Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Dir: John McNaughton
What’s it all about?
Would you like me to repeat the title? Henry is loosely based on the at least somewhat true story of serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole and tells the story of a psychotic drifter (Michael Rooker) who forms an almost familial relationship with his killing partner Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) in between his brutal, motiveless, crimes
Why haven’t you seen it?
Again, would you like me to repeat the title? It was also difficult to see Henry, certainly in its uncut form, for years. It was 1989 before the film was released in the US, and 1990 before the BBFC passed it in Britain. The UK had to wait a long time for an uncut video version, with former head of the BBFC James Ferman completely reshaping a significant scene before allowing the film a release.
Why should you see it?
Henry is one of the most out and out disturbing, unsettling, frightening films ever made. That’s because it is utterly unlike any other horror film, and Henry is utterly unlike any other horror monster. It’s because the film has absolutely no sense of artifice. There’s no gloss, no real narrative drive, it feels like a series of observed events, and if presented as a documentary it would be completely credible, thanks not only to McNaughton’s excellent direction, and the astonishingly stark script he penned with Richard Fire, but also to a truly extraordinary cast.
Michael Rooker’s Henry is an indelible screen monster. Though he’s clearly playing someone so utterly insane that he barely rates as human, Rooker never once goes in for histrionics. Indeed it is the unsettling calm with which he invests Henry, and the absolute confidence he has that he’ll never be caught or otherwise stopped killing that really makes him both completely believable and absolutely terrifying, even when he’s doing nothing.
Henry’s documentary like credibility is the main reason that BBFC found it so difficult to pass uncut. A key scene sees Henry and Otis murder a family in their home. It’s incredibly difficult to watch, because the camera is handheld, clearly being wielded by the killers. Then, after several minutes, just to compound the horror, the frame pauses and rewinds, and McNaughton pulls back to show that Henry and Otis are on the sofa, rewatching a video of their handiwork. James Ferman insisted that this scene be cut into much earlier in order to gain a video certificate, removing a good deal of its power and purpose, but restored it’s one of the most difficult moments in American cinema.
Henry is in no way pleasant or fun to watch, and it doesn’t want to be. Like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (and more effectively than that film) it asks questions about film’s depiction of violence, merely by refusing to cut away and let you off the hook. It refuses to give you catharsis, or even hope, as it ends. There’s not a single Police presence in the film, not even a glimmer of hope that Henry might be stopped, and that’s absolutely terrifying, because it’s likely nearer the truth than any other movie of this ilk has come.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a film that’s only for adults, and resilient ones at that, but if you think you can deal with its unspeakably disturbing nature you won’t find anything as good, or as tough, in this genre.
How can you see it?
Both UK and US DVDs are uncut, and the UK edition can be had very cheaply. Both boast a commentary with John McNaughton, but the US edition looks like the definitive release, with documentaries about the film and the real Henry Lee Lucas on a second disc.