When films turn serial killers into pop icons, they trivialize not only the idea of murder, but also of monsters. Once we can quantify a monster as representing evil, we distance ourselves from this representation and can pat ourselves on the back for embodying goodness. But are those monstrous qualities really that far away from us? Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer doesn’t so much bring us closer to the serial murderer; it reminds us of our culpability as spectators. Rather than the vicarious thrills of a hack-and-slash thriller, John McNaughton’s film rubs our noses in the lack of empathy required to do harm to others. Evil, then, becomes the absence of a conscience—the lack of foresight to see that one is doing harm. No doubt, that realization would be shattering, but the character of Henry (Michael Rooker) is never arrives at that catharsis. And that’s hopefully what separates him from us.
The low budget the filmmakers had to work with clearly contributed to the film’s spare, minimalist look; the flat lighting schemes and naturalistic Chicago setting ground this brutal endeavor in reality. As played by Rooker in his breakthrough role, Henry is a shambling, quiet, soft-spoken loner with a warped sense of integrity. He speaks about killing as if it were his God-given right, unquestioning and sincere. This charismatic sense of self attracts Becky (Tracy Arnold), the sister of Henry’s dim-witted ex-convict friend, Otis (Tom Towles). Even as we hope her sincere, if misguided, attraction to Henry will lead him down a path of redemption, the road the film travels is so rigorously downbeat one quickly gets the sense there’s no hope for anyone here.
The film’s opening details Henry’s sojourns into coffee shops and shopping malls; scenes of him driving around the slushy winter streets of Chicago are intercut with lingering “still life” images of the corpses he’s left in his wake. But the sequence is a deranged parody of art, as the bodies are presented in their full and unadorned, wretched lifelessness. When Henry moves in with Otis and Becky, we already fully comprehend what he’s capable of, yet when Henry delivers his confessional to Becky about how he killed his mother, it arouses a certain pathos. A foolish pathos, as it turns out. One quickly picks up on Henry’s inability to sort truth from memory: He starts off claiming that he shot his mother, then claims he stabbed her, and when Becky calls him out on his inconsistencies, all he can do is mutter, “Yeah, that’s right. I shot her.”
As Henry brings on Otis as his gleeful accomplice, the film builds compelling scenes about our relationship to violence: The obnoxious stolen TV salesman “deserves” to be killed because he’s rude, whereas later in the film the husband, wife, and child killed during a home invasion “don’t deserve it” because they’re presented as more sympathetic. McNaughton has made note of how he wanted audiences to start asking themselves why they’re watching the film. Indeed, Portrait of a Serial Killer could be taken as a feel-bad creep show about bad men and their unfortunate victims. But it has something more revealing as its theme: our desire to see only the perceived best parts in ourselves—and our inability to see when we are destroying those around us. As an emotional map, the film is decidedly raw, personal, and unrelenting.
The rough-hewn look of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer screams low budget, but that gritty realism contributes greatly to its impact. The sound is well mixed, particularly in its interweaving of the austere score, and all of the dialogue is audible.
John McNaughton's commentary is polite and contemplative, coming off more like a friendly neighbor than a cinematic provocateur like, say, Abel Ferrara. He goes into great detail about the ingenuity of making movies for no money, and the blissful ignorance of not knowing the "right" way to make movies. He also discusses how shortsighted financiers had shelved the project for five years, and his underground efforts at getting the movie out there. He credits the film's emergence as a cult classic through the efforts of partisans as diverse as rogue artist Joe Coleman and mainstream critic Roger Ebert. This inspiring tale is retold in the 52-minute documentary "Portrait: The Making of Henry," which features interviews with all the major cast and crew. Aside from being a tale of perseverance to get a well-made film out there, it's also a testament to how seriously the creators took the material. The counterpart, which views serial killers as objects of hype and exploitation, is a separate documentary about Henry Lee Lucas as part of a sensational DVD series called "The Serial Killers." Offering lurid anecdotes about Henry's sex crimes, it's meant to goose the viewer in a way the feature film never does. Also included is an assemblage of deleted scenes (without sound, but commented on by McNaughton) that show lowbrow comic antics of Henry and Otis that seem somehow off, and rightfully cut from the film.
Twenty years after its theatrical release, the John McNaughton film has lost none of its impact.