John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is generally considered to have redefined the independent horror genre, away from the slasher flick distinction that had dominated the genre since the days of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Honestly, I don’t know if I would even call this film horror, though I might end up doing so simply for the lack of a more proper term to categorize the film under. What Henry really is is a character study. It just so happens that the character we are studying is a serial killer, and thus we end up getting a lot of killings during the running time, which is what puts this in the horror genre more than anything.
Michael Rooker, in a tour-de-force, star-making performance, plays the titular man, a prison parolee who lives in a small apartment with a fellow inmate and friend, Otis. His routine life is shaken up when Otis’ sister Becky comes to live with them for a while; Becky is pretty much attracted to Henry from the get-go, and he does not know how to handle this new set of feelings and emotions this brings him. Couple that with Otis’ incestuous feelings for Becky, and him, through a fortuitous circumstance one night, joining Henry on his nightly killing sprees, and you’ve got a hell of a love triangle, doomed to a grisly fate in one way or another. Being low-budget (and I mean LOW budget), most of what Henry brings to the table is a sense of gritty reality; reality, since the film was mostly shot run-and-gun, with the citizens of Chicago inadvertently being extras in the background, and gritty, since it was shot on 16mm and thus, when blown up to a 35mm aspect ratio, looks almost like it was shot on videotape. It’s helped along by a very retro 80s score, if it can even generously be called a score; it’s mostly sombre and ominous musical tones played after each other, along with some rudimentary electronic percussion sounds, to imply that some very bad things either have happened or are about to happen. A little on-the-nose, but I can forgive this low-budget film the few things it seems like it needs to do in order to get the film right. The film is also particularly fond of a slow fade-out at the end of each scene, sort of a recurring motif, albeit one that I think was merely a simplistic editing choice rather than an intentional style.
The poster up there uses a couple quotes that liken this to the work of John Cassavetes, and frankly, that’s an easy comparison to make; this was so low budget that pretty much anything they could’ve done with the equipment of the time would’ve made the film look like a Cassavetes film, which, in my opinion, says more about the shoddy amateur look of Cassavetes’ films than it does about what films like Henry were able to accomplish with a mere $110,000. Still, for a pittance more than a hundred grand, this was pretty dang solid; McNaughton knows exactly what he wants with each scene, and thanks to Michael Rooker’s standout acting and a script that just manages to hold itself together, he mostly gets it. Apparently, this and a few other films were the catalysts for the MPAA to create the NC-17 rating, to distinguish adult films that are non-pornographic in nature, but really, in today’s modern age of moviemaking violence and shock footage, pretty much everything in Henry is rather tame in comparison; hence, why this finally managed to get released in an uncut form after a decade or so of attempts. Don’t get the wrong idea; this is still a film about a serial killer, but if you’ve kept up with this blog so far, you’ve probably already seen stuff that’s a lot worse off than what Henry gives you. More than anything, I’d want that to assuage any fears about potentially giving this one a try; it may be low budget, and it does make you sympathize with what should be an unsympathetic character, but all in all, it ends up being worth it.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10