I think part of the reason I’d never seen Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer before today was its reputation for ultra-realistic portrayals of murder. Because I’m such a well-adjusted fella, I’m more inclined toward the type of action movies with no real-world ties. Even though Henry has a pretty rock-solid critical reputation, I didn’t think I’d be up for what I expected it to be. (And hell, I’ve already absorbed the terrific punishment of the Michael Haneke collection.)
But what pushed me to finally give Henry a shot was the essay Patton Oswalt contributed to our Inventory book (still available at fine retailers!), which was called “Quiet Film Revolutions.” In it, he credits the movie with moving the goal posts—or maybe obliterating them—in the horror genre, because Henry is not what Oswalt calls a “quip killer,” which was the dominant type of movie-killer at the time. He’s clearly more true-to-life than, say, Freddy Krueger. His violence is real, simmering, and scary, mostly because it seems far more likely to happen to us. (I have never met a child-molesting dude with razor fingers who kills you in your dreams, nor have I met a hick thrill-killer, but I realize the latter is more likely to cross my path.)
And Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer is of course based on a real guy, Henry Lee Lucas, who murdered dozens of women (or three, or 600, depending on which confessions you believe) in the ’70s, which makes the prospect of a gritty, realistic film that much scarier.
But I have to say, I didn’t find myself particularly frightened by Henry, and I think that’s largely due to the fact that this far removed—the movie was filmed in 1986 and released in 1990—it looks dated, and its level of realistic violence has become much more common. The story is pretty damn terrifying, to be sure, but the acting—and especially the score—take some scenes into soap-opera land. Add to that the fact that you don’t actually see Henry murder anyone for a good chunk of the movie, and it seems almost tame. When Henry and his murder-buddy Otis kill a pair of prostitutes, it’s almost comically easy and quick: Henry simply snaps a neck and makes short, easy work of his victim.
A famous scene in which the duo kills a black-market TV salesman is also slightly silly—they smash a TV over his head and plug it in. (There’s even something resembling a quip there.) It’s gruesome, sure, but not as gritty as I’d been led to believe.
And then, after that relatively lightweight stuff, comes the scene that I thought the entirety of Henry would be like: Henry and Otis, having procured a video camera, film themselves during a home invasion—murdering a man, woman, and son, with Otis fondling the woman and threatening to rape her before finally killing them all. It’s unflinching and awful—and presumably the closest thing the movie offers to the reality of senseless, brutal murder.
Strangely enough, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer actually softens up the deeds of the real Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole. In the movie, Henry has some redeeming qualities: When Otis tries to sexually assault a woman after killing her, Henry stops him. When Otis is violent toward his sister—Henry’s kinda-sorta love interest—Henry hits him and makes him promise not to do it again. In reality, Henry Lee Lucas most likely killed his victims precisely so he could have sex with their dead bodies. Yes, he had something resembling a relationship with the real-life Ottis Toole’s niece—but in real life, she was a pre-teen when that relationship started. The movie, which faced serious trouble with the MPAA and was eventually released without a rating, could have been a lot harsher.
Which isn’t to knock Henry—clearly it did open the door for filmic explorations of more realistic killing behavior. But let’s not give it too much credit for that: The filmmakers don’t seem to be trying to make a statement, and at plenty of moments—that damn score again—it just seems like corny exploitation. Perhaps in trying to push certain buttons, director John McNaughton inadvertently nudged open a door.
If you’re looking for some serious discomfort (and aren’t we all?), Michael Haneke pushed a similar envelope in both Benny’s Video and Funny Games. The latter gets a little more moralistic about the whole thing (I believe Scott Tobias has called him “schoolmarmish”), but both are well worth squirming through. As are the even more recent Dogtooth and Afterschool, Greek and American movies, respectively, that mercilessly explore some fringes of human behavior.
I’m not dismissing Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, though. It was certainly gripping at times, and some of it will stick with me for a long, long time. But time and context seem to have lessened its impact, as time and context tend to do with films. In 1986, this was probably the scariest thing around. In 2011, it doesn’t cut quite so deep.