I have a bit of a contradictory relationship with horror films. As a child I grew obsessed with the Universal monster features of the 30s, which lead to the atomic monster scares of the 50s, the alien and zombie scares of the 80s and right into the effects laden fare of the 21st century. If it had an irradiated, mutated animal, a mythological nightmare beast or anything supernatural or otherworldly, I was there with bells on. Any minor scares I got from watching were immediately wiped away with the thrill of seeing something imaginary brought to life.
It's the exact opposite reaction when the horror is firmly embedded in reality or the baser inclinations of human nature. Werewolves, vampires, ghosts, ghouls and aliens I can watch all day: slashers and serial killers and are a different story, especially when laid bare in such a matter-of-fact fashion like HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, a film I've put off for years because it's precisely the type of horror film that truly scares me. With a minuscule budget and inspiration from real life serial murderer Henry Lee Lucas, director John McNaughton takes his experience as a still photographer and crafts a highly stylized and vicious little film anchored by a mesmerizing performance by Michael Rooker as Henry, an ex-con and drifter living and plying his trade in and around Chicago. Living in a broken down apartment with fellow ex-con Otis (Tom Towles), the beginning of HENRY is inter cut with the aftermath of Henry's crimes: usually starting from behind or off in a corner, the camera slowly reveals the state of Henry's victims while the sounds of the murder play in the background like a busted television set left on. It's made even more effective since during the first half of the movie we see little evidence of Henry's crimes in his behavior - he's quiet, shy, and is polite to women (well, the ones he doesn't mutilate and kill) - complimenting a waitress on her smile, and sticking up for Becky, Otis's younger sister who comes to stay with them after leaving her abusive husband.
Becky (Tracy Arnold) is the catalyst to what happens in the rest of HENRY. Abused by her husband and molested by her father (and, we suspect early on, Otis), she has an immediate connection with Henry, and an early scene of them opening up to each about their past is fantastic in how it shows just how insane Henry is. Becky asks about the crime that sent him to prison - Otis told her Henry killed his mother with a baseball bat. As Henry recalls the events that led to her murder, the method used: first a knife, then a gun, keeps changing. When Becky calls him on it, his response, with a dazed expression that seems miles and years away, is to say, "Oh yeah...that's right." Rooker is terrific in the scene, and McNaughton uses opportunities like this to flesh each of the characters out so that when the gears suddenly change in the second half the film can hurdle along to its inevitable conclusion.
This switch occurs when Otis witnesses Henry murder two prostitutes they picked up in their car, and far from being disgusted, is fascinated. Henry begins to take Otis on like an apprentice, explaining his method of never killing the same way twice (which immediately brings us back to his recollection of his mother's murder), the need to move on from place to place, and the inextinguishable feeling you get from killing another person. Otis takes the lesson to heart, perhaps too much as his sexual depravity goes too far for Henry's tastes. Having stolen a video camera earlier in the film, there is one truly frightening scene where they kill a husband and wife and film the entire thing. At one point the son walks in and Henry drops the camera, leaving it to film the horrible results. Afterwards the video plays back, pauses, and plays again. The camera cuts to Henry and Otis watching it in their living room, and Henry's disgust as Otis keeps rewinding and playing the section where he tries to rape the wife mirrors our own - this is definitely a far cry from the "torture porn" that would come into fashion 20 years later. We are definitely not meant to be enjoying the killing in this film, and McNaughton illustrates this without having to resort to messy exposition or falling back on his intention to make this a serious, unforgiving portrait.
The growing split between Henry and Otis comes to a head in the climax, when Becky is brought into the middle of their actions. After seeing so many sides of Henry, the ending is chilling, as we're reminded that a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing is still a wolf, no matter how much you want to see otherwise. With its focus on realism and great central performance, I'm glad to have finally watched HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, a truly great film as well as an excellent example of the genre. I'd be interested to know if there are other films out there like this, but my quick perusal of Netflix recommendations leaves me disheartened. We'll see.