Henry - Portrait of a Serial Kiler review by The Grim Ringler
People throw the word controversial around a lot when it comes to films these days, just as they talk about a film being a blockbuster before its even released and sometimes even made. And though some films are genuinely controversial - most films that are given that title are given it by marketing people simply looking to generate some interest in a film that would probably not generate any on its own merits. Which isnt to say that, once in a while, a movie comes out that is controversial and is dubbed such honestly. Such is the case with Henry, which takes an unflinching look at the fictionalized life of a real serial killer. Based on the life of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, Henry earned its reputation because of the stark, unflinching nature of the film and the almost indifferent way in which the title character kills his victims is what makes it so controversial. This is a man, a character, with no remorse, no reason, and no comeuppance. This is what a monster looks like.
Beginning with a series of gruesome images meant to portray some of the many bodies Henry has left behind, the filmmakers set the tone for the film immediately you will not like this movie. The film follows several days in the life of Henry, a non-descript white man that seems more like a ghost than a man. Slipping in and out of places unnoticed, Henry goes about his daily routine indifferently, his mind always searching for a new victim. Murder never far from his mind or hands. He lives in a small, shabby apartment with Otis, another ex-con Henry had met in prison and with whom he has as close to a friendship as you can imagine him having. Otis, though he knows some of Henrys past, seems to know nothing of the many mindless murders his roommate has perpetrated has some dark secrets of his own which start to slowly bubble to the surface once his sister comes to live with he and Henry. Immediately infatuated with Henry, Becky, Otis sister, wounded to the soul by a man she has left behind after his abuse, sees Henry as her savior and as a man that can treat her well. As the three settle into their new living situation we begin to see glimpses of incestuous desire in him and a shadow falls over the apartment. It is after one of Otis sexual advances towards his sister that leads he and Henry to leave the apartment to cool off that Otis learns of Henrys hobby. Having picked up two hookers, the two men are having sex with the women when Henry kills his and Otis is forced to follow suit when the woman he is with in the front seat begins to scream. Otis is afraid at first, not wanting to get caught and fearful of this new side of Henry hes seen. But after the initial fear he begins to want it again, the feeling of power, of dominance, of control and it isnt long until he and Henry are on the hunt again. And after the two attain a camcorder their brutality only increases as they take a family hostage and murder the husband and son and rape the wife before killing her. Everything caught on camera so the two can watch it later (and so Otis can watch it himself, almost like porn). While Otis and Henry are sating their blood lust Becky is torn between the life she is trying to create in the city and the life and child she has left behind. Finally choosing to leave, Becky asks Henry to join her and you can see that deep down he isnt sure what he feels anymore. Suddenly he cares, in some way, about someone. Worse, a woman. Becky has been pursuing Henry very hard and he has struggled with what he feels, becoming awkward and withdrawn when she makes her advances. Not sure what he wants though, he tells her hell think about it and leaves the apartment to get some cigarettes. When he returns though, he finds that Otis has given in to his lust and is in the middle of raping his sister when Henry walks in during the act. Henry pulls Otis off and he and Otis tussle a moment before Becky helps Henry get the upper-hand and in a matter of moments Otis is nothing more than another body to be left behind. Afterwards Henry and Becky leave the apartment and the city and head towards the country and supposedly to the ranch Henrys sister ownsbut if he goes there, he may be arriving alone as we soon find out.
Few films have the compunction to show murder and brutality as it is as a sometimes anticlimactic and banal event which is quickly gone from the killers mind and perhaps that is one of the reasons Henry was so controversial. The killer gets no comeuppance and not once does he think twice about killing someone just to kill them. Henrys sickness is not one that can be easily explained away or categorized. He is, more than any fictional creature, a monster, plain and simple.
While the stark nature of the film and its rough, almost documentary feel pull you deeper into Henrys world, it also serves to alienate the viewer. You will not connect with anyone in this film, not even Becky. Becky is the most human character yet she is so wounded and desperate that its hard to not want to just shake her and make her see whats happening around her. She is doomed because she allows herself to be, and she allows herself to be because she can see no other way for herself. And there is so little passion in the film, from anyone, its disorienting. Henry never kills someone because he is angry with them but more because he is angry at someone or something else we will never know. The banality of the events in the movie, that the killing is so much of habit that they dont even register much emotion from Henry does alienate the viewer. You want, you need to feel something during this movie and all you can feel is disgust, which isnt terribly pleasant to feel for an hour and a half. It is only through Otis that we get to see some sort of emotion, but that is as much a cheat as anything as the emotions we get from him are so dark and nasty that the viewer comes to prefer the dead feeling of numbness that had preceded these new feelings. But its director McNaughtons refusal to let the audience off with any feelings of distance or happiness at Henry getting punished that makes this an art film as much as it is a horror film. Henry is a ghost, true, but he is a real person as well.
The acting in the film, while nothing standout, is dead on and really does convey the surrealism of the world Otis and Henry live in. Henry is a machine, driven by a rage and hatred of women we can never, thankfully understand, while Otis is the image of the misogynistic rapist. Sadly, its with Becky that I felt the film faltered. It may have been a tool of the film that her character is more pathetic than anything else but it pushes you away from her to such a degree that all you can feel is muted pity when she meets her own end. We arent shocked at what happens to her as much as we feel it was inevitable, that if it hadnt been Henry it woulda been some other bad man she had latched onto.
Henry is not a movie we are meant to enjoy. Its a geek show meant to give you a glimpse into the mind of a monster. There are no reasons or easy answers here, only the knowledge that, though this may be a movie, there is fact beneath it all. And that it was based on the murders of two men (as I said, Henry and Otis were real, though its debated as who did the most killings between the men) makes it all the more haunting. Its another of those films that, though I may own it and like it, its not something to recommend lightly, but it is a wonderful film, if a dark one. But sometimes we need to face the dark if we are to some day conquer its monsters.
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Henry - Portrait of a Serial Kiler
IMDB Link: Henry - Portrait of a Serial Kiler
DVD Aspect Ratio: full frame
DVD Extras: re-collections by the director, and a queasy feeling you get for free when you watch the movie
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