Michael Rooker - Henry
Tom Towles - Otis
Tracy Arnold - Becky
Genre - Horror/Serial Killers
Running Time - 83 Minutes
Score - 4 Howls Outta 4
As most of you know, the horror genre is my absolute favorite. It started when I first watched John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN when I was about 5 years old and I've never looked back since. Now at 27, I don't get creeped out or scared by many horror films, old and new, anymore. I just find them to be enjoyable entertainment and a nice escape from reality.
However, there are some films that don't let you escape from the real world. They bring about this illusion of reality by bringing a sort of documentary style to subject matter that we hear all the time in the news and on those crime shows you can watch on cable or satellite. One of these films is 1986's HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. Based on serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas [who claimed to have murdered about 3000 people but have been considered false accounts], HENRY is an 83 minute vehicle to give viewers a glimpse into the darker side of the human psyche and show us that we all possess that characteristic in each and every one of us. Watching a man murder people because he can isn't enjoyable entertainment. As a matter of fact, it's downright disturbing. If HENRY doesn't creep you out, I have no idea what will.
Henry (Michael Rooker) is a former criminal and drifter who lives with some white trash redneck named Otis (Tom Towles), who lives in Chicago, Illinois. Henry seems to be a normal guy - he works as a bug exterminator and does some construction on the side as well, he's very quiet, and seems very likeable. Oh, Henry also enjoys murdering people because of his "us vs. them" mentality. This murderous lifestyle starts to feel a bit cramped when Otis' sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), moves in with them after leaving her husband. Otis has this unhealthy obsession with Becky, while Henry sees her as a chance of a normal life, even if it makes him feel uncomfortable. Things get complicated though when one night, Henry and Otis pick up two hookers and Henry murders them both. While shocked at first, Otis begins to enjoy being Henry's partner-in-crime, becoming obsessed with the idea of murdering people as his way of owning some power.
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER is a true horror movie. There's no asylum escapee wearing a blank white mask. There's no mentally challenged brute displaying his love for hockey. That guy who invades dreams? He ain't here. Hell, there's not even a dude with pins in his head or a posessed doll who loves to use vulgar language. What we have here is an everyday dude who just happens to enjoy killing people as a hobby. No supernatural abilities. No family motivation. Henry just kills people because he can. How many people out there do you think behave like Henry? That person you walk by down the street? The last date you had that didn't work out? The waiter or waitress that serves your food? Your next door neighbor even? How do you know these people aren't serial killers in their secret life? The answer is...we don't. The fact that Henry looks like you and me and happens to enjoy taking people's lives without a shred of evidence giving us proof of that makes HENRY a very real and scary film.
You have to give director and screenwriter John McNaughton credit for creating such a powerful film. The story itself isn't as in-your-face as most horror films. It's extremely subtle - too subtle in fact - giving HENRY a sense of realism we don't usually see in the horror genre. The fact that Henry [then Otis] are serial killers is never really the focus. The focus is that Henry and Otis are regular joes who sit in a kitchen, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee, in a dim apartment. They have family issues like everyone else. They make their living by working honest jobs. They look like average people you can encounter in your every day life and not think anything special about them. They're protrayed as human beings. They just happen to enjoy killing people as if it's an addiction, like drugs, sex, and gambling. We never really learn why Henry enjoys killing so much. Is it power? Is it because it's the only thing he's comfortable with? Is it something more sinister? We don't know. That's pretty frightening because all of us are capable of what Henry is involved with if we allow ourselves to fall into that dark abyss. McNaughton gives the character such a normalcy that you can kind of understand why he would do such horrible acts, even though you know it's wrong. That's a hard thing to pull off but McNaughton does extremely well with it.
And there are moments that are pretty disturbing. For example, the scene where Henry and Otis invade a family home and torture the family that lives inside of it. Henry even brutally murders the teenage son as if it's regular routine in front of his mom and dad before they both murder the parents. It's not an entertaining scene in the slightest, but it's extremely effective because this could actually happen to any of us in real life. Other moments like when Henry picks up a hitchhiker carrying a guitar and then giving the guitar to Otis moments later without ever specifying what happened to the hitchhiker [although we know what happened] is pretty grim stuff. And then there's that scene where Becky and Henry are playing War [nice metaphor there] and Becky just flat out tells Henry that she was sexually abused by her father. This leads to Henry talking about how he murdered his mother simply because she "was a whore". And then he can't even remember how he murdered her because of all the confusion with the other women he's killed in his life. The conversation isn't meant to shock the audience. It's just two people discussing their past as if it's no big deal.
John McNaughton directs an excellent film here. There's really no style here. McNaughton shoots the entire film as "matter-of-fact" almost, like one would with a documentary. He just lets things happen naturally, without forcing tension or suspense to captivate viewers. The film is cheapy made and looks cheaply made, but that's really the point. You actually feel as if you're part of Henry's and Otis' world, witnessing their sick lives as a silent partner. You actually feel sort of dirty watching this film. It's bleak, depressing, and effective at the same time. McNaughton does a good job making you wonder if there is a Henry or Otis living in your neighborhood, wondering when they'll strike next.
The acting is perfect in HENRY. Michael Rooker has done a lot of films since HENRY, like MALLRATS, SLITHER, and CLIFFHANGER. But Rooker has never been effective as an actor as he is in this film. He protrays Henry as normal, quiet, shy, and almost polite. If you didn't know the guy was a serial killer, he'd probably be your friend or something more. He's frighteningly sympathetic and misunderstood, even though you should hate the guy for his actions alone. And when he starts murdering people with Otis, Rooker lets out this devious demeanor in Henry that's quite scary. Rooker never allows Henry to be some sort of caricature of a serial killer or even protrays him as a monster. He's a human being with massive flaws. Rooker gives the performance of his life here.
The supporting characters are just as perfect. Tom Towles, as Otis, is menacing and disgustingly perverted. He's the guy you love to hate because he's such an asshole to his sister. Plus he sells drugs to high school students. And then later in the film, Towles makes Otis more evil by actually enjoying murdering people as if it's better than sex. Plus making Otis so perverted that he practically rapes his own sister gives you reason to want this guy punished badly. Towles does a great job giving this character life. And Tracy Arnold is the sort of the moral center as Otis' sister, Becky. She's pretty dim and naive, but she's almost Henry's hope of a normal life and the catalyst that differentiates Henry from Otis. Arnold gives a great performance of a woman who has no idea who she is or what she wants because of her messed up past, making her a good fit for Henry. You kind of want to see these two together, but you know it doesn't come that easy. Simple and effective acting benefits HENRY greatly.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE NEVER TRUSTING ANYONE IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD AGAIN
- Serial killers enjoy flirting with waitresses to make them believe they'll receive a nice tip. Unfortunately, that tip is either the blade of a knife or a bullet. I don't believe that's proper restaurant etiquette but I'll let it slide just this once.
- Some chick in the bathroom has the top of a bottle sticking out of her face. I've heard of someone hitting the bottle hard, but that's just ridiculous..
- Henry exterminates pests for a living. Sometimes it just writes itself.
- Becky found cutting fish gross due to the smell. That's funny. People also say that when she doesn't have her legs closed. Probably just a coincidence.
- Henry killed his mom because she was a whore. Gee, I hope Sienna Miller doesn't have any kids in the future.
- Henry and Otis picked up hookers and then killed them after having sex with them. It's just like Grand Theft Auto!
- Don't ever sell televisions. You'll get a bad surprise for not giving deals to your beloved homicidal customers. Remember: You can only be famous when you're ON television, not IN television.
- Serial killing is addictive. Just like with potato chips, you can't kill just one. Ask O.J. Simpson all about that. ALLEGEDLY.
- Don't ever rape your sister, especially if she once worked in a beauty shop. She'll know how to use a comb for more than just brushing hair. I've heard of an eye for an eye, but that's just really pushing it.
THE FINAL HOWL
If you want to feel uncomfortable for 83 straight minutes, watch HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. It's undeniably powerful and effective. Just don't expect to have fun or be as entertained as you normally would be watching a slasher flick. HENRY is not that kind of film - far from it. I would recommend to anyone who hasn't seen this film to watch it at least once. I doubt it that you'll come back and watch HENRY over and over again. You have the nightly news for that.