Sunday, July 19, 2009

Day 177: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) - Rank 4/5


In the film "Adaptation," there's a crack about how two of the most overused plot devices in scripts are multiple personalities and serial killers. The statement is not without grounds, for ever since Norman Bates hit the scene, serial killers are "cool" where cinema is concerned. Hannibal Lecter might be the granddaddy of them all where film is concerned, though Dexter seems to have taken the cake where television is concerned. However, there is one common thread to all of these individuals and it is not motive, demographic or modus operandi. It is that they're "likable" or "enjoyable" to a fair degree. Who doesn't love Hannibal Lecter as he drops one liners as regularly as he does prison guards? Who didn't laugh at the absurdity of the gruesome killings at the hands of Patrick Bateman (of "American Psycho") or Mickey and Mallory Knox ("Natural Born Killers"). Alex DeLarge ("A Clockwork Orange") has his wit, Norman Bates garners our sympathy and Kevin Spacey's "John Doe" ("Se7en") simply astounds us with his "genius" scheme.

"Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" throws all of this out the window and presents a dark look at an unstoppable murderer. There are no clever means of elimination, there's no snappy repartee. There's not even a single joke or line that could even be construed as humorous within the film. Shot on 16mm, the grainy stock adds further grit to the already unappealing leads and locations. Set int he slums of Chicago, the story is centered around the titular character (played with brooding intensity by then-newcomer Michael Rooker) and his friendship with a former prison mate, Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis' sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). There's no glamour to the characters as Becky starts to fall in love with Henry, despite his sordid, matricidal past. Henry schools Otis in the ways of killing after Henry impulsively kills two hookers before Otis' eyes. Soon the pair enjoy one murder after the next, even going to the point that they buy a camcorder so they can tape and review their revelry.

This is not a pleasant movie to watch, yet I found it impossible to look away. Though the analogy is rather overused and cliched, in this case, saying that watching the film was very much like ogling a car wreck would certainly be apropos. The killings are the most unpleasant I can think of on film. Watching Otis lick the breasts of a housewife as Henry snaps the neck of her son and stabs her husband to death before her eyes is certainly far from a gigglefest. It makes moments like the torture of Aoyama at the end of "Audition" or the rape scenes from "A Clockwork Orange," "Irreversible," or "Last House on the Left," seem tamer by comparison. Then we're treated to Otis rewatching the tape of the event so he can rub one out at a later point. Simply put, the film is dark, gruesome and devoid of justice or hope, and yet, that's what makes it a good film in my eyes. There's nothing merry about taking one innocent life after the next, no matter how "just" a Hollywood tale may make it seem. If anything, "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" makes you realize how sugar-coated and immature so many other films in the genre really are (and kudos for writer/director John McNaughton for that).

Watch the Trailer

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