Friday, January 20, 2012

Film Review: Henry, Portrait of a serial killer (1986)


Directed by: John McNaughton

Starring: Michael Rooker
Tracey Arnold
Tom Towles

Synopsis: Based on the life and killings of Henry Lee Lucas famed American serial killer who now resides on death row in Texas. Its always the quiet ones. How many time have we heard this phrase used to describe a killer? Too often. Henry is the boy next door who just can't get the taste for murder out of his mouth. It all started when he was an abused child.

My thoughts: Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of those films I think any horror/thriller enthusiast is expected to watch. Kind of like Night of the Living Dead, Silence of the Lambs and The Thing.  It just so happened that neither Tom nor I had gotten around to seeing this one, so we decided to finally cross this one of the list.

From the very first minute you're witness to the brutality of Henry, with a montage of 5 murder victims laying prone in the various surroundings while the sounds of their murders play over the top. The worst, perhaps, is the woman sitting half naked on a toilet with a bottle wedged deep into her eye. Though you only see the after-effects of the attacks, their screams for help and the squealchy or thunking sounds of attack were probably the most traumatic aspect of the film for me. The scene lasted so long, that Tom even asked me if this was going to be the entire film, and I have to say, if it was, I probably wouldn't have lasted longer than 15 minutes. Not because it would be slow/boring, but because I think it'd probably haunt me a lot more than actually seeing a man attack other people. I think there's something about savage amounts of gore or violence in film that makes it impossible to see it realistically, this opening scene however, doesn't let you escape the reality of a serial killer.

Though you do eventually see Henry actually kill people in the film, this motif of the sounds of the attack played over their image is repeated several times through the film, always inspiring the same reaction from me. I'd say this is the most successful aspect of the film, and probably one of the reasons the film has gone down as such a "must see" classic. The other factor in its success has to be Michael Rooker's performance, and the character of Henry himself. As the film moves from ghastly murder, to lunch at a dinner, to a quiet evening dinner with his housemate (and soon to be accomplice) Otis and Otis's sister (Becky), to murdering a man over a TV, Henry switches between quiet guy next door who is police and respectful to an apathetic brutal serial killer. This is one of the comments that always comes up when a serial killer is finally caught, so many friends/family/acquaintances say "but he's so charming" or "he's quiet but he was always so polite and helpful". Henry perfectly demonstrated how smoothly a man (or woman, no bias here!) can move between their two personas effortlessly and become all the more dangerous because of it.

So the basic premise of the movie is that it focuses on Henry and his relationship between Otis and Becky. Becky has just flown in after escaping from her psycho husband, and while she looks for work takes the spare room at Otis and Henry's home. While Becky bonds with Henry over their shared experiences of abuse at the hands of their parents, she experiences the "good" side of Henry, with him often coming to her defence when her brother makes sleazy passes at her. Otis, on the other hand, gets to meet the serial killer side, and quickly takes up the occupation for himself. Though Henry is the focus of the film, personally I found Otis far more disturbing. He's aggressive and perverse and he has no control over himself. While Henry is creepy because of his removed view of life as a serial killer (it's almost like it's a job to him), Otis is unable to stop himself once he gets going, and on more than occassion Henry has to discipline him like he's some kind of animal.

While I found the premise and the psychology behind this film fascinating, it fell short for me. Other than Rooker, the actors playing Otis and Becky were less than stellar. Both seemed new to the game and often had that focused look on their face when they recited a significant chunk of lines. The transparency of the acting definitely removed much of the atmosphere for me and was the greatest let down. Other than the acting I'm not really sure I can provide a reason for why this film let me down a little. Perhaps it's because there have been some incredible serial killer films released since, or maybe it's simply a little dated now, but I finished the movie feeling a little "meh" about the whole thing. This seems to be the opposite reaction to quite a few of the reviews on IMDB, but for me it was just...lacking.

While there was a serial killer named Henry Lee Lucas who did have an accomplice named Otis who had a relative (a cousin) named Becky, a quick google search suggests that much of this movie seems to be fabricated. That isn't a big issue for me, but for those of you who enjoy films that closely follow the lives of serial killers this may just be a deal breaker. Regardless, you probably should see this film, because it definitely has its place in horror/thriller film cannon, but be prepared to be a little underwhelmed.

3 out of 5 blood stained suitcases.

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