Wednesday, December 2, 2009

At look at Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in 2009.

23 years after it was made and knowing perfectly well of it's existence by reading reviews and seeing a VHS copy of it on the shelves of my local Blockbuster as a child, I finally saw Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer after borrowing the DVD off a friend of mine. This friend worked at a video store in the early 90s and got a copy of the film and asked his boss if they could put it on the shelf as a rental. His boss took it home and return it horrified, stating to his young employee that they could in no way put this movie on their racks. My friend then suggested that they put the video cassette behind the counter and rent it out only to those daring to view it. His boss agreed to that.

Now in 2009, where transgressive and graphic horror movies are as commonplace as the latest romantic comedy of the month, I watch Henry knowing what I'm in for since my generation seems fairly desensitized. However, the film goes steps above usual slasher pics and really belongs in the same category as Clean, Shaven (1993) and Monster (2003) much similar films that share it's themes of hopelessness, nihilism and dark and shocking human behavior without being exploitive or sensational.

Henry is played by character actor Michael Rooker, who made his movie debut with this film. Rooker went on to co-star in more mainstream films such as Eight Men Out (1988) Cliffhanger (1993) Mallrats (1995) and The Replacement Killers (1997). But in Henry, he gets a chance to showcase his talents as a wholly convincing actor who brings more dimension to a serial killer than you might expect. Henry is portrayed as a cold and creepy murderer but also alternates as a soft spoken loner who becomes affectionate and protective (to a point) of a young woman named Becky (Tracy Arnold) the sister of his close buddy Otis (Tom Towels) a fellow sociopath who's more foul and violent than Henry. The best scenes in the film, and the most telling, are the ones where all three main characters sit at a small table in the kitchen of their scuzzy apartment. The attitudes and traits are fully revealed as we find out that these are people who were born into this world with no hope or any chance at redemption. Poor, naive Becky casually tells Henry about her upbringing of sexual abuse at the hands of her father and only the audience is aware that she is associating with two men who will cause her eventual downfall.

Psychological analyzing is left for the audience to conduct, since Henry refreshingly has no characters to provide a moral center. There's no police officer, psychologist or any other figure of sane authority for the audience to live vicariously through. This helps make the movie more challenging and thoughtful.

The acting is another reason to see the film. Rooker, Towels and Arnold are examples of perfect casting. Seeing them perform as these sick characters and them watching them being interviewed in the making of documentary on the DVD is a surprising contrast. The three respective actors come across as intelligent people who fully understand the characters they have bravely portrayed. It's unfortunate when an actor plays a mad and dangerous character and is either typecast or believed to be like that in real life. It's also the sign of real talent and conviction in an actor.

The story behind the making of Henry is just as fascinating as the film itself. Shot in Chicago in 1985-86 with an extremely limited budget by director John McNaughton (who would later go on to helm bigger budget movies such as Wild Things) the film was financed by two home video executives who wanted a simple slasher film but instead were overwhelmed when McNaughton gave them a direct, and frighteningly frank character study of a murderer. It seems as though movies such as this come out of left field by budding and ambitious filmmakers who are smarter than they are given initial credit for and take the opportunity to make what could have been a hacky, throwaway horror movie to make something deeper and more resonant, and as a result deliver a picture that ages well in the pantheon of horror cinema, in times where it's expected to remake landmark horror films than to create new ones. I wouldn't be surprised if Henry got remade. I certainly hope it isn't.

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