REVIEW: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986, John McNaughton / M.Rooker, T.Towles)

Monday, 24 December 2012























I haven't watched much of serial-killer movies lately, so I thought to check out some movie out of the older ones. Last one I saw was probably Zodiac, the newer one, and comparing Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to Zodiac, the formerly mentioned gets much down deeper into the storyline and characters than Henry. This movie was directed in 1986 by John McNaughton, director, who hasn't really directed that many movies. He's most known for his sexy crime-drama from 1998 called Wild Things. Henry is perhaps more comparable to slightly less story driven slasher Maniac from 1980.

McNaughton does respectively good job directing this serial killer film. The story of Henry as I understand is mostly fictional, and very loosely based on real-life character named Henry, who after being caught by the police of a murder, confessed several other murders too.

The story revolves around Henry (Michael Rooker), a serial killer, who goes around killing random people by different ways around the city without much reason what so ever. In addition two more stars in the film are Henry's old friend Otis (Tom Towles), and his sister Becky (Tracy Arnold), who looks like your typical "girl next door".

The movie begins directly at the killing events, showing Henry meeting several people and behaving like regular gentleman, then jumping over the actual murder-events, directly into the camera-shots of showing dead bodies lying around, the bodies of people who had just ran into Henry. This movie rarely shows the actual events, the murders, especially in the beginning of the movie (it saves a few for later sequence). It's more like that "smart" crime movie which shows before-after camera-shots, and lets viewer connect those events, imaging by himself what Henry must have done to the victims. This is both good and bad. That style is really artistic and leaves viewer space for imagination, but also reduces amount of gore, blood and horror in the film - which leaves space for final kick of tension. As notorious as this movie was claimed at the time of it's release, it's not as violent visually than Maniac or The New York Ripper. That being said, there's still a few selected scenes which may be too much for a sensitive person.


(Otis filming a guy getting beat, while Henry's eating a burger)

Back to the story... After killing some people randomly, such as the friendly waitresses in coffee house, and a hitchhiker-girl in his car, Henry then arrives to his old friend Otis' house, who has been released from prison bit more earlier than Henry. Otis being friendly, offers Henry a place to stay and sleep in his apartment, where he also meets Becky, Otis' sister, living temporarily under the same roof.

Henry's maniac side is shown very directly from the beginning, while Otis at first looks like quite regular dumb-guy working at a gas station. His personality is just a bit of a rude side without much manners, and he's not very bright either, and one can soon sense there's something wrong with this guy too. While Henry and Otis get together for some beers, Henry takes Otis to one of his killing-trips around the city, letting Otis' own maniac side loose as well, as Henry offers Otis a chance to join him to kill someone.

Henry and Otis soon realize that they have some things in common, and they begin their killing spree together. However, serial killing is sensitive subject for these two maniacs, especially for Henry, and they soon notice they are growing apart on the matter. Henry and Otis find out they are different kinds of serial killers, and Henry has some strict rules that he subconsciously follows and respects. While Henry, being more straight forward maniac with pretentious respect for women, although killing them, hates sexual abusers - Otis is revealed to have a lust for sexual abuse too. This will raise controversy between the two killer-friends, and arrival of the Otis' sister Becky, who Henry seems to like, and Otis seems to have lust to, won't help the situation either...

The movie doesn't try to make much sense for reasons behind every event and characters. All there is revealed of Henry, for instance, is that he has been jailed for killing his mother, who made him wear a dress, while forced to watch her sleeping with several men, when he was young boy. That's pretty much all there is to it. Makes some sense for defining Henry's maniac personality, but doesn't explain anything more in depth. It's more like just a quick reference. There isn't explanation for Otis, however.

While Henry seems like stone cold killer with gentleman manners, after Becky gets to know about Henry's past, she opens up about her own past telling how she has been sexually abused as a child. For a blink of an eye viewer sees, that Henry can feel sympathy for this poor young woman, being even "protective". While it seems that Henry is actually falling for Becky, and starts caring about her for real, the road of a maniac is a lonely one after all...

Unlike Zodiac, this movie does not really build up the character backgrounds to the viewer that much before things speed up. When you start watching "Henry", you're dragged to the speeding events instantly without knowing much about our killer at the first place. The beginning of the movie is like fast-forwarded part of several killings by Henry at some point of his serial-killer "career", and then the movie jumps straight into the "love triangle" between Henry, Otis, and Becky, with some more kills along the way by the two "gentleman".

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer presents sort of a fast-forward-ride of partly career about "Henry". The story is lacking a bit, but is the movie entertaining? Well yes, quite. The movie doesn't give the beginning and the end for Henry's own story, but it presents part of it, and resolves the "love triangle" between Henry, Otis, and Becky, completely. The movie actually tells the love triangle-story (in darkest meaning possible that you can imagine that word in your mind), rather, than Henry's full life-story, and that one is well presented with plot twists and with sinister ending.

The highlights here are good acting of Michael Rooker, who does probably his best role of all time, at least the best one I've ever seen from him. He's very believable as a serial killer, and does much better job than in Cliffhanger for example. The "love-triangle" is also intelligently presented and never gets boring as things evolve and keep the viewer glued to the television screen. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer doesn't hesitate to present morbid topics such as Henry's and Becky's sexual abuse in their childhood, or Otis forcing his own sister to sleep with him. Tom Towles also plays role of a guy with low IQ, who eventually becomes murderer and sexual abuser himself, quite memorably too. The gore factor, however, isn't quite close to the likes of Maniac and The New York Ripper, despite Henry being quite violent movie too.

My favorite scene (*spoiler alert*) would probably be Otis and Henry visiting together to a crappy warehouse-like television store without having enough money to buy, eventually ending up killing the big-mouthed store-owner with a TV crushed to his head, and stealing expensive full-color television as well as video-camera, which will provide some sinister fun for their upcoming deeds... but the ending managed to surprise too, just don't want to spoil that one here, but it was very clever indeed (although slightly predicted).

Camera work is well executed, and filming locations vary from Otis' house to dark alleys road tunnels setting the dark tone for the movie, along with simple but sinister soundtrack. While movie seems to lack bit of a direction in the beginning, it finds the reason with love-triangle and manages to be enjoyable ride, despite having bit of a randomness in the air with it's events, and falling bit too short (83minutes) to make very strong story out of it.

However, movie like this, without very deep meaning behind things, would had needed bit more gore to be more striking and memorable ride. There's very few murder-scenes, which actually show the actual kills, rather than just the before-after camera-shots, and when the kills are shown, they aren't quite shocking. I'd had enjoyed this movie more, if it was tad more brutal (I apologize for sounding like a maniac myself). It could had been leaning more towards crime/horror fields, while it's now clearly crime/drama with "shock-factor" of something like score 4/10.


(Typical "body-shot" scene after the events that weren't shown directly - not so shocking)

That being said, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer falls above average score with it's solid acting, entertaining love-triangle-relationships and stylish cinematography. Recommended for anyone who likes crime-based movies, and especially for those who like serial-killer flicks. This might not be the most brutal one, or have the most deep story, but it's a "fun" ride. Still not recommended to watch after 10pm if you're sensitive person.



The Good

  • Love-triangle is interesting
  • Michael Rooker tops himself
  • Unhesitant to take on sinister topics


The Bad

  • Not enough gore
  • The story lacks a bit
  • Falls short on running time





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