Hard-driving, riveting film will be tough for many to take, but “Henry – Portrait of a Serial Killer” marks the arrival of a major film talent in the person of director, coproducer and cowriter John McNaughton. Pic is an unsentimental look at a sociopath as his bloody trail passes through Chicago.
Finished some two years ago, the film has gone begging until achieving cult status on the midnight circuit in the Windy City. Movie will require creative selling as it is too serious for the gore-hounds but too grisly for the art-house crowd. (Producers rejected an X rating from the MPAA.)
From the opening shot of a woman’s nude body lying in a ditch to the closing shot of a bloody suitcase, there isn’t a wasted moment in the film. Story follows Henry (Michael Rooker) while he rooms with his old prison buddy Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold).
Henry has a philosophy about murder, which he shares with Otis. Simply put, Henry always keeps on the move and constantly changes his methods so as not to leave a pattern for the police to follow. Somewhat nervous at first, Otis quickly joins in.
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Film uses two strategies to keep audiences off balance. First is the use of violence, which starts off subtly but finally moves to a gory extreme that mainstream audiences are likely to find unnerving. Early killings are shown in flashback, where we only see bodies as grotesque still lifes.
By the time we’re shown Henry in action, we’ve come to realize that he doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary, thus denying audiences the distancing that typical movie mass murderers like Jason or Freddy Krueger permit. Fact that Henry is not killed or brought to justice in the end but instead simply moves on is even more disturbing.
The second tactic is the use of Becky to humanize Henry. A young woman down on her luck, her affection for the similarly troubled Henry seems to promise some hope of redemption. Film keeps tantalizing us with that possibility until the very end.
Low-budget pic looks surprisingly good, capturing the gritty feel of the characters’ lives. Thesping is solid, with Rooker–currently onscreen as the repair man in “Sea of Love”–a stand-out as Henry. His casualness about the brutal killings makes him all the more frightening.
Result is that this is a movie that will anger and frighten audiences, with walkouts reported when film unspooled at the Telluride fest. Many will also find this one of the most impressive film debuts of the ’80s.