Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

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July 2, 2010 by Mark Mesaros

Henry (Michael Rooker) is a serial killer. It’s established right away in a few scenes that juxtapose his daily routine of driving around the outskirts of Chicago, finding grub and buying cigarettes with grisly post-homicide tableaux of his victims in their final twisted repose. Over these tableaux we hear a throbbing synth score, as well as sound-collage mixes of each victim screaming and squirming in the grip of death. The details are intimated but withheld from full view; the director forbears here, in the beginning, dangling the gristle before us so that later on he might contextualize it into something truly dramatic and terrifying. This montage comes to a close with Henry picking up a guitar-toting hitchhiker. The next scene has Henry bringing his roommate Otis (Tom Towles) a guitar he ‘found’ and getting acquainted with Otis’ voluptuous sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). The sexual tension between the three is thick, particularly between Henry and Becky, and it will play an integral part in the rest of the drama.

Henry has a unique history. It was released in 1986, looks as if it were made in the late ’70s and did not find an audience until the ’90s. On its first theatrical run in 1989 it was slapped with an “X” rating which didn’t seem to blunt its impact as it quickly turned a huge profit on its minuscule $100k budget. Upon its discovery by major critics in the U.S. and U.K., Henry was hailed for its chill factor and its departure from genre conventions. Some critics compared it to Cassavetes’ best work. In any case, the film was timely because of the rising tide of serial killing as pop-culture phenomenon as well as it’s treatment of video culture and the implications it raises about mass-media portrayals of violence. It has to be one of the earliest forays in the horror mold into the idea of wanton violence as consumer product.

Indeed, what most shocked audiences then as now is the infamous home-invasion scene that has Henry and Otis watching a home-movie of their murder of an entire family. Director John McNaughton captured the rape/murder scene with utter video realism. That’s actually Michael Rooker holding the camera as Tom Towles runs his hands and tongue over the wife, and that’s Rooker who throws the camera down to grapple with the son who emerges from the front door, eventually snapping his neck—then Rooker subdues the father with a few swift kicks before remounting the camera to get a close-up of Towles tonguing the now-dead matriarch. This was all achieved in one take and impressively choreographed, but the amount of nerve it must have taken for Rooker and Towles to throw themselves into their roles like barbarians is unnerving and the reason it is so effectively morbid. The scene doesn’t end as Otis rewinds the tape to watch, in slow-motion, his initial disrobing of the wife which to him must be just as stimulating as the surging violence that follows.

What’s most original in Henry is the way it segregates itself from moral judgments about killing and violence. Some of the most brutal acts are played matter-of-factly without dramatic weight attached to them. McNaughton doesn’t indulge in the emotional tropes of a dramatic score or confessional narration or dialogue, spoken or visual, that might convey psychological scrutiny. At the same time, McNaughton plays with these conventions, and the outcomes of his verisimilitudes are usually comic, not tragic. This approach is well-served by a screenplay that proffers two illiterate killers, one of whom, Otis, is not only stupid, but full of other disgusting predilections. Otis learns of the cathartic aspect of killing, carrying out revenge fantasies against people who are innocent of the provocations that promoted his rage. The first provocation is a box in the nose from a kid whom he tries to seduce after selling him some weed. The second is Otis’ aversion to buying a new television set that he himself destroyed. The third is simply boredom. Otis’ wantonness makes Henry look heroic by comparison, which leads to an uncomfortable alliance with the viewer.

There is an early red herring in a scene of dialogue between Henry and Becky. Left alone in the house, they play cards when Becky begins asking some very personal questions. She learned from Otis that Henry was in prison for slaying his mother with a baseball bat, so she asks Henry about it and he disputes it saying he stabbed her to death, and goes on to talk about the provocations that precipitated it—that his mother was a prostitute who would make Henry watch her with clients, and sometimes make him wear a dress at the same time; that his father was a legless drunkard who didn’t give a damn about his wife or son. When Henry reaches the climax of these recollections, he punctuates them by reminding Becky that he shot his mother in cold blood, and that she deserved it. Becky notices the contradiction between stabbing and shooting and Henry demurs as if he simply misspoke. The immediate implication is that Henry either made it up or has repressed it, but it will become clear later on that Henry has simply killed so many people using so many different methods that his mother was just one of the sundry. Of course he can’t remember how the deed was done.

McNaughton exploits our identification with Henry to the full. His dalliance with Becky has the air of a sweet summer romance and when he rescues her from her brothers’ clutches, there is a sense that Henry will flee with her and become her lover and protector. But this could never happen. At this point in the film it’s easy to forget that this is the same guy who plays mentor to Otis; he takes him to the park to film some homeless guys beating the crap out of each other, and there instructs him on how to dispose of victims and to vary his methods to keep the police off his trail; and for a finale gives him a gun to blast a perfect stranger under a dark bypass. But Henry’s behavior is revolting, his bland sense of justice is no consolation and McNaughton reminds us of this with a chilling ending.

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