Thursday, April 17, 2014

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

USA, 83 minutes
Director: John McNaughton
Writers: Richard Fire, John McNaughton
Photography: Charlie Lieberman
Music: Ken Hale, Steven A. Jones, Robert McNaughton
Editor: Elena Maganini
Cast: Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is based on the career of one of the more puzzling serial killers in the annals of crime, Henry Lee Lucas, who though he was a murderer eventually turned out to be more of a serial confessionalist than serial killer. At any rate, the picture is not any kind of documentary work, nor, according to director and co-writer John McNaughton, was it ever intended to be. Various crucial plot points, notably the presence of a camcorder, confirm that. Thus, whoever may ultimately be considered authors of this story—screenwriter Richard Fire and McNaughton, the corrupt Texas officials who brought their open cases to Lucas, or Lucas himself—it's more fiction than fact. But the story remains fascinating, and terrifying, for exactly that reason: because someone imagined it we somehow like to think a creature like him could exist. Because he could. Couldn't he?

With the possible exception of zombies, most of the monsters we associate with horror pictures find their sources in the 19th century, whether it's science gone dreadfully wrong (Frankenstein, 1818), dissociative personality disorders (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886), vampires (Dracula, 1897), or even the specific shapes of all those messes with ghosts and haunted houses (various entries from Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Edgar Allen Poe). This is true as well in the case of serial killers, with Jack the Ripper (and, somewhat less, Lizzie Borden). But I get the feeling that the serial killer subgenre is slightly more disreputable among horror aficionados, perhaps because the source is factual and historical rather than literary, involving much more real trauma than imagination.

It's all scary stuff to me, however, and whatever way you use to get there, Henry has to stand in as one of the best / scariest serial killer movies ever made, and one of the most unpleasant and purely unnerving horror pictures. As an admirer mentions in the DVD extras, "I saw it once and have never felt the need to look at it again." It's a sentiment easily understood. For me, when I saw it after it finally won its general release in 1990, it's the one time I've ever been so acutely aware that seeing a movie in public involves sitting in a dark room with people you don't know. More recently, it took me two weeks to bring myself to look at the DVD I bought.

Henry is just relentless about getting under your skin, with a nervy, beautiful, chilling soundtrack built on sickening sweet synthesizers, a sound design made out of the stuff of nightmares, a performance by Michael Rooker in the title role that is icy cold and pitch-perfect, and a narrative trafficking in perverse taboos that go well beyond simple murder. It shocks continually, in large and small ways. The opening shots are a series of tableaus of corpses, lovingly rendered and lingered over, mixed with scenes of Henry hunting. The killing is constant and indiscriminate. The picture rarely feels better than dank and gross. It is absolutely clinical about the way it proceeds. As Henry himself says about killing at one point, "It's always the same and it's always different."

Also found in the DVD extras, McNaughton talks about the producers who staked him to the $100,000 Henry was made on, telling how they gave him free rein to make a horror movie but then were disappointed with the result. McNaughton's ambition went well beyond the usual horror movie tropes and gestures of that post-slasher time, into areas more existential. All the usual horror-movie cheese has been extruded and scrubbed from Henry, leaving only the glittering-hard realization of human brutality, the ultimate horror. The element of Lucas that impressed investigators at the time when he was still believed to be the most prolific serial killer known was the way his crimes had little signature—he changed up his types of victims and his manner of murder continually, a detail that is played to very well here even if it is laughable about the case in retrospect.

It's also a nice representation of its times, set in Chicago in the '80s, with its synthesized soundtrack, largely undirected performances, and backstories in some cases provided by the performers themselves out of rehearsal exercises. It is uneven as so many low-budget productions tend to be, and with inclinations toward intellectualized postmodern distancing. At one point (never mind how, you can guess), Henry and his sidekick Otis acquire a camcorder, which they use to film their crimes and incidentally add some cheap (but extraordinarily effective) video texture to the picture. This is perhaps the movie's most fanciful conceit—if Lucas probably killed only a fraction of the people he confessed to killing, he certainly never did it with a video recording device on hand—but, for all that, it absolutely works.

The home invasion scene, for example—which is really a point where the film robs one of all faith in human beings, for its duration and for some time after—is actually viewed on a video on a TV screen, and we are watching with Henry and Otis as they raptly stare and relive the glories of the moment. It's also really a point, of course, where we are deeply and elaborately implicated. We may be sickened by it, but we watch it. And even if we turn off the TV or get up and leave the theater—which happened in the earliest screenings of this picture, at this point in it particularly—the genie is out of the bottle. The ideas, and the images, are in our head. Moreover, we know that the document exists. It can't be unthought or unimagined. Now you know it exists in the world. This is what comes of an interest in human experience. Have a nice life.

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