The reputation of John McNaughton's "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" is enormous in the realm of independent cinema. Made on a budget of over one hundred thousand dollars back in the 1980s, the movie went on to polarize viewers and critics alike. Some praised McNaughton's unflinching vision, his nihilistic portrayal of two lower class killers with nothing to live for and nothing to lose. The other camp rejected the film outright, deriding it as the worst sort of exploitative trash cinema. I tend to favor the former opinion; I think McNaughton's film is a brilliant look at a microscopic segment of society we all know exists even if it is rarely discussed. Besides, bashing the film as exploitative beggars the question of who it is exploiting. Serial killers? Guys like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Henry Lee Lucas (the killer McNaughton loosely based the film on) could stand to have a bit more mud slung on their already malevolent reputations. I cannot find one scene in the movie that idolizes what these two guys do in their spare time. And, unlike slasher films and sundry other horror films, "Henry" demonstrates that violent acts have serious consequences.
"Henry" takes place in the dirty, gray streets and alleyways of Chicago. Henry (Michael Rooker) and his prison pal Otis (Tom Towles) spend their days working low paying jobs, drinking beer, and watching television. Otis toils at a gas station in between trips to his parole officer. Henry works as an insect exterminator (!). Things start looking up when Becky (Tracy Arnold), Otis's sister, moves in with the pair to escape the doldrums of small town life. Although she has some problems back home with a troublesome boyfriend, Becky takes a shine to Henry almost immediately. She pesters her brother for information about the man and is not disturbed in the least when Otis tells her that Henry went to prison for murdering his mother. In fact, she finds this information rather intriguing. Henry comes to like Becky too, so much so that he steps in when Otis treats her in a disturbing manner. The presence of Becky complicates the odd relationship between the two men, a relationship that is soon to take a horrific turn as Otis discovers what Henry does in his spare time.
Henry is a serial killer, a despicable murderer who preys on total strangers. He thinks nothing of following a potential victim home from the mall, or picking up strangers in bars and then dispatching them in grisly ways. Henry likes the feeling he gets from his crimes, and he soon involves Otis in his gruesome activities. Why his friend decides to help is a mystery. Perhaps he feels Becky driving a wedge between him and Henry. Otis exhibits many of the behaviors associated with a follower, and Henry is definitely a take-charge sort of guy, so maybe that is the overriding reason. Whatever the case, Otis soon becomes as enthusiastic about murder as Henry. When Otis complains about being angry one evening, his pal helpfully relieves the tension by tricking a passing car into stopping so the two can shoot the driver. A broken television set provides the impetus for a killing at a fence's office. The absolute worst crime involving these two, however, is something we see on videotape as Henry and Otis relive their thrills. Predictably, Becky soon discovers what her brother and his friend do when they aren't at home. The conclusion to the film is a shocker.
Any way you cut it (no pun intended), "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" is an excruciating experience. The crimes, while not overtly gory, revel in the sheer sadism of the act. If McNaughton was attempting to evoke a sense of outrage on the part of the audience, he succeeded wildly. You cannot even stand to look at these people after awhile, so repulsive are their actions. I found myself praying for a police officer, a security guard, a neighborhood watch guy-anybody in authority to show up and put a stop to these two goons' activities. But as evil in real life often goes unchecked, so do Henry's and Otis's extracurricular activities in Chicago. The film accomplishes what it sets out to do largely because the performances of the two actors playing the principal characters do such a good job. "Henry" was Michael Rooker's first film, and I agree with McNaughton when he says in the interview on the disc that this actor had star written all over him. Rooker plays Henry as a sort of withdrawn, soft-spoken type that probably would appear unthreatening to potential victims. Just as good is Tom Towles as the grubby Otis, who portrays his character as an insufferable extrovert who occasionally sinks into pouty silences. Without these two actors, one wonders whether "Henry" would have become the cult classic it is today.
The DVD version of the film is a good one. A lengthy interview with John McNaughton tells the viewer everything they ever wanted to know about the movie. The director explains the long road to finishing the project, his experiences when it finally opened in a theater, and the lengthy battle with the MPAA over the rating for the movie, a battle which saw the censors pushing for extensive cuts to avoid the dreaded 'X' rating while McNaughton fought to keep his vision intact. Considering some of the extreme films floating around out there today, the concerns of the censors seem rather archaic now. Still, the film has lost little of its power to disturb deeply. Fans of offbeat cinema, if they have not done so already, will wish to pick this one up soon.