Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer—John McNaughton—1986

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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a film of profound emotional impact. It takes subject  matter familiar to the movies—the psychosexual killer—makes it wholly its own, and it does this on the tail end of the biggest wave of cinematic Psychomania in history. Formally it is masterful in its deployment of mise-en-scene, cinematography, and sound design to create feelings of shame, dread, and pain. Short on terror but long on horror, it violently vascillates between boredom and revulsion. Critically revered, it was spared much of the flak that reviewers were heaping onto the pile of low-budget Killer Thrillers that video companies like MPI were pumping out in the mid 80s. Today I want to look at Henry‘s dubious status as a Slasher film, the origins of its predictably positive critical reception, and just why it still packs such an emotional wallop in 2011—while so many of its supposed brethren have become cozy relics of an undeniably Reaganite Puritanism.

I stayed in character all day. Once I went in to work, I stayed in character all day long. So after the cut, I would leave the set and go to my room, close the door, and not talk to anybody. I wouldn’t talk to anyone all day long during the filming of it. I would just do my work and go away. Come in, action, do my job, do what I needed to do, and then go away. And that’s what helped me through the entire piece. It was way too difficult to go in and out of character, especially then, because I was young as an actor. I didn’t know how this film stuff worked. In a play, you stay in character pretty much almost all the way through until the evening’s over. So that’s what I did here. I used that technique. I stayed in character as much as I possibly could all day long, or all night long, whatever the times were on the day we worked. People thought that was a little weird, that I’d just go away, that I wouldn’t talk to them and stuff. Then they saw my room, and I had all my mirrors covered up, taped up. I didn’t want to see images of myself, and I kept the room dark or black. And I just stayed in the room and just prepared for the next scene. So yeah, it was kind of weird and crazy, but that was a technique that seemed like it worked.—Michael Rooker in an A.V. Club Interview


“It ain’t what she done, it’s how she done it.”—Henry

Conservative estimates say that the “Golden Age” of the Slasher ended in 1984 with the release of Nightmare on Elm Street. While Slashers certainly existed as early as 1974 and have been produced up to this very day, the years between 1978 (Halloween) and 1984 were the height of the sub-genre both in terms of commerical viability and aesthetic purity. In his review of Henry for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum derisively called it the “best Slasher movie I’ve seen in several years.” Fellow Chicagoan Roger Ebert also deemed it a “slasher”, and while both critics praised the film they also expressed their general distaste for its ilk.

Left to Right: Ottis, Becky, and Henry—the grimy, incestuous love triangle that gives the film its narrative conflict.

Rosenbaum does a good job running down the history of the Slasher, and he rightly connects its origins to two films from 1960: Psycho and Peeping Tom. However, his dismissal of the cycle’s relevance seems disingenous to me. Early in his review he asks “how much concrete edification has grown out of this close study?”, but later he answers his own question by referencing Robin Wood‘s many brilliant studies of American Horror—and the “body-count” film in particular. The repetition compulsion he decries in the Slasher is certainly present in the Musicals (Romantic Fantasy) and Westerns (Historical Revisionism) that he lauds. Henry is barely a Slasher film at all, and the two Chicago natives (the movie was filmed on location in the Windy City) seem to praise the film more as a rebuke to what they dislike in others than as an example of what they like in this particular example.

“It’s always the same, and it’s always different”—Henry

"Henry" doesn't shy away from the same indulgent special effects that made the Slasher cycle famous, but it balances this with a painterly sense of framing and careful attention to tone. This shocking scene is the culmination of a tracking shot through a decimated hotel room, and the uncanny violence creates an unbearable horror.

For all my bluster, Henry does still feature some of the hallmarks of a Slasher. It’s about a psycho killer with sexual hangups; it features violence, gore, and numerous victims, and it has a low-budget. However, that’s really where the similarities end. Defining the film as a Slasher proper is extremely problematic, especially in a genre so rigidly codified. Slashers follow the victims, not the killer. Slashers employ humor and camp to distance the audience from the violence. They utilize POV shots and shaky cams to transmogrify the viewer from victim to perpetrator. Slashers also use nudity and predictable sexual scenarios to titillate the audience into a frenzy that mirrors the killer’s, and finally Slashers feature a Final Girl—a semi-Feminist embodiment of the classical male hero that has a psychological connection to the killer.

Henry‘s documentary-esque bleakness, its umbilical attachment to Henry’s own twisted psyche, and its utter lack of perspective on his victims and their lives set it in stark opposition to Slasher dogma. It tells the story of an ex-con named Henry living with his old prison buddy Ottis. Henry is a part-time exterminator, but unbenownst to Ottis, he’s also a full-time serial killer. When Ottis’s sister Becky leaves her husband and moves in with them she develops an instant attraction to the practically mute Henry. Henry gets Ottis involved in his “hobby,” and they procure a video camera to record some of their exploits. Ottis’s incestuous urges—alluded to earlier in the film—eventually become too much for him, and when he tries to rape Becky, Henry turns on him and puts him down like a rabid dog. Becky and Henry run-off together and shack up in a motel, but in the morning we see Henry leave alone and dump a heavy suitcase—dripping blood—into a ditch.

“He isn’t Jason. He isn’t Freddy. He’s real.”—Tagline on a poster for Henry

Henry‘s tightrope walk between resembling a Slasher but transcending its mores, is a result of it strip mining those two treasure troves of terror from 1960 that spawned the legions of imitators that would set in stone a code of laws known as The Slasher. By reaching back into the genre’s own unconscious, he finds demons thought dead—and psychological colors long forgotten.

From Psycho the film takes Henry’s abusive dead mother, the bleak visual aesthetic, and its unsentimental tone. From Peeping Tom it takes its conspiculously awkward protagonist, the tender relationship between hunter and prey, and most obviously its interest in the moving image as an artifact of violence. If you look at the bevy of murder-mayhem movies from the era you’ll find almost no interest in these elements. When Black Christmas, The Toolbox Murders, and Halloween codified the genre’s signifiers in the late-70s, they missed some of their forefather’s most potent material. Henry reaches back beyond the craze to find the crazy, and in doing so creates both the ultimate Slasher film and something that can barely be called a “Slasher” at all.

“Anything good on TV?”—Ottis

That Henry was critically acclaimed should come as no surprise. With its roots in the culturally acceptable soil of Hitchock/Powell as opposed to Carpenter/Craven it actually has an artistic legacy to feed on, and the incindiary way in which it breaks the rules of the then-homogenous Dead-Teenager movie gave critics the perfect excuse to go gaga for Henry‘s elevated brand of the grotesque.

While the film was made in 1985 it wasn’t released until 1989 because of issues between the producers and the distributor. So by the time critics got to see it, the Slasher wave had long since passed—and without ever fulfilling the aesthetic promise of its illustrious early years. Henry came along and blew every expectation out of the water. With its title and its ad campaign, I’m sure critics like Rosenbaum and Ebert sat down in the theatre expecting less Hitchcock and more Slumber Party Massacre.

Mainstream critics—which even the esteemed Mr. Rosenbaum indubitably is—value “realism” and “plausibility” above all other critical criterion, and because Henry is an ostensibly realistic and plausible account of the daily life of a maniac it was easy for such critics to come out on the side of what is not only the most naturalistic film of its kind, but a uniquely disturbing, depressing, and disheartening example of what is often a notoriously irreverent genre.

However, the unreality of the Slasher exists for a reason. Slasher films are Fairy Tales—stories of boogeymen and adolescents coming-of-age together through shared trauma. No one watches a Slasher and wants to be Jason or Freddy; you’re meant to identify with the victims. The POV shots and titillating sensuality during the murders are in place to pump your lower chakras for energy, build you up to climax, and then rip your guts out with unbearable scenes of protracted mutilation. The identification with the killer is always working uphill—against likeable protagonists and a narrative that focuses 99% of its effort on their character development. With repulsive, revolting killers and charming co-eds, the audience’s sympathies should be obvious.

Henry‘s reversal of that paradigm produces a truly perverse story where the audience’s sympathy is aligned time-and-time again with Henry. He’s not only the most disturbing serial killer in cinematic history—he’s the most cuddly! This is genetic; its father—Peeping Tom—and its mother—Psycho both feature protagonists that veer between awkward charm and creepy leers, and of course Psycho features the greatest scene of cross-identification in the movies, when we’re left alone with Norman after his visit to the shower.

Sympathy for Henry is not only a result of his cinematic ancestors and near omnipresence in the narrative, but also through the character of Ottis, who is so repellent that one is forced to look at Henry as a kind of lesser-of-two-evils. By the time he “saves” Becky from Ottis’s incestuous urges he’s almost become a romantic, heroic figure—only a stone’s throw from John Wayne in The Searchers. Compared to films like My Bloody Valentine, The Burning, or even Silent Night, Deadly Night—all traditional Slashers that lend some sympathy to their twisted killers—Henry turns its monster into an avenging angel, and in its way—with its step-by-step instructions on DIY serial-killerdom—it’s quite a dangerous film. Of course, like The Searchers, Henry isn’t fully on the side of its maniac—the ending assures us of this if nothing else, but it sure goes through a lot of trouble to make you think it is.

“I wanna watch it again.”—Ottis

Of course, this proximity to its poison is part of what gives Henry such bite. Slasher films don’t “sugar coat” their violence like Ebert says in his review—I question his sanity at the suggestion—but they do take a very different moral position than this Portrait of a Serial Killer. The extreme gore in a movie like Friday the 13th is absolutely there to excite the audience—and its lack of a sugary coating is what provokes this response, but that dark energy stands in the context of a very different overall project at work in the film: the transformation and elevation of a female action hero beyond her societally mandated station. In many ways, your typical Slasher could be titled Portrait of the American Teen Girl, and therein lies the distinction—even in their deployment of violence.

Because Slashers focus so much screen time, characterization, and emotional investment on the victims—in a way a much nobler, but less intense, approach—they counter this with an intesely viseral connection to the killer. The kills in a Slasher upset: they make you giggle, glance around, poke your friends, cover your eyes, and reel back. The kills in Henry just make you feel sick.

Henry and Ottis film and watch a home invasion/triple murder they commit, and the intimations of "Peeping Tom" are unmistakable. Henry, like "Peeping Tom"'s Mark, is tortured by what he's seeing, but Ottis "wants to watch it again." The film draws a distinction between the "civilized" Henry and the "barbarous" Ottis, and this deserves further inquiry.

A consistent round-up of critics report shame, humiliation, and shock as some common emotional responses to the violence in Henry, and every critic mentions that it’s far more disturbing than your average chop-em-up. Its originality in this realm is not a lack of on-screen gore—in the first few minutes we’re treated to a plethora of gruesome tableaux worthy of any Golden Age Slasher—nor on-screen violence—the videotaped torture of a family is far more graphic than any murder in any Slasher, simply by virtue of its cold sadism. Instead I think what makes the violence in Henry so affecting originates in both formal and narrative elements: formally, the sound design and and grainy cinematography; narratively, Henry’s own personal rationalization, and the unpleasant way that Henry’s habits mirror our own.

Sound + Vision

Rosenbaum rightly notes that the sound design in Henry is a large part of its powerful emotional effect. In the opening sequence we’re treated to a back-and-forth between a gore tableaux and a scene of Henry’s banal everyday activity. As the camera pans over Henry’s (at this point in the plot, only presumed) victims, we hear a muffled struggle and screaming. This is one of the most intense effects I’ve ever seen deployed in a horror film, and more than any other formal aspect, it gives Henry its place in the Horristory books.

By giving us the results of violence visually, and the action of violence aurally, McNaughton forces the audience into an extremely complicitous role with his protagonist. Our eyes scan the mise-en-scene and pick up clues (nudity, cigarette burns, a broken bottle) that are connected to sounds (moaning, screaming, glass shattering) and we are forced to do the math.

"Henry"'s final shot is more indicative of its tasteful—but terrifying—style. Everything is revealed with a few smears of red and the screams heard on the soundtrack.

This technique resurfaces at the end of the film, when we’ve come to erroneously believe that Henry’s fallen in love with Becky. As he leaves the hotel room and ditches the bleeding suitcase, we hear the same type of muffled screams on the soundtrack. The conclusion—unmistakable, it also gives the film a beautiful symmetry. At the start Henry’s persona is falsely divided for the audience into normal (eating, driving, working) and abnormal (stalking, killing). The ending brings these together and shows the tableauxs and Henry’s daily life with temporal and spatial continuity.

Visually the film—shot on grainy 16mm—portrays the world as an abbatoir of shadows and scum. Chicago is transformed into a Langian mousetrap, their apartment—a dingy hamster cage, and people’s faces into ravaged portraits of desperation. The cinematography works with the narrative to force the audience to see Henry as less ugly than his surroundings.

“Open your eyes Ottis, look at the world. It’s either you or them…you know what I mean.”

Henry’s justification for his “hobby” is so offhand, so disturbingly in line with generic, everyday rationalizations we all make, that in the film—next to the grease stain that is Ottis and the afterthought that is Becky—he’s awarded the sick role of everyman. Right after Henry explains to Ottis that its “them or us”, we see Becky washing a woman’s hair who says “people spit at you, I wish I was lyin’, you can’t have a normal decent time in the city anymore.”

The mise-en-scene in "Henry" is so filthy that the film takes on both greater realism and greater horror. Like its cinematic ancestors, "Henry" lies somewhere between documentary and Fairy Tale. It's so bleak and "realistic" that it crosses over into a kind of frenzied darkness.

The film makes sure we realize that the world is disgusting, the world is violent, and the world is explicitly “out to get you.” The TV salesmen that they murder is condescending, smarmy, and a con-artist; while they’re going around trying out their new camera they record some random people brutally beating and robbing an old man. Even Ottis’s parole officer seems more annoyed that one of his other parolees got caught than disturbed that he committed murder again. The implication is clear. Henry may be a murderer, but he’s merely an extreme example of the dog-eat-dog world that we all live in.

His modus operandi may also be a little too close to home for the audience. Henry never kills people that wrong him. When Ottis’s pass at a high school boy is rebuked, he goes home in a rage. “I should cut his head off,” he says, but Henry says no. Henry teaches him that when someone makes you feel that way, you go kill some random person—someone you have absolutely no connection to—so that the police can’t tie you to the victim. This mirrors our own daily lives, where we swallow small grievances—from our boss, our spouse, our children—and take it out on others later.

Henry gives Ottis lessons in "how-to-be-a-serial-killer" that would make anyone squeamish.

Most cinematic serial killers are portrayed as sexual sadists; they derive erotic energy from murder and mayhem. Henry is far removed from that kind of sensuous drive. Henry just does what we all do—albeit in an exaggerated and grotesque form. By giving him such banal motives, the film, once again, places the audience in Henry’s shoes, and its in this constant identification with the object of our disgust that Henry‘s true power lies.

“Feel better?”—Henry to Ottis after his first random killing

I love Slashers; they’re provocative, funny, and sometimes even frightening. Besides the Musical, they’re really the only genre devoted to actually listening to women talk about women’s problems and interests since the Talking Cure Melodramas of the 30s and 40s. However, for all my love of the form, none of them come close to the kind of gut wrenching emotions that pepper Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. However, that’s mostly because it isn’t really a Slasher. Slashers don’t make you identify with their killer, and Henry isn’t all that campy. Slashers are sly nightmares—Fairy Tale jokes designed to teach morality to a generation growing up after the sexual revolution. Henry is no joke.

And Henry himself, is no joke either.

One Response to "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer—John McNaughton—1986"
  1. Chris says:

    Know this article is old, but I had to give my props. This is fantastic writing. I was truly, horrifying shaken by this film when I first watched it, and your analysis not only rings true but is stated quite elegantly. Great writing!

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