It sounds like a bad TV movie, or one of those grind-house rip-and-renders. Or at the very least like something you don't waste time reading or thinking about. Bear with me. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a stinging chiller with a provocative past and a potentially bright future.
It came from Chicago. First-time feature director John McNaughton started shooting this graphic tale of a mass murderer back in 1985. He had a cast of talented unknowns – drawn mostly from Chicago's Organic Theater Company – a meager budget of $120,000 and four weeks to get the job done.
MPI, a local video firm run by the brothers Waleed and Malik Ali, financed the project. They wanted a horror film. McNaughton provided something more: a raw, transfixing character study that plumbs a twisted mind. At the Chicago International Film Festival in 1986, the film drew interest from distributors, but they were quickly scared off after the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) slapped Henry with an X rating. An X on a film means that major theater chains won't show it, most newspapers won't advertise it, and nobody makes a buck.
So Henry sat on the shelf until last year, when MPI's publicity director, Chuck Parello, persuaded Chicago's Music Box Theater to do a few midnight screenings. A similar arrangement was made later in New York. Those who didn't walk out – many did – were usually impressed. Documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) invited Henry to the 1989 Telluride Film Festival, in Colorado, where Morris served as guest director. Reaction was divided but not indifferent. Henry now has a real chance at finding an audience, though one roadblock remains. The MPAA refused to modify the X rating to a more salable R when the film was resubmitted uncut last May. Waleed Ali says the MPAA didn't even suggest changes. "They told us they wouldn't know where to cut," he says. "The film is too disturbing."
Rejecting the MPAA decision, MPI decided to release Henry without a rating on a city-by-city basis, starting in Boston late last month. It's a risky move and a significant one for American independent films. MPI is battling a system that, in effect, blocks the distribution of films that don't meet ill-defined moral standards. (Scenes in Angel Heart and Scandal were snipped to dodge the MPAA's kiss of death.) If this defiant, uncut Henry wins over theater owners and audiences, a blow may be struck for other challenging films that don't deserve to be censored or lumped with snuff flicks and pornography.
It's ironic that those drawn to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer by its title alone are likely to be the most disappointed. The movie doesn't shy away from gore: Bodies are kicked, punched, slashed, shot and dismembered. But half of the sixteen murders take place offscreen. There's more mayhem in any of the R-rated Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween movies. Those films offer supernatural villains and cardboard victims; they're easy to shake. Not so Henry. The film is no masterpiece, but it is spare, intelligent and thought provoking.
McNaughton and coscreenwriter Richard Fire based their fictionalized script on Henry Lee Lucas, a convicted serial killer who confessed to murdering more than 300 people over two decades. Watching a segment about Lucas on TV's 20/20, McNaughton was struck by Lucas's low-key charm, a trait he felt explained how a killer could get close to his victims. The film's initial glimpse of Henry (Michael Rooker) shows him thanking a waitress. "Real nice smile you got there," he says, before hopping in his car to search for a victim.
McNaughton takes his time showing Henry in the act of murder. As in Joseph Ruben's Stepfather, Terrence Malick's Badlands and Hitchcock's classic Shadow of a Doubt, the intent is to demonstrate how madness can wear an ordinary, even pleasing face. At first, we see only the aftermath of the crimes: corpses arranged in horrific tableaux while the soundtrack echoes with the victims' death throes. Rooker, who later acted in Sea of Love, Eight Men Out and Music Box, is extraordinary as Henry. Polite and soft-spoken, he uses only an occasional steely glint to betray the rage simmering beneath Henry's bland façade. It's a scary, resonant performance, and a great one.
Henry shares a drab Chicago apartment with a prison buddy named Otis, skillfully played by Tom Towles. The plot trigger is the arrival of Otis's sister Becky (Tracy Arnold), a topless dancer from the South who wants to find a respectable job and send for her daughter; her husband is in jail on a murder rap. Otis treats his sister with barely concealed contempt and incestuous lust – though the gentlemanly Henry aims to see he doesn't follow through on the latter impulse.
As the three share meals and conversation, McNaughton crams in a heap of background. Becky was abused sexually by her father; Otis has a yen for a high-school boy to whom he sells marijuana; Henry, at fourteen, killed his mother, a hooker who dressed him as a girl and forced him to watch her in bed with johns. In less skilled hands, this psycho-babble might sink the picture. But McNaughton wisely refuses to condescend to these stunted characters or reduce them to their dossiers. His tone is disengaged but not dispassionate. Arnold, in a heartfelt performance, makes Becky's need to connect palpable. Sensing nothing of Henry's current murderous proclivities, she sees him as a lifeline.
Otis wises up when Henry snaps the necks of two tarts they take parking. Shocked at first, he gleefully joins Henry on his killing spree, soon surpassing his mentor at conscienceless brutality. In the film's most terrifying scene, the one that prompts the walkouts, Henry and Otis attack a suburban family and videotape the deed. "Take her blouse off," Henry tells Otis, who is grabbing a struggling housewife. "Do it, Otis. You're a star." Cinematographer Charlie Lieberman, a find, turned a camcorder over to Rooker to shoot this scene as Henry would. The video footage – grainy, unfocused, crazily angled – makes the carnage joltingly immediate. It's a stomach churner. Later, Otis replays the murders at home in slow motion, savoring even the moment when he tried to have sex with the woman he just killed, only to be stopped by Henry. Some thread of morality still exists in Henry; none remains in Otis.
As the film builds to its shocking climax, McNaughton exposes a world stripped of standards. "I love you, Henry," says Becky as she drives off with him to what she hopes is a new life. But for Henry, love is a trap. He must remain affectless, impersonal. The film, to its credit, does not. Henry makes you squirm, a sane reaction to the sight of innocent people being slaughtered. The movie doesn't cop out by pretending Henry has no connection with us and our apathetic, debilitated society. Far from glorifying Henry's fury, McNaughton rubs it in our faces. Sure we recoil. That's the point.
Henry is hard to take, but its intensity is not something the MPAA needs to protect us from. McNaughton has made a film of clutching terror that's meant to heighten our awareness instead of dulling it. At the end, Henry is still out there among us. And he's no B-movie monster in a hockey mask. He could be the guy next door. This film gives off a dark chill that follows you all the way home.