If there existed an Oscar for Most Accurate Movie Title, John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” would have it in the bag. Because “Henry,” thanks to McNaughton’s pointedly unromanticized direction and Michael Rooker’s goosebump-inducing performance, does exactly what it promises: Offers a grainy, crumpled, unretouched snapshot of evil, murder for murder’s own sake, that taps into elemental human fears glossier horror productions can’t touch.
McNaughton, I suspect, could not have achieved this feat without Rooker. Plucked from the relative obscurity of Chicago’s Organic Theater Company, Rooker is downright terrifying as Henry, a polite, even-tempered drifter/serial killer who moves into the rundown Chicago apartment of Otis (an equally chilling Tom Towles), a shiftless, aimless parolee. Eventually Otis finds out about Henry’s after-hours exploits and decides to join him. Together they embark on a killing spree, dispatching a diverse group of victims with constantly-changing weapons. (“If you strangle one, stab another, and one you cut up, and one you don’t, then the police don’t know what to do,” Henry advises the inexperienced Otis. “They think you’re four different people.”) Their partnership gets interrupted by the arrival of Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold), who’s hoping to find a better life in Chicago. She believes she’s found that in Henry, who is kind to her and seems flattered by her interest in stories of his violent childhood. But their relationship creates an explosive tension between Otis, who openly lusts after his sister, and Henry, who’s too gentlemanly to let Otis make a move.
McNaughton based “Henry” very loosely on the life of Virginia-born serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, and the director shoplifts details and changes them, including the names and identities of victims, throughout the movie. Some true-crime devotees might object to this. Count me out of that group. If anything, “Henry” pays a sick kind of homage to Lucas, who was nothing of not a showman-of-sorts, a legend in his own mind. Lucas himself confessed to countless murders forensic evidence and basic logic proved he didn’t commit, and he conjured up wildly contradictory stories about his victims, his childhood and the death of his mother. This is the kind of movie the real killer would have loved … which, of course, rockets the creepiness factor beyond the heavens.
In fact, it’s that creepiness factor that kept “Henry” trapped in limbo between nationwide release and complete shelving for three years. The issue here is not one of brutality — there’s violence aplenty, but half the murders take place offscreen — or gore, but one of pure, unparalleled unease. In “Henry,” McNaughton forces us to see people through Henry’s eyes, where humanity might as well not exist because it doesn’t matter in the slightest. People are expendable commodities. Consider the scene where Henry sits in his parked car at a mall. He doesn’t talk or tap his fingers on the dashboard or bob along to a tune on the radio. He sits intently, watching, observing, waiting. As we watch through his eyes, a stomach-churning realization hits us: Henry’s not admiring or oggling women, he’s sizing up potential victims. It’s a simple camera trick that’s extremely effective.
More disturbing still is a sequence involving Henry and Otis breaking into a home, terrorizing the people inside, killing each family member with and videotaping the whole ordeal. By most horror movie standards this footage should not be frightening: the videotape is grainy and dark; the sound is muffled; bloodshed is minimal. But watching the tape makes us more than viewers; it makes us voyeurs. We see these people not as individuals with voices, ideas, personalities, but as nameless victims. We see them exactly as the killers do. We cannot detach ourselves emotionally because it’s if we are there, and in a way we are. The removal of that distance, that protective barrier between the movie and the audience, is what makes “Henry” so monstrously frightening.