31 Days of Hell: Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer

Michael Rooker's career started with the relentless cult horror film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

"I just love Glee." 
During a time when mask-wearing slasher villains were in full swing, all but taking over theaters, the genre was proving itself to be very marketable. Halloween had broke on to the scene, the Friday the 13th series was in full swing, and knockoff titles like Slumber Party Massacre were cleaning up the scraps. These films were cheap to produce, relied on new (inexpensive) talent looking to break into the industry, and the box office returns were all but guaranteed. So when John McNaughton was commissioned to make a movie with a body count, and he didn’t deliver a slasher movie, but a true horror film, the film’s investors were faced with a film they didn’t know how to market.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer remains as horrifying and disturbing today as it was upon its much delayed and extremely limited initial release. It announced the arrival of a terrific new talent behind the camera—who would go on to direct the criminally neglected Wild Things—as well as introduced the world to Michael Rooker, who has gone on to become one of the best living character actors. He’s a guy who can walk on screen and you sort of smile. He has that way about him—that charisma—that makes him compulsively watchable, and it’s why his performance as Henry is so iconic. Because of him, as scary as anything Henry does is the fact that he makes us want to like him.

"Yes, it's my real hair."
Henry lives with his buck-toothed sidekick Otis (Tom Towles, magnificently creepy) in a ramshackle apartment somewhere in the shadowy bowels of Chicago. Otis is exactly the archetype you picture in your head just by hearing the name, right down to the beer belly and the trucker hat. Henry is as everyman as they come: Charming, polite, working a blue collar job as an exterminator—no irony lost there. They could be anyone you pass a million times a day crossing the street, or stand next to in line at the grocery store.

As the film progresses, the everyday veil of what’s acceptable about these two slowly gets peeled away. Simple conversations with Otis’ sister Becky (Tracey Arnold) begin to carry an unbearable undercurrent of tension. Any drive in the middle of the night could lead to a random act of homicide. Mundanity explodes into graphic violence like the flick of a switch. Get hit in the face by an “ungrateful punk” at work? Let’s go kill somebody. Anything goes, just like the reality we all occupy. The fact that it’s so easy for them to make that leap, yet appear like normal Walmart shoppers, seriously makes you want to consider buying a good security system.

"I've been looking for
that bottle everywhere."
The film’s most legendary sequence is seen through the lens of a VHS camcorder, and it shows us one of the top ten most disturbing scenes in motion picture history. What is most alarming about this part is that we allow our revulsion to combine with fascination, as we are enslaved into the viewpoint of the proverbial “captive audience.” As terrible as it is, we can’t look away, and when it’s revealed that this has already happened, that we are watching the awful events right along with the people who committed them—implicating us—the feeling is unsettling and stomach churning.

If only John McNaughton could have seen into the future he would foretell with the numerous television shows of carnage—Cops, World’s Scariest Police Chases—we are now more culpable than ever in our fascination with mayhem. It’s become entertainment. Even the broadcast news with its harrowing reports of evildoing has become so sensationalized and filtered that it barely registers before we change the channel. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer somehow still manages to circumvent all our 21st century de-sensitivity and engage us on a primal level.
"Well, they called us white trash, so
get in the can!"

This film reminds us that it could all end at any moment. Swiftly. Without so much as a bang or a whimper. And it shows us that, in the screwed up world we live in, someone might actually not pay attention unless it was entertaining. I can’t think of anything scarier than that.

-Blake O. Klener