HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986) / Horror

Running Length: 82 minutes
MPAA Classification: Unrated, but originally released with an X rating for strong graphic violence.

Cast: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles
Director: John McNaughton
Producers: Malik B. Ali, Waleed B. Ali, Lisa Dedmond, Steven A. Jones, John McNaughton
Screenplay: John McNaughton, Richard Fire

Often cited as one of the greatest horror films of all time, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a dark and unflinching look at the killings of a pathological mass murderer loosely inspired by real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Originally filmed in 1986, Henry was not released until 1989 due to its controversial content, despite receiving rave reviews from critics.

The hoarse-voiced actor in the role of Henry is Michael Rooker, who was unknown at the time of the film’s release. In the film, Henry lives in a dank apartment with Otis (Tom Towles), a dim-witted parolee with whom Henry shared a cell in prison. With the arrival of Otis’ sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), things begin to move ever-so-slowly downhill.

Henry largely works due to two particular elements: Michael Rooker’s performance and John McNaughton’s direction. There is no story to Henry. McNaughton delivers his film as an uncompromising look at real life. We merely observe as Henry and Otis perpetrate their murders. There is no method to how they choose their victims; it’s a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather than having a motive, Henry and Otis do it out of sheer boredom with no regard for human life.

Rooker’s performance is the more effective of the two. As Henry, his deadpan approach is bone-chilling and so realistic that, at times, Henry seems as if it could almost be happening. He rarely utters more than a few sentences of words and carries an expressionless face, providing us with one of the most eerie portrayals of a serial killer in cinema.

As well, McNaughton’s minimalist direction works. He doesn’t focus as much on the other aspects of storytelling as he does on generating mood. Mood is key in Henry and McNaughton accomplishes this fairly well. From the grimy Chicago streets to the haunting techno score, Henry is a film all about atmosphere.

Of course, Henry is not as powerful today as it was back at the time of its release nor is it as gory as many have been led to believe. Nonetheless, it still succeeds in providing those who watch it with a harrowing experience that they’re unlikely to forget.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

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