“You want some fries?”
That simple line sounds completely innocent. Yet, when you place it in the aftermath of a brutal double murder of two street walkers down a dark alley in downtown Chicago, it becomes excruciatingly cold and callous. And that’s exactly the feeling writer/director John McNaughton (Wild Things, Mad Dog & Glory) wants you garner from his lead character in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. He is just that–cold and callous.
Henry, brilliantly played by Michael Rooker (Days of Thunder, Tombstone), turns in the best role of his career in this disturbing film. Very few films leave you feeling so empty and dirty than Henry. I remember first viewing this film for a paper I was writing for my Psychology of Evil class in college. I reviewed many “controversial” films to include in my thesis, but none stuck with me like Henry did. Fifteen years between viewings, and I am still left feeling the same way after watching this non-traditional horror film. I know what you might be saying. Henry is not a true horror movie. And to some degree, you are correct. There are no special effects. There is very little make-up except for the flashback photos of Henry’s previous victims. We don’t even have a supernatural antagonist to hate. But those very things are what make Henry so disturbing and believable; thus, a true horror movie right down to its core.
The film is based on notorious serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. It follows Henry, who we learn spent years in jail for killing his prostitute mother. Now Henry clearly has some issues with women. It’s not hard to figure out why. He grew up in an abused home, was forced to watch his mother’s transgressions with a myriad “John’s” and forced to wear a dress while being tormented and beaten when he refused to watch. When the film takes place, Henry has been out of jail for several years, and clearly on a killing spree wherever he goes based on the flashbacks and not-so-subtle hints throughout the movie. He’s now living with a buddy from jail, Otis, in a nasty little apartment in Chicago. Played by horror movie veteran, Tom Towles (Night of the Living Dead, House of a 1,000 Corpses, Devil’s Rejects), Otis manages to make Henry seem like a respectable guy. Disgusting by every means, Otis even manages to continuously come on to his naive, yet trashy younger sister Becky, played by little known actress Tracy Arnold. Becky, the former stripper, came to live with Otis for a while after repeatedly getting beaten up by her husband. Yet, she somehow manages to leave her daughter there to be watched by various family members. Though she won’t win mother of the year for that, her life choices are dwarfed by those of anyone else living in that tiny apartment. Of course, Becky with her great taste in men, begins to develop feelings for Henry. Go figure.
Without giving too much away, Otis becomes privy to Henry’s lifestyle and begins to join him in the hunt. Henry even begins to give him pointers on how not to get caught. Otis eventually becomes obsessed with the killing lifestyle. That is none more evident than in the scene where we as the viewer are watching the home movie Henry and Otis took of themselves attacking a husband and wife in their home. The husband is tied up and blindfolded while the wife is being restrained and molested by Otis. If that weren’t disturbing enough, the film really gives you a junk punch when the couple’s teenage son comes through the front door and… well, I’ll let you discover this all on your own.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say this is the climax of the film, because it really doesn’t have one. Nor does it need one.
There’s no happy ending. The entire movie is filmed from the perspective of these three individuals. There are no protagonists or heroes to latch onto. Sure, there’s Becky. But even she leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to a likable character. Otis, probably the most despicable character in the entire film, is continuously thrust in front of the audience and we are reminded of just how revolting a human being he truly is. And perhaps that is what McNaughton was going for–a perspective on the lowest forms of life and how they live amongst the rest of us. Or maybe he just wanted to shock us with this brutally honest (and I mean brutal) film. But whether or not you like the film, what he has left us with is an image of a downright disturbing part of human nature. And for that, I applaud this masterpiece of horror cinema. Were it to have great sound effects (although the music infusion of this film is quite intentional and effective), killer special effects and a big budget, it never would have had the same impact. At the end of the day, this movie makes you want, no need, to take a shower afterward. And to me, that’s a damn good movie.