Killtoberfest 1 – #25: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

In All, Movies by Kyu

Next up on Killtoberfest, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a good movie, but for the most part it doesn’t really work anymore. When it was released back in ’86 it was the cutting edge of serial killer movies–the bleakest, the most nihilistic, the least sensationalized. It even features one of the earliest examples of found footage horror, when Henry and his friend film themselves killing a family and then watch the film later to relive it. But virtually all its ideas have not only been followed by subsequent movies, they’ve been expanded upon. On the other side of Henry are even bleaker or more cynical horror movies (Kalifornia, Natural Born Killers, Citizen X), films in and around the torture porn subgenre (Wolf Creek comes to mind), and other found footage video nasties (especially The Poughkeepsie Tapes). Even the notion of a killer who is not remotely in danger of getting caught has been done since, in American Psycho. So what must have seemed shockingly new in ’86 now feels dated and overdramatized. You find yourself wishing for no score, rather than a minimalist one, and murders that are even less stylized.

What still works, though, are Rooker’s excellent performance, the chillingly casual nature with which he kills, and the agonizing hopelessness that pervades the film’s urban environments. Three standout moments I want to mention. First, a remarkable two-hander scene between Rooker and his love interest, Tracy Arnold, as they discuss their broken childhoods and aimless presents. Second, a scene late in the film where Henry goes out, feeling restless; perhaps he will kill someone? Instead he buys a pack of cigarettes. Either action would have elicited the same emotion from him, the same amount of thought. And finally the film’s ending, so utterly chilling and heartbreaking at the same time.

Henry may be a victim of its own success, but the key accomplishment of the film still holds: I defy anyone to watch this and come away thinking that Henry or killers like him are to be idolized, revered or respected. No antiheroes here, no Dexter-like avengers. Just a human being with no soul, no conscience, and no reason not to.

The trailer is instructive–like the viewer, it tries and fails to construct a narrative to explain Henry’s killings. Is it sexual? No, that’s what Otis is for, as a counterpoint. Is it philosophical? Is it rage? Henry’s story is always changing, but his eyes never do. He kills because there’s nothing inside him to stop him from killing, that’s all; for convenience, or out of boredom, just for something to do. The mind rebels from something like that. It’s easier to believe that there is a reason. That belief–the idea that maybe Henry is just angry/lonely/diseased, that he could be cured by romance–is a knife the movie uses to cut you.

(To give you an idea of how shocking this was when it was made–the movie actually sat in a drawer for several years. The director got a little bit of money from a couple of business owners to make a horror movie as an investment. They seem to have thought he’d make something gory and trashy for the drive-in crowd; he came back with this dark, serious film and must have scared the shit out of them. They stuck it in a drawer, refusing to distribute it for years. Rooker’s performance became the subject of rumor in Hollywood, where tapes of the film would get passed around until finally it got into the hands of somebody who convinced the owners to part with the movie.)