ICYMI – HALLOWEEN EDITION: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
“Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is? Nothing. That’s what I found in the boy. No conscience, no fear, no humanity. Just a blank void.” – ANGEL, (I’ve Got You Under My Skin)
Even before the popularity of podcasts and the explosion of true crime docuseries, American society has always had a fascination with serial killers. This inquisitiveness is initially born out of finding out who they are and making sure they are caught for a sense of security but goes next level into the most pressing question: why. Why do they kill? How do they choose their victims? What made them into monsters? It’s that last question that gets the most attention, but the truth of the matter is it’s not always clear. Some have been abused, some suffer from mental illness and some are just evil for no discernable reason. Sometimes we just don’t know and that may be the most frightening prospect of all.
This lack of clarity and reason is the most haunting aspect behind Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Director John McNaughton (Mad Dog and Glory, Wild Things) brings us this stark and unblinking look into a few days in the life a monster. Notice I said “life.” We do not truly delve into Henry’s mind. We are privy to a few of his depraved thoughts, but we never get a back story or monologue about who he really is underneath. The makers of this film understand THAT journey would be too ambitious and too horrifying.
In a career that has spanned over three decades, this film features Michael Rooker’s best work. His career has seen him play every shade of good, bad and in between from Days of Thunder to Cliffhanger, to his most consumed role as bounty hunter Yondu in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy series. But nothing may prepare you for the depths and layers he brings to this role. His Henry would best be described as “the quiet type.” He is unassuming and inconspicuous. He is capable of the occasional smile to be polite, but any display of emotion seems to bring him pain. He comfortably fits into any background, either out of preference or it being the best place to scope his next victim - we never know.
Over the film’s few days, we watch as Henry becomes unintentionally entangled in the lives of Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis’ sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold). Otis has “follower” written all over him and he easily accepts the role of Henry’s protégé. Akin to real life pairings like Leopold and Loeb or The Hillside Stranglers, we see Henry in control as the dominant. He schools Otis on concepts like modus operandi aka MO, stressing the importance to kill people in a variety of ways in order to avoid a pattern. Otis eats up this tutelage with voracious delight and takes true glee in his new homicidal hobby. While I’d rather not ruin too much, I should warn about a particular gruesome massacre involving a family.
The other component of this trek through the dark side involves Tracy and her naïve attraction to Henry. At no point does Henry lead her on or show an inkling of interest but we sense Tracy’s desperation. Maybe she sees something truly redemptive in Henry or maybe she’s just intent on escaping her meager existence which includes fighting off the lecherous attention of her brother. In a film full of violence and brutality the most shocking scene may be in the climax. And while the film ends on a note of slight ambivalence, and I dare say hope, the audience has seen too much to think Henry is capable of any change or salvation.
Michael Rooker’s performance is truly groundbreaking. You can see how it became a calling card that led to supporting roles in Eight Men Out and Mississippi Burning. He is never going for an effect nor feels the need to overplay. His Henry is quiet, methodical, and sociopathic. People that cross his path, see what they want to see, at their own peril. Director McNaughton heightens this tension with a very matter of fact style that almost makes the film feel like a documentary. With the help of cameraman Charlie Lieberman, the film is brimming with static cinematography, the audience is truly taken aback by the moments of violence.
While we see and hear about wanton acts of violence in everyday media we may never get to the true why. And perhaps we are not meant to. Maybe we are simply meant to live in a never-ending state of curiosity that morphs into relent. I’m guessing that the more any of us truly knew about someone like Henry, the more we wish we could unknow