Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

When I was told by a friend that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was a good movie, I was pretty skeptical.  It stars Michael Rooker, for Pete's sake (and, of course, I am referring to the Disney Pete), a man who had a brief period in the early 90s where he was cast in small supporting roles, but since then has been in mostly direct-to-DVD fodder.  "But who else is in the movie, Brian?"  No one.  This is a Michael Rooker vehicle, all the way.  Despite this glaring flaw, the movie received almost universally good reviews when it was eventually released in 1990 (it was filmed in 1986).  So, how does a moderately talentless actor carry an independent film into the good graces of every critic?

The movie starts out slowly.  The first scene has Henry (Rooker) driving around, doing his thing, with several still shots of murder scenes interspersed; these aren't quick shots, meant to startle you, but slow zoom outs that show dead bodies.  The murder scenes only show the "after" part of the murder, but the soundtrack switches to sounds of women screaming and struggling against an attacker.  Obviously, it is implied that Henry is the (serial) killer.  Henry shares an apartment with his friend Otis (Tom Towles), whose sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), has just moved in with them.  Becky is clearly attracted to Henry, who is kind and gentlemanly to her, but gets nervous whenever she pays too much attention to him.  Becky learns from Otis that he met Henry is prison; Henry was in for murdering his mother.  Becky doesn't believe it and eventually asks Henry about it.  Henry confirms that he killed his mother for being a mean whore, but he changes the murder weapon each time he summarizes the story.  Hmm...interesting.  For a while, the movie continues like this, with Henry doing his thing and murder scenes being sprinkled in every so often.

After about half an hour of this, Henry and Otis decide to pick up some hookers and do their business in Henry's car.  Henry suddenly starts choking his date and kills her.  Before Otis or the other prostitute can react, Henry lunges over the car seat and breaks the neck of Otis' date.  The two men dump the bodies outside the car and drive away.  Now, if I was Otis*, I would have freaked the hell out.  Maybe I would have kept a calm exterior (I certainly don't want to share in the state of being murdered), but my insides would be waiting for the opportune time to piss and crap my pants.  Henry takes Otis to McDonald's, though, and some fries seem to calm him down considerably.  It isn't that Otis has never killed before (um, okay, now I have a new first question for any future roommates), but this wasn't self-defense.  Henry tells Otis that it's them against the world, so it's always self-defense.

Henry then takes Otis on as his serial killing apprentice.  He teaches him to change his modus operandi from victim to victim, so the police can't detect a pattern.  The two start sharing murder victims, either out of spur-of-the-moment rage, or with careful planning.  It is these scenes that give the film its disturbing tone and well-earned reputation.

This story is loosely based on the confessions of Henry Lee Lucas, who was at one time believed to be the most prolific serial killer ever, with anywhere from 14 to 600 possible victims attributed to him (most of his confessions have since come under scrutiny).  Despite the real-world basis for the movie, the lack of a dramatic arc (which adds to the "real life" feel) and the documentary tone of the movie (caused, in part, by the cheap camera) --- all of which make the actions in this film seem disturbingly plausible --- what bothered me most was killer's approach to murder.  Henry kills in a fashion similar to how I rent movies.  He knows that he likes to do it and, whenever one catches his eye, he makes the time to take care of business.  Very nonchalant and rarely with fore-planning, and he always seems perfectly calm until he attacks. 

That attitude is present in the entire film.  With Henry's seemingly random taste in victims, it quickly becomes apparent that anyone can be his prey, for any reason.  That's scary enough, but when he is paired with Otis, things get worse.  Otis takes joy in killing like a child takes joy in going to Dairy Queen.  At one point, Henry and Otis team up to murder a family; it's all fun and games until someone almost escapes, which causes Henry to get businesslike with his killing.  They videotaped the act and watched it afterward; when it was over, Otis rewound it to watch it again.  At no point is any of this enjoyable to watch.  This isn't a movie that you're going to want to share with your friends.  This is a draining experience, made more so by the randomness of the victims..

There are a lot of things to like in this movie.  The acting and directing, while not amazing, are perfect for this film.  Director John McNaughton (who directed Wild Things and...um...that's pretty much it) obviously made many of his choices thanks to a very low budget, but it worked out for the best.  Most of the murders are done off-screen, without interrupting the story.  That allows the sheer number of victims to overwhelm the viewer and saves time and money from the shooting schedule.  The violence that is shown on screen seems pretty realistic, although not terribly gory --- they save the gore for the climactic kill, which is very, very bloody.  The documentary tone of the film adds to the sense of realism, which is ultimately the reason this movie is so disturbing.  I particularly liked how there were some little unexplained things here and there, nothing important enough to distract you from the movie, but things that normal movies would explain.  The most obvious example of this is Henry's explanation of his mother's murder; I imagine that he mixes up his method for killing her because he pictures her when he kills most of his victims, but that is just my own speculation.  The story never returns to that point.

Against all odds, I was very impressed by Michael Rooker's acting in this movie.  It wasn't just his matter-of-fact killings, though.  I liked his interactions with Becky, too.  He was awkward when she showed him affection, gallant when responding to Otis' rudeness, and clearly not listening to a word she said when she tried to converse with him; at one point, Becky confesses her love for Henry and his response is a distracted, "I guess I love you, too."  Least convincing "I love you" ever.  Tom Towles was also very convincing as the gleefully morbid Otis.  In many ways, he was more disturbing than Henry, which is quite an accomplishment.  As for Tracy Arnold's portrayal of Becky...well, the movie's not really about her, so it doesn't matter.

Again, I have to stress that this is not a movie to watch for a fun time.  This is a slow-moving film that does a great job of capturing some eerily plausible killers and their attitudes.  This isn't a move for people looking for cheap scares or gore, either.  This is a movie that makes you sit quietly for a few moments after finishing.  For what it is, though, it is certainly effective.  I would have preferred a more distinct dramatic arc to give the story a more defined plot, but it was effective despite that lack.  I'm glad that I watched it, but I have no plans to see it again.

* I'm not Otis, though.  I don't pick up street walkers.  And even if I did, I wouldn't feel comfortable getting my money's worth in a well-lit alley.  And even if I was comfortable with that, I wouldn't want to do it in my car, which I would then have to clean.  And even if I was okay with hookers, the alley, and the car, I certainly would prefer a private experience over one I would share with my roommate.  Fine.  Call me a prude.

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