to blur the lines between good and bad that, come the ambiguous yet totally obvious final shot, you legitimately feel disgusted that you ever felt sympathy for a man as evil as Henry.

Otis may be the obvious mad-man, but Henry is cold and calculating and the film-makers deliberately encourage the audience to empathise with him. Doing this makes Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer a film that is morally vacant but never morally reprehensible. There is no titillation, only one over-riding question: is it really ok to view violence as entertainment?

 

Best performance: Michael Rooker as Henry.
Best scene: The home invasion sequence. The way the film-makers implicate the audience in the on-screen atrocities is both clever and unsettling.

During the screening of the film at the 1989 Telluride Festival, nearly half the audience walked out during the family massacre scene.
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