20th March 1950 – 2nd April 2015.
Sometime toward the back end of the 1980’s a specific horror movie with a growing reputation was brought to my attention. My acknowledgement of this film came largely based upon a drip-feed stream of reviews by American based horror film magazines and its quickening additional inclusion upon the latest and regular extending list of cinematic attractions being offered by the local pushers of illegal VHS video copies of the time. This scenario was also being repeated by certain makeshift stall holders selling their wares at horror festival screenings. Something I noted while attending such an event sometime during 1989? All this cloak and dagger was often the only means – at the time of still obtaining obscure and often banned material. This coming in a time frame way before the advent and accessibility of internet infringement and copyright theft, or those with more social scruples who have now become paying re-collectors that are currently enjoying extending their personal film library as part of the DVD – Blu-ray culture or perhaps those who are all about watching cinema via the current and ever expanding V.O.D. services now being provided on mass scale.
Please note in large part the illegality of purchasing such video tape material back in the 1980’s was not merely out of evading paying the film production companies their royalties but simply and often a means to an end that allowed many an obsessed movie fan in the UK, myself included to view and own subject matter – basically unavailable for the specific reasons noted above. On one such occasion, I was fortunate to note one of these makeshift stall holders selling a multitude of said VHS cinematic sin – films still unreleased in the UK or material still banned and therefore not legally made available under the banner of ‘video nasty’, an issue that remained in effect in the guise of the video recording act of 1984 (section 3) which now stood as an ominous shadowing UK censorship soul-stealer representation better known as the BBFC. Amongst these delightful but illegally obtainable films I noted three specific titles. The first was Stanley Kubrick’s, self imposed? still largely unavailable, A Clockwork Orange (1971), which was going for an absolute fortune. Then there was Tobe Hooper’s, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II (1986), again pretty pricey and at this time still not available to UK horror fans. The third film that became the beacon of light was John McNaughton’s, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) – the movie I had already heard much about? Being financially viable during that time of life, I went on to purchase two of the three movies with a guarantee by the (dodgy) stall holder that both these copies where of a fantastic high end quality. For the money paid – I should hope so? “Should have had gullible dick tattooed upon my forehead?” We live and learn people – we live and learn? Okay so my copy of Chainsaw II was in English… result. Sadly it contained unmovable Dutch subtitles, though the video picture quality was actually very good to be fair. The same could not be said of the purchased copy of ‘Henry’, which was like most illegal copies of that time, watchable at a frustrating mass re-processing, persistent best, but pretty poor quality in general common-sense terms.
However because of the movies immediate, dark and horrific opening montage of scattered murder and mayhem and the harrowing background sound of violent misconduct and terrifying screams of reoccurring reply which were soon followed in quick succession by a layered and brutal but enthralling opening music score by Ken Hale, Stephen A. Jones, Richard McNaughton (not related to the director), this brutal collision of sight and sound managed to add to the recipe of bleary dilution and menacingly became an accompaniment to this blurred but horrific opening sequence of events – it had unusually added something uneasy to the dulled video tape quality with its generational re-recorded process, which (not by design) gave the accidental impression of something resembling (found footage material?) which eerily seemed to surround the movies already notorious opening ceremony. Sometime later and perhaps with a touch of fortuitous serendipity – the storyline introduces what was still then an infancy of home video capabilities which goes on to play a significant though disturbing role in the films unravelling plot. Despite the visual distortion of illegal reproduction of my particular VHS copy, it just seemed to fit in with the forthcoming, seedy and horrific subject matter. This source of deliberate authenticated viewing has indeed become something that decades later is now considered weirdly adventurous and almost fashionable as a pretext to the latter sway of found footage material type cinema that in recent years has become commonplace.
Fortunately (never imagining I’d see the day), some several years later, I was finally able to view this shocking movie shortly after the BBFC under the then leadership of James Ferman and Co, suddenly decided in their wisdom to give ‘Henry’ an 18 certification, (with cuts) (1991). This allowed McNaughton’s horror vision to finally be viewed on the big screen has it should be – to me this was a much crisper visual version than the one I had become accustomed to – I viewed this during a special weekend limited midnight screening at a local multiplex. I believe it ran for three consecutive weekends. Viewing this masterpiece (almost) without the bleariness of massive video piracy reprocessing – on the big screen, became a (re)-revelation of frightening proportions (despite the cuts).
There are not many horror movies that have physically made me shudder or recoil with a real sense of fear or even fazed me with such a growing viewing discomfort, this occurring despite I (allegedly) being a staunch, enthusiastic and appreciative genre fan. The films on this list are indeed very tiny. Let me rephrase that last comment. Only a handful of movies have had such a frightening effect upon me during different periods of life, growth and a continued understanding of the wider world beyond, let alone experiencing such a hard hitting, unsettling effort of cinematic process of its time, Henry for its part in my film viewing life is and still remains one such event that clearly stayed firm in the memory long after viewing the dreadful deeds within its obvious but cautionary pull faded into epilogue. Henry is clearly all about offering a horror stimulant and submergence in which you enter into a realm of genuine fearful emotional unforgiving, something that is very infrequently delivered in much of cinema but when allowed to flourish as in this case, often dramatically stares-up a gag reflex, a physical doubting, almost like being at the base of an escarpment which is extremely hard to climb but climb it we must – simply because it is there to challenge us! In the clear case of Henry it’s very uncomfortable viewing most certainly leaves a consistent after effect, one of watching something that is extraordinarily sombre in its reels of unravelling despair – this coming care of (on this occasion) a rookie director having done his job so supremely that he leaves such thriving thoughts and said emotions firing toward its audience with a blistering and glaring antagonistic machine-gun visual pace. It is very infrequent, that horror cinema in its innumerable forms can leave such a lasting impression on personal faculties thereafter, Henry is most certainly one that achieves this quest. I do not mean, to then set out and be compelled to become a serial killer, (don’t be ridiculous), but rather give the opposite effect of actually being heavily dissuaded, even dirtied by its senseless deathly filmic dirge. This is a world set-in and beyond sensible moral convention and is instead filled with visuals of cruelty and devastating actions by characters that cannot be hero-worshipped by those with any sense of moral understanding, this coming despite our morbid curiosity to watch this kind of horror film in the first instance.
John McNaughton, Director.
This films portrayal is based on an inhuman and immoral precipice and in cinematic terms feels disturbingly realistic, a place quite reprehensible. John McNaughton’s, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), easily conceives that dreadful essence of disparity and depicts that very bleak but important point to the bitter and cruel end. It is precisely why this ascent into senseless violence realistically scares beyond reason. On a personal level, McNaughton’s work most certainly worked its way under my skin and indeed left its permanent marker. It’s very difficult to scare me much and to be truthful, I cannot remember the last time that emotion occurred while watching a movie? What is distinctly clear is that McNaughton’s horrifying masterpiece is one such occasion in which that particular feeling emerged and most certainly went on to provide an extremely uncomfortable, genuinely scary, at times sickening emotional protocol which expelled from me a nervousness usually unfamiliar with such a visual output. It is fair to say that at one point it made me consider the notion that perhaps there was clearly something wrong with a person who watched this kind of film? Having endured a number of cold sweats, nervous twitches aplenty and the continued changing of body position throughout – in portrayal this film had undoubtedly rooted out that feeling of fear and a genuine loathing in part. It most certainly worked on making the hairs on the back of my neck stand to provoked attention on numerous occasions. I even found myself attaining a symptomatic discomfort in observing the odd giggle at the very occasional bleak humour. (… Really?)
The scene in which the black market (fence) trader of electronic goods – Ray Atherton is dispatched is probably the only humorous release valve throughout the whole feature and is clearly not without its melodramatic comedy effect, not because it’s any less violent or immoral of all the other portrayed carnage entailed, but put simply this characters comeuppance would in reality not be unusual, especially if you were actually careless enough (though unknowingly) in seeking to provoke two very unstable people to begin with? The dealers behaviour toward both Henry and Otis is very offensive in its own outlet and does indeed highlight how dealing in this dodgy world can itself create characters that though not homicidal still have their own unsociable tendencies – are still apparent and discernible in their very negative condescension and aggressive demeanour and attitude toward others, a position which is clearly highlighted in the build and subsequent aftermath of this particular sordid incident. Though we should within reason attempt to take a holistic approach or perhaps not comfortably laugh at this sleaze-ball criminal in his demise, though the inventiveness of dispatch is quite metaphorically bleakly apt in part, still suggest to me that dark sense of culpability.
All these uncomfortable symptoms clearly define the myriad of great unease that comes with consumption of this particular uneasy – food for thought? The other thought that brings me back to the predicament of whether or not I should have ever felt guilt or discomfort at watching this type of film is simple. Horror cinema is conceived and placed in the mainstream for this specific purpose. If in the case of Henry it’s effectiveness conjures-up ill-ease and makes you consider your personal thoughts and opinions, then surely this means the conscience is made all the more satisfied by the fact that you are justified in being offended by the immorality of such reprehensible social misfit(s). So why does Henry make these severe emotional conditions possible. The answer lies in many different conspiring areas of note. For example, to formulate such a convincing, violent and bloody visual wreckage, which McNaughton achieves with masterful effect, obviously means as the films director you must be ferocious and steadfast in not relenting in the telling of such a dark toned tale with all its segmented depravity and conspiracy of plot.
Neither should you be restricted in providing the often speedy and graphic (throw away) visual nature of such shocking events and the treatment of the victims which make this piece work in such a powerful and convoluted way. The constituent parts of the themed violence never glories in its on-screen delivery. What it does do however is fulfil this horror movies violent quota as one of the scariest, most frightening of engagements ever to see screen time. We also witness but make no excuses when clearly noting the desperation of a social underclass and what it creates as a result of indifference and social disparity. This oozes from the screen in a manifestation that gathers at a pace and intensifies often with the feeling of a present moral decay, (and not just in the interaction of our immoral subjugator(s)?) Here John McNaughton’s 16mm, urban – guerilla direction highlights a clear bleakness and disharmony of the urban landscape of that period. This feeling alone adds to the unique viable commodity the director somehow captures in his truthful but uneasy visual direction. His superb gift is to afford the grainy, seedy look of his only (available) film stock, mixed-in with the obvious subject matter that in turn allows the real organic dank backdrop scenery of an overpopulated city living lifestyle to become a grey – inescapable act of deliberate claustrophobic intent, which he then invites us to partake in a permanent visual real-time ride as on-board observers of an often dark and shadowed place of ramshackle housing stock, concrete intersections, freeways, waste and parkland, which is being overburdened by social decay and bleak opportunism. In the city, people seem crammed together in communal apartment living which clearly highlights the often abject polarisation of make-do? All this envelopment can easily conceal many terrible events as we as onlookers become embroiled in watching every considered and wicked observant move being forced upon us as Henry brutally unravels and takes clandestine advantage of this urban jungle and its dull unremitting feel of dark entries, cluttered spaces and easy access to widening roads that pass through and stop off in locations for people of a nomad disposition to visit the nearest metropolis by simply exiting right and then cruising through the next urban jungle – in the case of our main antagonist so he can go in search of prey!
From the opening moments – McNaughton makes it feel like he’s actually captured not just the bleakness of the out of bounds – cliché after dark scenery but also menacingly emphasises the criminal(s) lurking intent – to take advantage in this grimy and violent urban parade; this uneasy social essence never more captured than in the opening reminisce of vile untold carnage and the trail left behind in the wake of murder which unfolds like a roll-call of gross tortured victimisation. He, Henry the character – ultimately sullying us with his dreadful deeds. Soon after the movies opening barrage of violent imagery is displayed with its extreme visual after effect, McNaughton then provides on-going matters in the company of our tall curly-haired psychopath as he strolls through life without a care nor conscience and worse of all, he allows Rooker’s – Henry – in performance, to remain unflinchingly calm and calculated in his depravity and brutality which immediately becomes so overburdening that it only adds to the characters evasive and tempered, menacing fear factor.
Our own reaction to this murderers concise and disturbing demeanour has the immediate and appropriate soul destroying effect of leaving its audience in a state of deep intimidation. Even the surveying and studying of his potential victims to-be is truly calculating as we note the forthcoming ominous conclusion of what will happen to those whom he stalks way before events actually take place.
These hideous, banal moments are documented and captured in brutal segmented aftermath conclusions only! When we note Henry’s precursor deception both in his murder spree time-line and remarkably within the context of character suggestion and unfolding revelation – as he finally leaves the premises or locations of his latest victims. Rooker as Henry conveys this infamous cold calculation like he’s simply been tasked a basic chore. It is genuinely chilling to the bone as he leaves the scene of his latest crime and simply shuts the door behind him and walks away nonchalantly. We are left to ponder the aftermath of Henry’s vileness and soon after we discover the corpse of his latest victim and what form of devastation and torture after death he has left in his dreadful wake.
The director begins to investigate what drives Henry and his attributed psychoneurosis to become a consuming monstrous intent. From his deliberate pre-meditated targeting of housewives under the guise of his current job as a pest controller to his blatant opportunism of picking up a hitch-hikers who sadly gets into the car and simply becomes someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This thread of continued lack of apathy is also clearly noted particularly in one of the movies latter and more disturbing moments which comes when our killer(s) (on video camera) begin to document their own terrible deeds and attributes in both the act of a household invasion followed by the shocking premise in regard of their tormented hostages treatment in both a non-sexual behavioural pattern as in the case of (Henry) and the polar opposite opportunistic pseudo-sexual frenzy of (Otis) and the murderous transgressions that follow.
McNaughton adds to this disturbing home siege with an added (new) for its time visual element of an absurd homemade video documentation of events in the form of (looped-play-rewind-forward-slow motion savagery) in a shocking after-the-event re-viewable video entertainment premise. Extreme reality television – being reviewed upon the killers television set which becomes a form of sickening transcendence from we (the audience) own televisual perspective, as you/we watch these loathsome killers – watch themselves partake in acts of sexual assault the death of a returning home (interloper) member of the family and the eventual multiple homicide left behind.
This is a form of sickening documentary making if you like? (See: Rémy Belvaux’s and André Bonze’s incredible, dark humoured, Man Bites Dog (1992) for how to create a near perfect cinematic event in this guise).
Henry is a macabre film entailing extreme voyeuristic issues, here seamlessly conjoin into McNaughton as (the director) making a film and his own cinematic celluloid reality nightmare end vision expanding beyond its narrative, he then making its audience feel like integrated accomplices to these frightful deeds, he doing so in an extremely seamless nerve shredding fashion. It almost becomes surreal in part, in what is the directors genuine film making placement and process along with that place now being tread by these actors performing as mindless amateur film makers with their unhinged detrimental auteur outlook. Add to the antagonistic deliberateness of an incredibly unnerving script that pushes the envelope of murderous intent, historical and current social decline to an extreme placement and what you get with Henry is a genuinely well-captured, disturbing, even unique but clearly influential piece rarely representative of its then independent time.
McNaughton takes three central acting performances – all convincing and outstanding in quality and reward; what we get in return is a harrowing movie that throws at you masses of unchained chaos, disturbing imagery, along with a story-line which genuinely comes at its audience in tirades of punches and kicks which immediately smash and pulp your senses to bloody smithereens. The only let-up (initial calming) that comes from the surveying violence appears in the form of Tracy Arnold as Becky, (Otis’s sister).
Arnold’s character becomes the unsuspecting epicentre of attention with her damaged hard luck tales of woe and the subsequent life choices and lack of opportunities provided. Later this story of Becky’s disenfranchise is also expanded upon in a strange conversational reveal in which she will open up her heart and offer up her emotions and feelings to a very strange choice of confidant whom she will reveal much of what’s hidden away in her own personal historical baggage, he cautiously reciprocating with different scenarios of his violent past and what may have spared him on to become the killer he’s become, (she cautiously unknowing of all the facts?) Contained within this closet full of skeletons, comes very large doses of childhood violence, sexual trauma and abuse – which soon hints at being breached in a non-reciprocating (incestuous connotation?) This reprehensible sexual undertow does indeed become a massive unfolding catalyst come the movies savage and bloody brutal violent finale?
The undoubted star of this terrifying, unremitting cinematic ordeal will be your host, Henry – Michael Rooker. I will state unconditionally, that this imperious performance by Rooker, (in my opinion) is still one of – if not the finest and most convincing of all the wealth of cinemas very own historical unleashing of psychotic (serial) killers (real or fictional interpretations) ever to grace the screen. Menacing is the word I am looking for – and menacing – Rooker most certainly is throughout. Despite the many varied based on true events or fictional performances out there in the world of cinema throughout the ages, from Anthony Perkins’s stunning Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1961)
or Tony Curtis’s mesmerising performance as the real Albert DeSalvo in Richard Fleischer’s impressive, The Boston Strangler (1968).
We can even see strong complicit overtones in Tom Gries’s (Made for TV mind) Helter Skelter (1976) starring in an outstanding performance of a lifetime as the infamous and cowardly Charles Manson – Steve Railsback. Railsback would also play with disturbing energy – Ed Gein: In the Light of the Moon (2000).
Steve Railsback in two of his finest performances.
An associated and more favourable effort to the continued Ed Gein fascination and my personal choice would be Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby’s Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile (1974). Roberts Blossom’s role as Ezra Cobb aka Ed Gein is cinematically immense!
This role call of noted lunatics must also include, Tom Noonan’s more extrovert (fictional turn) but terrifying nonetheless, Francis Dollarhyde in Michael Mann’s, superior – Manhunter (1986). (Not the f**king reprehensible and dreadful Red Dragon (2002) remake. Sorry had to get that one off my chest. Opinions may vary but very unlikely?)
Again I must also reiterate my dark founded fondness for the performance of Florian Koerner von Gustorf as the aforementioned Lothar Schramm in Jörg Buttgereit’s equally disturbing and distinct delve into said territory in – Schramm: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer (1993).
We can also look at the more recent revelation that is A.J. Bowen’s genuinely mesmerising performance as the character Garrick Turrell in Adam Wingard’s very underrated though impressive independent master class, A Horrible Way To Die (2010).
May I also add not since being immersed into the murderous conspiring (again complicit) forces of Gunnar Hansen, Edwin Neal and Jim Siedow in Tobe Hooper’s greatest genre masterpiece, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).
Nor forgetting the significance of Joe Spinell’s menacing influential performance as Frank Zito in William Lustig’s very disturbing, Maniac (1980) have I felt such an intensity of noted cerebral wretchedness come from these screen zeitgeist.
Despite all these personal bows and genuine appreciation of the aforementioned – no one has scared me on a personal level quite like or more than Michael Rooker did chewing up then spitting out the scenery while playing his psychopathic Henry.
John McNaughton initially uses the lone killer scenario then shortly after we note what the controlling Henry is all about when he then adds a second conspiring – trump card dimension to the mix. Not satisfied with offering us Henry as the one unscrupulous, deviant focal point of engrained reprehensibility, McNaughton and Co Writer Richard Fire then saw imagination to add to this terrifying prospect – a second coming of social disillusionment, inane human disparity by adding a second character to this murderous scenario through the eventual encouragement of Henry. This induction into Henry’s world occurs during an act of senseless violence when he ceremoniously introduces into the fold, Otis – Tom Towles – would be apprentice, future partner in crime and Henry’s very own fertile monster (in-the-making) creation.
Again Towles’s performance is menacingly rewarding, extremely unnerving and comes close to stealing the show (without doubt) and should at no time be underestimated in his low-life portrayal of his character Otis before, during and after his heinous recruitment process. This dreadful on-screen alliance will have far reaching consequences throughout proceedings. It’s a character coming together – a match made in the very depths of morbid damnation that simply extends further the boundaries of two like minded, kindred and terrifying souls. These performances by Rooker and Towles are genuinely and massively unsettling. Both Michael Rooker and Tom Towles in subsequent combination play these parts with massive vociferous achievement and genuine terrifying seedy effect.
The killing spree that occurs after Henry’s lone wolf murders expand to including Otis as potential and future partner in crime quickly revs things up to such a degree that we note that Otis though initially taken aback, even stunned and shocked by Henry’s cold blooded murder of two prostitutes while his pupil (to be) watches on becomes the integrating catalyst.
It is after this event that Otis initially becomes panicked by his friends unsavoury introduction into the world of homicide. Henry in his slow and threatening manipulation of Otis is allowed to drip feed into the senses (over a cheese burger) and offers reassurances by the aficionado of murder with his experience and knowledge of the complex and vast assortment and uses of considered dispatch or modus operandi – will often cover the murderer(s) tracks – something Henry is at pains to teach Otis so he need not fear being traced or detected or be initially complicit and directly associated by Henry’s murderous intent.
When watching this murderous combination begin their violent charge, based on their eventual shared cruel ideology of social opportunism and ultimately their blatant disregard for human life we quickly see the eventual uprising of Henry’s own protégé. In both their actions, (mostly spared on by Henry) there is no sign of sympathy or hesitation, nor is there any offering of remorse in their outpouring barbarity or the lengths taken to extend their conspiring mental blitz and continued capacity to expand their anti-social extreme highs over their would-be victims, which very often can be an act based in moments of off-the-cuff opportunism or as later occasioned in (their) extended tortured intent, though not exclusive as one scene of induction shows, when under an underpass Henry uses this moment in order to allow Otis to relieve his anger and tension which has built up during the day when in an earlier incident in which Otis makes a sexual advance toward a male client – high school student who buys drugs from Otis; the young man ends up breaking Otis’s nose in reciprocation of this harassment. The victim of this built tension will be a innocent passing driver who when Henry flags him down under false pretence kindly stops by the roadside in order to assist the alleged stranded motorists who have given the impression that their car with hood/boot open has broken down. This is the moment when the good Samaritan is shot to death by Otis.
The thought there are genuinely murderous opportunists people like this living in our world is very frightening and McNaughton displays this outrageous disparity with the designed intention of clearly leaving the skin crawling and the upheaval of spectator unease foremost. This initial callous act becomes an exercise in a process of mental brainwashing. Encouraged by initial results we see Henry use the violent idiom of “either you or them” to justify these brutal killings and what follows. Though the logic being spouted by Henry makes little sense and through initial fear perhaps? Otis it seems is a person whom is easily influenced by others and seems to gradually accept this psychotic ideology being espoused by his teacher Henry. Henry for his part in this initiation of Otis will go on to actually inspire his pupil (so to speak) how to take advantage and observe how to commit to the cause and furthermore use moments of violent despair to vent built-up forms of aggression. This study of teacher and student is quite extraordinary and both Rooker and Towles play off each others wretchedness in an expanding process that McNaughton as the director pursues in layered depths and with all-out conviction. Despite much in the way of earlier visual restraint regarding Henry’s devastating acts of historical murderous flashback, that part of McNaughton’s directing process quickly begins to fade throughout the initiation process of Otis as he slowly unravels and believe it or not becomes more reprehensible than Henry. Some of the more played-out unsavoury moments unfold with a more extended graphic intent, though again the full in your face building violent rapture is pretty much saved for the extremely disturbing last third of what has been a guttural psychological harrowing enough expedition already.
The massive blow up epilogue to this film which includes an extremely disturbing incestuous rape scene in which Becky is attacked by her brother finally culminates in a violent showdown between Henry and Otis. On returning from a localised and potentially homicidal meandering; Henry walks into the vicious ongoing rape being carried out and quickly the violence escalates into a physical fight in which Henry quickly repels Otis who during the fracas then gets the better of Henry who he has stunned by hitting him over the head with an available whiskey bottle. With this advantage favouring Otis, he then announces to the man who has taught him everything he knows and he is now finally in a position to act upon the spoils of supposed victory as it seems Otis in his final act of taking up the mantle from murderous incumbent to supreme leader of this evil alliance is about to commit to an act of overthrow by killing Henry. (The king is about to die; long live the king). Otis in his opportune attempts to slit Henry’s throat with the broken end of the bottle that has just been used to pummel his teacher and eagerly fuelled by violent adrenalin and the ultimate in one-upmanship upon the man he has for so long feared announces before finally attempting to cut Henry’s throat “Adiós mother-fucker!” The fate of this violent disintegration between these two barbaric foes ends with a twist that sees the brutalised Becky not only stop Otis from killing Henry but she herself takes matters into her own hands? From the floor she notes her strewn handbag. With contents Hanging out of it she grabs her metal comb of which she immediately uses the sharp pointed handle as a weapon (shank) in order to stab her brother in his right eye. Otis recoils and in constant agonising cries begins to crawl away from both the injured Henry and the now terrified Becky.
Otis makes it toward the hallway as he still cries out his agonies. He finally comes to rest against the doorway. Henry has gained back enough composure to retrieve the bloodied comb and now lurches forward and within a few steps toward Otis he’s upon him. Henry stabs Otis in the chest and then leans into the powerless Otis who for a brief time still writhes in constant pain. Eventually Henry’s continued impalement finishes the life of Otis. Both the injured Henry and the now justifiably hysterical Becky screams out in terror and panic as Henry begins to carelessly calm her. We immediately note that he too and for the first time in this tale is also in an emotional disarray. Covered in blood he begins to shout out “Let me think… let me think?”.
While Becky weeps Henry begins to take back control, he rises up and then begins to drag the dead carcass of Otis toward the bathroom at the end of the hallway. The sickened and shocked Becky can only listen on as Henry with kitchen knife in hand begins to dismember Otis in the bathtub. This shocking and truly terrifying scene ends when we see Henry cut the head off (pretender to the throne) Otis and as calm as you like places the man’s head into a black plastic bin bag which lies in the sink basin. With the severed head’s mouth agape and eye trauma a reminder of what led to this (it has to be said) it was a poignant death.
The final few moments of this terrifying film see both Henry and Becky – now willingly in tow cautiously exit the apartment block. Henry is carrying a heavy suitcase which we must assume contains the bodily jigsaw that is now Otis in death. Becky is carrying the guitar case that contains the instrument that once belonged to the hitch-hiker Henry picked up in one of the opening moments of the film. After a detour which leads to Henry stopping off at a local bridge so he can then dump the disassembled Otis into the river; firstly the suitcase is dropped into the water quickly followed by the bin liners that Henry takes from the boot/trunk of his car and again one by one drops them into the dark cold evening drink below. When this dastardly deed is completed, we see Henry drive away with Becky by his side. On their journey away from the murder scene Becky seems under the distinct impression that the two of them can formulate a plan of action that will put the whole bloody affair behind them – perhaps make plans as a possible couple of circumstance strangely? This moment also offers up a moment in which Henry may indeed be actually comfortable with this idea or is there deceptiveness hidden in his agreement? Henry finally books the misfit couple into a motel room. Finally settled from their ordeal Becky and Henry exchange seemingly interchangeable though brief discussions of what the future may hold?
The climax of Henry as both a film and brutal expedition of human extremes is stinging in effect and the final outcome is just as dark and callous as was the case in the opening ceremony of this incredibly tormenting piece of genre cinema. I will say no more!
Rooker’s exit from this overpowering turn leaves Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer most certainly in a class of its own. Both the director and lead actor take this brutal ride above and beyond Hollywood glamourising. Indeed it is safe to say that Henry is the total opposite prime antithesis of the pop-culture cultivating of what realistically should be considered disturbing subject matter, McNaughton choosing not to partake of the obvious mainstream sprinkling of hefty doses of over-the-top intellectual white collar absurdities that soon became commonplace, freakishly concise, even (hero-worshipped) cautiously likeable, extrovert characters despite their murderous intent. Thank goodness that McNaughton refused to go down the then increasingly clumsily built false wall toward mass appeal of easily pleased cinema-goers that had become satisfied with this idea of serial killers in film being almost celebrity in status. What I am trying to say is – though serial killers stem from all different ideologies and walks of life, it is often more likely that those of a blue collar, working class persuasion; as is the case here with Henry’s background in both his upbringing and the constant social interaction that surrounds his daily existence seems a more honest evaluation of what creates these social opportunistic abnormalities of society. This is gritty realism and nothing as so grand as Thomas Harris’s original 1981 creation, Dr Hannibal (the cannibal) Lecktor/Lecter.
How do you prefer yours?
Perhaps we should also look at the yuppy-fied 1980’s model – businessman that became the writers retrospective and extremely controversial legend known as Patrick Bateman
whose character uncompromisingly fell from the pages of Brett Easton Eliss’s, incredible 1991 American Psycho novel.
Both of these serial killer extensions to be fair did eventually offer the genre their head-turning moment and take note cinematic mainstream turns. Thomas Harris having created what would be later in film terms and follow up stories based on the complex; often cinematically expected though exaggerated, even offering… dare I suggest a glamourising indictment of a strangely (suave?) brutality.
Please note this is not a criticism merely an observation of what undoubtedly became a cultural game-changer regarding its original literature routes and eventually its Hollywood makeovers of said character creations. McNaughton’s Henry clearly has no place in this theatrical transition of these anti-hero types that everyone seems more concentrated on… perhaps because the brutality of Henry is far more close to the knuckle of reality and plays on emotions uncomfortable for many film fans and not quite has appealing – bizarrely of the more conceptual encapsulating (watering down) – marketing friendly substance and lavish movie versions and adventures of the likes of both Lecter and Bateman in movie form respectively (only?)
In summation – it is clear that on occasion I prefer my horror cinema somewhat hard edged; not mainstream, more indie orientated if you prefer! It is clear to the serious observer that John McNaughton’s Henry is as hard edged as it gets and more beside. The deliberateness of everything creative and antagonistic about this effort is both very rare and raw to those willing to watch this type of movie. Such classics come along far to infrequently in terms of gaining our cautious attention; pricking up the ears or wonderfully and deliberately polluting the eyes of both film critics and genre fans alike, doing so for all the right reasons I may add!
As for Michael Rooker and his performance, well let me just reiterate that his portrayal is genuinely frightening and shows an actor who can cause a physical recoil that is truly unique when it comes in the premise of simply watching a film. Without Rooker’s presence Henry would probably not be the powerful cult classic it has rightfully become. Michael Rooker has certainly become regularly typecast over the years since this exceptional performance. Despite this, what we have to note and celebrate regarding Michael Rooker the actor is the fact that not many have worked such dark magic over such a terrifying film realisation better than he achieves here. It is an awesome performance and he consumes his screen time with a standard of acting massive in content and control. This review is wholeheartedly a homage not just to the unique bitterness of this film exploration but as a exploitative character piece (however extreme) it is most certainly one of the strongest portrayals (by Rooker) ever to grace 1980’s cinema nay modern film to date. If this is a film you either like or loathe, one thing is certain, there is clearly no middle ground to tread and let’s be honest that’s how it should be when rare films like Henry come along and push the discomfort button. I welcome hard edged cinema and Henry sits pretty amongst a small elite group of intimidating genre cinema not easy to duplicate or as original as John McNaughton provides with this deeply dark frenetic and original observation. Also be warned – if you are easily offended and have not yet seen Henry, then at the very least I would suggest caution before viewing despite the fact that this effort is nearly 30 years old at the time of writing this review. What I will also make clear regarding my opinion of this unrelenting effort – is that I do not think I am intentionally using horror movie hype to add focus on this review, this is not mere hyperbole. The fact is Henry is most certainly the real deal and Henry never apologises and does intentionally intimidate and shock to the core. Henry is a supreme effort in psychological cinema and I know of no other genre orientated exponent better. I as a fan of this difficult watch will always stand firm behind these comments.