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Halloween Special — Groovers and Mobsters Present: Horror

(As part of a Groovers and Mobsters Halloween special presentation, some horror-crazed bloggers — including me — have taken on our picks for the best horror films ever made. Here’s my take on “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. To read the entire list, visit this post on Heather the Original Movie Mobster’s blog or click the graphic above.)

 

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (1986)

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. They think you’re four different people.” ~~Henry

Evil lives in our world, and it rarely wears an obvious or garish mask of villainy. That’s a truth human beings prefer not to confront. It’s simpler to imagine that true evil is recognizable somehow, that it cannot hide beneath a pleasant-looking surface. John McNaughton, who shot “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” on a paltry $110,000, understands this elemental human need … and he ignores it. His film is a crumpled snapshot of evil in its basic, most mundane form – a grim reality that can’t be shaken easily.

Talented as he is, McNaughton couldn’t create such a disturbing film without the right actor to play the killer, who must seem harmless enough to function in everyday life but be viciously single-minded in his goals. Michael Rooker, then a relative nobody, plays the part so monstrously well that it’s difficult now, 24 years later, to see him as anyone other than an emotionless murderer. Rooker is Henry, a polite, even-tempered drifter/serial killer who moves into the Chicago apartment of Otis (Tom Towles), newly paroled and not the least bit rehabilitated. When Otis discovers Henry’s secret, he wants to join in, and Henry obliges – but not before schooling Otis on the importance of never developing a traceable pattern. The arrival of Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) causes friction between Otis, who lusts openly after his sister, and Henry, who treats this lost soul with kindness and is flattered by her interest in him. But love and companionship, Becky will learn, mean nothing to Henry.

McNaughton based “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (very) loosely on the story of Virginia-born serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, which lends a feeling of authenticity to the film. More important than that, though, is the director’s pointedly unromanticized direction. He forces us to see through the killer’s eyes – as Henry sizes up potential victims, as Henry and Otis slaughter an entire family, videotape the massacre and watch it again for their own sick pleasure. McNaughton forces us to become voyeurs, and it’s the removal of that protective distance that makes “Henry” so frightening.