R-Rated, but like...almost pornographically R. While I don't refute its value as being a film, there are large portions of the movie that, whether through violence or sexuality, could be considered pornographic. Those who want to fight me on that description, I have to cite my first court case. Jacobellis v. Ohio brought about the famous quote, "I know it when I see it." That's the extent of my defense.
DIRECTOR: John McNaughton
Hey, my son's name is Henry! That's...oh. Oh my.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a weird one. Our old Blockbuster always had a copy of this movie. When I worked at the video store, it got checked out fairly regularly. It even makes some lists of the most important horror movies. But the movie always looked a little chincy. Honestly, the photo above was the highest res still I could fine and it looks super VHS'y. I even watched the 30th Anniversary edition, which was restored in 4K and it still looks like the still above. I don't mind some rough looking movies, but I also tend to know that many of these shot on video films tend to lean heavily on the gore as opposed to focus on the narrative or the craft of filmmaking. I can't say that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is entirely in that category, but I do have to say that it leans heavily on the exploitative gore.
I'm not an exploitative gore guy. I shy away from the films of Eli Roth because I know my gag reflex is going to get triggered pretty fast. Also, his personality is jarring, but that's a whole 'nother issue. Henry likes its gore, but I suppose that gore might be necessary. The gore in this movie is meant to be uncomfortable. I say this entirely based on the first ten minutes of the film. The first ten minutes of the film give the movie some legs in terms of cinema as opposed to cruelty for cruelty's sake. The odd part is that the first ten minutes are probably some of the goriest of the movie. It establishes Henry as a killer who lives in Chicago by juxtaposing his various victims against his daily routine. The way that this sequence is shot shows that McNaughton has some directing chops behind him. There's something oddly soothing about seeing the victims against the music of a cross-town commute. It's pretty odd that I find value in this. I'd like to think its the cinema buff and my appreciation of the craft of filmmaking that brings me joy, not a deep rooted need to kill that is inspired, but I choose not to examine that part of my clearly troubled psyche at this point. But that's where the movie kind of stops being this artistic exploration into the mind of a psychopath. (Hey, is that what the title refers to? Geez, I'm screwing in all of the light bulbs today.) The movie instead takes another cool, but ultimately exploitative route. After the opening ends, the movie focuses on Henry training Otis, his roommate, to become a serial killer like himself. That's an interesting premise, but its execution (pun NOT intended) is just an excuse to have a variety of kills.
In the intro, I explained that this movie might be considered pornographic. It sounds like I'm being harsh and I might be. I know lots of people who like this movie and that many horror fans really swear by this movie. I don't want to throw people under the bus for liking this movie, but there is a line that is crossed in this film. I suppose I'm bringing in the counterargument before I bring in my main idea. I know that there are people out there claiming that Henry is satire, stressing the need for bigger and bigger thrills through the eyes of a camera. It could be self-satire. Because Otis and Henry film their own violent crimes, which become grosser and grosser, it could be commenting on the nature of film and how it needs to raise the stakes to simply keep an audience. I'm sure that there are oodles of interpretations of what the film is trying to say and the hardcore fans could probably argue with me until I pray for the eventual end to the Internet. Regardless, the very act of making this movie feels ugly. If the commentary on the nature of human desire is dark, why make something that is dark in itself? I think of Otis rewinding the tape over and over again in attempt to glean every self-satisfying moment is just the audience getting the same joy that he does. We're supposed to think of this moment as Otis at his worst, the ugliness conveyed through a real lens of evil. But him rewinding and proceeding forward a single frame at a time is also happening to the audience. How does a fan of this movie separate Otis's joy from his or her own? While the audience did not create the act to begin with, doesn't the audience live this moment vicariously? I'm harping on this moment, but it also is a typical moment that summarizes my ickiness about the film as a whole.
I feel much of Michael Rooker's career has been a variation of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. According to Wikipedia, the most reputable of sources I'm willing to use at this juncture, the movie was made in 1985. It was his first named character when it came to acting, let alone in a lead role. While Henry is hard to define throughout most of the film, Rooker probably does his best work in this film. I like the idea of Rooker more than I like Rooker himself. In real life, he seems like a really fun weirdo, but this is a Michael Rooker before he had any fame to speak of. He's really trying to play a nuanced part. Whether he succeeds is up for debate, but there are levels of intensity to this film and I kind of appreciate that. Like many low-budget regional films, much of the cast never really went on to do much. There is a certain element of community theater to the whole production. As a guy who adores self-financed '80s and '90s Mystery Science Theater episodes, there is a certain charm for these performances, but few of them are ever great. I think that most clearly can be shown with the black market TV salesman. (How do you define that character? I clearly could hit my open tab to the IMBD page for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but I feel like that is letting my description go to waste.) There's such a one-level caricature feel to the whole thing that I could never describe it as great. What I will comment on is the fact that the cast are supposed to be portraying real people. Henry Lewis (?) was a convicted serial killer and this movie was meant to be based on many of his confessions. It was later discovered that these confessions were mostly fabricated, but it makes for what should be an interesting narrative. How odd is it then that no one really did research on any of the parts they were playing. After all, these were real folks. I know that many of the actors had to be simply excited for a big break, but c'mon. If Rooker is pulling his weight, the same should be expected of you.
The movie isn't horrible so much as it is super icky. I don't like this kind of movie and I think that one could argue that there is a moral element to not watching this movie. While elements of the film are really genius in terms of construction, much of the movie gets so dark that it could be pornographic. Frankly, I would feel better if this movie didn't really cross my path again.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.