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‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 04, 1990


John McNaughton
Michael Rooker
Not rated

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"Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" is the portrait of a predator, pure and simple, and in that, its ambitions are scaled back almost to the bone. The movie, which fictionalizes the story of mass murderer Henry Lee Lucas, isn't a psychological study in the conventional sense. John McNaughton, the film's director, doesn't attempt to put us inside Henry's thought processes so that we can make sense of them. He and screenwriter Richard Fire restrict us to a cruel outside view. We watch horrified from a distance as Henry (Michael Rooker) goes about his murderous business, prowling, singling out his victims, making the kills. And where we expect to see passion or violence or release, we see only the casual disengagement of an assembly-line worker.

It's precisely Henry's coldblooded affectlessness that is meant to shock and disturb us. But "Henry" leaves us feeling more numbed than moved. Half art film, half schlock-horror cheapie, "Henry" isn't quite sure what it wants to be. From its opening shot -- a long, dreamy camera move around the corpse of a woman, lying all in a heap with a slight smile on her face -- it's unrelievedly ugly. And yet there's a kind of "conceptual" white space surrounding the barbarity -- it lives in its own art bubble. The movie has a grainy, low-budget scuzziness that some may read as directness or honesty. And McNaughton has opted for a kind of documentary flatness of style -- a blank style for a blank subject.

McNaughton's Henry is a man almost devoid of normal human feeling -- a beast, a killing machine. Most of the film's action takes place on the seamier side of Chicago, in the squalid flat Henry shares with his drug-dealing friend Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis's sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold). In most of its details, it feels like what it is -- a small-budget film made for limited release. The acting is clumsy, the dialogue awkward, and the exchanges almost comically blunt. When Becky shares a story about her childhood, telling how her father used to sneak into her room, Henry tops it with a lurid tale of how he killed his mother. Only he can't quite get it straight. (First he says he shot her, then that he stabbed her.)

In their rough, schematic fashion, these scenes function as an explanation for Henry's action; they're the filmmakers' attempt to redeem the story with some sort of social meaning. But McNaughton can't resolve the contradictions in his material. When he zeroes in on Henry, the soundtrack resounds with portentous thunderclaps and muffled screams. But when the crucial killing moment comes and, say, a victim's head has to be sawed off, the director pours on the slurpy "Friday the 13th" sound effects.

Given this context, it's hard to know how to react to a scene like the one in which Henry and Otis torture a suburban housewife in front of her husband, snap her son's neck, then kill her. Watching these scenes -- which the murderers record with a video camera and play over and over again -- we feel as if we've been drawn into something we didn't quite expect; as if, unwittingly, we've become accomplices in the making of a snuff film.

There's a grotesque horror in these scenes, and it gets into your system. What you may wonder, though, is why you needed to be subjected to it. What you want "Henry" to be is "Taxi Driver" -- a movie that, while avoiding facile explanations, knows what it wants to say about its subject. The point McNaughton seems to make about his protagonist is that he's dead inside. In one scene he gazes into a mirror, and there's absolutely nothing in his eyes. The void looks into the void. But the emptiness in Henry seems like an artistic convenience or, worse, an evasion. What we suspect, finally, is that the deficiencies belong more to the artist than to his subject.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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