Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)


Movies don’t make my physically ill very often, because I know that they’re just a piece of celluloid, a piece of fiction, and even the goriest of the gore is artificial and therefore tolerable.  Quite simply, it’s not real, so I can handle it.  “Henry” is probably the closest I’ve ever come to being truly revolted by a film, to the point that the violence and the themes were put on display so bluntly that I just couldn’t sit there.  In fact, I’m writing this as the movie’s still on in the background (there’s about 15 minutes left, I think).  About half an hour in, I got up, got my laptop, and started surfing the net while watching the movie, because it was just too much to take.  “Henry”‘s treatment of violence is unlike anything I’ve seen before, not even in the serial killer mockumentary “Man Bites Dog” (whose comedic, satirical edge made it a smart and satisfying movie experience, violence notwithstanding).  As minimalistic as “Henry”‘s production value is, its staging of Henry and Otis’ killings are anything but minimalistic: some are merely shown in their aftermath, some in every little detail thanks to Otis’ camcorder.  Either way, “Henry” is disgusting and brutal and just about unwatchable, but also incredibly important for turning the concept of violence, especially violence on-screen, upside down.

As brutal as the violence is (some of the most graphically detailed violence I’ve ever seen in any film), I think the key to the power of those scenes is that they’re relatively few and far between (though the last third or so of the movie is really too much to take with the necrophelia, neck breaking, stabbing, eye gouging, decapitating, incest…the works), and much of the movie is actually incredibly minimal, focusing on the relationship between Henry, Otis and Otis’ sister Becky and only begins as bizarre.  Plenty of psychological intrigue is there, namely the implied sexual attraction between Henry and Otis, Becky’s desperation for a sense of belonging, discussions about Henry’s disturbed childhood, and all that.  Do these scenes meant to get inside the heads of such fucked up characters work?  I don’t think so.  It seemed like they were meant to shock you just as much as the violence, with the details of Henry’s early life of crime, and even more disturbingly the increasing relationship between Henry and Becky and just an unbelievable sense of malaise and purposelessness in these people, who eventually must resort to violence, whether that’s to give themselves a purpose or just to pass the time in such obviously meaningless lives.  I think scenes and dialogue like that are supposed to give you inklings of why Henry is as fucked up as he is (oh, well obviously it’s because of his childhood and being forced to wear dresses by his deranged mother…), but that’s way too simplistic for a movie that’s clearly trying to accomplish something here, to show violence and the darkest recesses of the human mind at its most brutal with zero sugar-coating.  Then again, even when the scenes of relative serenity succeed in showing the pathetic malaise of these peoples’ lives, that doesn’t necessarily make for interesting filmmaking.  Tough spot for the filmmakers…

Clearly the highlight of “Henry” is the violence that neither I nor (I hope) any other sane movie-goer would want to see again.  It’s that violence that’s the most non-glorified I’ve ever seen, and in the end the scenes I was talking about involving Henry & Friends in quiet contemplation achieve their best purpose in simply giving us a reprieve from the brutality.  The scenes of rape and murder are so powerful because they’re pretty few and far between.  So many movies before “Henry” and since have glorified violence so much that we instinctively know every gun flourish, every martial art move, every punch and kick that bounce off of the action hero’s body, and movies like that are a non-stop barrage of video game-style mayhem.  Even the brutality we witness in “Henry” wouldn’t have the effect that it has if there was more of it, because we’d become desensitized to it (I’m thinking along the lines of Peter Jackson’s “Dead Alive,” a zombie movie so gory and bloody and nauseating that I ended up liking it for every comedic reason that I was sickened by “Henry”).  I can’t possibly call “Henry” a good movie.  The wannabe-film critic in me can’t possibly deem this a well-made movie when put alongside all those canonical masterpieces.  There’s zilch in terms of production value (incredibly cheaply made, I’m assuming) to the point of being sloppy, there’s no real story to speak of, and of course the violence will turn off just about anybody (unless you’re into that sort of thing, god help you 😛 ).  

This is a movie I never want to watch again, and for that I guess I have to give John McNaughton credit for setting out to do what (I think) he meant to do, for clearly “Henry”‘ is anything but the entertainment end of the movie-going spectrum.  I can’t possibly call this a good movie, but what I can say is that it’s a very brave piece of filmmaking by all involved, and it is the wake-up call in the midst of our desensitization to violence, showing us the grim reality behind action movies, those murders you hear about in the newspaper, and crime rates.  Hell, if Henry and Otis just up and decided to kill an entire family and record it on camera just ‘cuz they were bored and they wanted something to watch on the TV, you gotta wonder how easy it is for any of us to get to that breaking point, or if we’d even notice, or care.



1 comment so far

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