Wednesday, February 4, 2009

DVR Catch-up -- Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

[Of course the tone here wasn't going to stay all "beautiful female celebs and Family Guy-level funny" for long. Let's be levelheaded, now.]


Learning that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is "based upon real events" feels like one of the bigger "no shit" revelations in recent memory. This one seriously feels like you've got front-row seats for wanton death and casual depravity, quasi-documentary style in the vein of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I'd heard about its true-life aesthetic in the past, but forgot. Just finished watching it for the first time (seriously tardy with this one), and the amount of disgust and voluntary-filth I'm still feeling demanded further investigation. Come to recall, its based upon the confessions of Henry Lee Lucas, a "serial killer" hall-of-famer who reportedly offed around 600 people between 1975 and 1983, supposedly one per week.

Watching the film, though, you'd think the "Henry" played here by Michael Rooker was in fact the actual Mr. Lee Lucas, because what we have is a shot-mostly-straightforward voyeur-special on the man's everyday life. When he's bored or even the least bit riled up, he turns spontaneously homicidal; when at his grungy digs, where he lives with Otis, a friend he met back in prison, we watch his awkward, budding love affair with Otis' kinda-fugly sister, Becky. Just so happens that we're jumping into Henry's life as a climactic turning point is in his card (it is a movie, remember).

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is simply an no-questions-asked look into a methodical mass murderer's world, a slasher film that replaces the masked assailant and all-Maxim-model-looking victims with people you'd see walking down the street on your way to grab a cup of coffee. Far from impressive folks, and in this case truly despicable ones. But the film is all the more gruesome and clawing for such basics. Simplicity is the calling card. Even when director John McNaughton (who went on to direct the infamous Neve Campbell/Denise Richards skinamax gem Wild Things) drops the flick's horror moments, we hardly ever see any actual "murder." The few times that we do, the brutality feels real, but the film is at its most effective when opting to show patient views of Henry's kill-aftermath(s). A slow camera-whirl around the bloodied, ravaged body, punctuated by the sounds of screams and struggle, plus an off-center score that sounds like an ear's descent into some other dimension, one where the audio is the central note heard in the dizzying "Where is La Tenia?" club sequence from the awesome Irreversible.

The film's opening nicely sets up this "I'm only going to show you the end, not the middle" approach of Naughton's. Check the first four minutes, for visual aid:

And, for contrast's sake, this is what it feels like when Henry (with Otis, who, after witnessing Henry's out-of-nowhere double murder of prostitutes, catches the homicide fever) does his dirty work for us to actually see:

Can't say I blame Henry in this case, though; that salesman was a real douche.

From top to bottom, this is definitely a movie that practically requires a shower (or at least a nice splashing of water on the face) once the pretty-brilliant final shot (which wants to be somewhat ambiguous, but it's obvious that we're seeing the post-game of a central character's life, at least to me) comes along. Not a film I'd rush back to watch again and again, but definitely a great example of how horror can be at its most disturbing when grounded in reality, not overboard fantasy.

There's one sequence, in particular, that had my eyes wide open and sensibilities under self-interrogation in ways I've rarely felt in my many years of shock cinema exposure: all seen through a camcorder Henry is holding, we watch Otis disrobe a housewife while her husband lies bloody and bag-over-head-and-arms-tied-behind-back on the floor, a la A Clockwork Orange. But then, their teenage comes home, walking in on his parents' final seconds, and the way the son is dispatched of (thanks to snapping sound effects that sound way too real) is so heartless, so sudden, that the already-difficult scene is elevated to terrifying heights.

And that, my friends, is what horror should be. Relax and take notes.

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