J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Celebrates its 30th

In its day, it was so controversial, even its poster was banned. It provided the impetus for the supposedly respectable NC-17 rating, along with Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up!  Tie Me Down and Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, but it was eventually released without an MPAA rating. The time is definitely ripe for a cultural reappraisal on what arguably represents its thirtieth anniversary, depending whether you count its 1986 festival premiere or the long deferred 1990 theatrical release. Freshly restored yet as gritty and grubby as ever, John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (trailer here) returns to the big screen this Friday in New York.

Henry is intentionally and transparently modeled on the inflated confessions of real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, but not necessarily on the cold hard facts of his case. McNaughton’s Henry is staggeringly prolific, yet he remains off law enforcement’s radar because he always switches up his methods of killing and he constantly stays on the move. Uncharacteristically, Henry will stay a spell in Chicago with his former cellmate Otis. As luck would have it, Otis’s recently separated sister Becky also moves back in around the same time. She immediately takes a shine to the polite Henry, presumably because her brother and husband are such pond scum.

As Otis’s resentments and failures pile up, Henry takes him under his wing, teaching his protégé a sure fire way to blow off steam. Yet, much to his surprise, Henry also develops something like fondness for Becky. Of course, that won’t stop him from taking more victims.

When it first hit the public consciousness, Henry was largely considered the most violent movie ever. However, time has passed and the culture has evolved. Subsequently, the Saw and Hostel franchises have been released into the world, along with the films of Rob Zombie and the outré shocker of all time, A Serbian Film. Frankly, through our contemporary eyes, Henry looks almost restrained.

It still has the power to shock, but arguably the scenes that depict the aftermath rather than the actual violence per se, are far more disturbing. Early in the film, McNaughton shows us a series of Henry’s crime scenes, with his victims looking carefully and cruelly posed. Likewise, the ending is still a kick in the teeth, because it so dashes any hopes we might have for human nature.

Michael Rooker gives a bravura, career-defining performance as Henry. He is so potently nerve-jangling, precisely because of his restraint. Granted, his Henry obviously has intimacy issues, but he is surprisingly sociable. When he is on the prowl, his ruthlessness is icily chilling. However, he also develops some highly ambiguous chemistry with Tracy Arnold’s Becky. Together, they keep viewers completely off-balance and way outside their comfort zones.

Without Henry, fans probably wouldn’t have the Walking Dead’s Merle Dixon, at least not as they came to know him through Rooker. In terms of color palate and imagery, it looks like it could be a Herschell Gordon Lewis grindhouse flick, but it is a much more challenging examination of sadism and sociopathy. Bracing but never exploitative in the strictest sense, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a film all cult cinema connoisseurs should be familiar with. Recommended for mature cineastes, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer screens this Friday and Saturday (10/21, 10/22) in New York, around midnight at the Landmark Sunshine.

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