Sunday, October 23, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #12 - Henry

I didn't really like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer the first time I saw it. I was put off by the banality of the characters and story - inspired by the confessions (many of which were proven false) of real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, the film follows its Henry (Michael Rooker) as he kills several people, takes his dopey roommate Otis (Tom Towles) under his ring and has the saddest almost-relationship imaginable with Otis' sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). I felt Henry's crimes were shot flatly, without suspense, and the film had little to say about why Henry is the way he is. Seeing it again on 35mm last year at the terrific, greatly missed Shaun Luu Horror Fest in Syracuse, I realized the banality is the point - director John MacNaughton aims for verisimilitude, and Henry and Otis' murders are presented as pointless, sad and difficult to watch. MacNaughton seems to be withholding analysis because, ultimately, there's no explanation of Henry's actions that justifies their ugliness. He just is what he is.

The movie's most important moment is the most depressing bonding scene ever, as Henry and Becky talk about the different ways they've been physically and sexually abused. Henry confesses to having stabbed his mother, listing the ways she abused him as a child. But as he wraps up his story, he says that he shot her; Becky questions this, and he flatly corrects himself - "Oh yeah, that's right. I stabbed her." While Henry has certainly been affected by his traumatic childhood, we can't hope to explain him; he can't explain himself. Rooker's performance led to higher-profile roles and his long-running career as a reliable character actor, and deservedly so; he's totally committed to the role, never winking at the audience or playing for our sympathies. Whether Henry's buying a pack of smokes or reviewing a video recording of the night he and Otis murdered an entire family, he's consistently emotionless, cold, without remorse or self-reflection.

That the film was given an X rating by the MPAA, despite being less graphic than your average Friday the 13th sequel, says a lot about how the ratings board works. By taking violence and its consequences seriously, Henry was deemed less appropriate for teens than movies that present violence purely for entertainment. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is definitely a difficult movie to watch and appreciate, but it's also an important one and, if you're in the right frame of mind, it's a fascinating, disconcerting experience.

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