The question of whether Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer basks in a particular sort of sickness or actually exposes it ultimately proves irrelevant.
Upon its debut in 1986, John McNaughton’s low-budget exploitation slasher Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer seemed unlikely to ever be considered a “classic” film, and yet more than 30 years after the fact, between lauded 4K restorations and platinum edition Blu-Ray discs, the film has obtained canonical status, even as it reminds us of a time when independent horror cinema was truly lean, mean and gruesome, squarely outside the realm of prestige. Even the sharpest, most pristine reprints retain the original’s 16-millimeter grit and grime, a texture that imparts the film’s unremittingly ugly worldview. The fact that each new version seems to make said grit and grime a crucial component of experiencing the film suggests that it’s this very ugliness that moviegoers appreciate most, and even still, a repulsed viewer might willingly concede the quality of the filmmaking on display. But the film’s most lasting impact isn’t the quality it upheld, but the trend it bucked and the truths it illuminated about the medium.
By ‘86, the slasher genre—and much of horror cinema, in general—had grown prosaic, focused more on errant franchise-building than craft, form or style. As the outlandish exploits of Freddy, Jason and Michael grew more tiresome with every subsequent episode, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer arrived as counterprogramming, a bleak and brutal rebuke of what audiences had come to expect from the genre. Utilizing lo-fi aesthetics and kitchen-sink realism, McNaughton shot the film in his native Chicago and made no effort to hide the city’s seediest qualities, creating a sense of real-world authenticity that had eluded slasher movies up to that point. He also dispensed with the genre’s usual stalk-and-kill framework, switching focus away from the victims and onto the title killer, Henry (Michael Rooker), his roommate and eventual protégé, Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis’ wide-eyed sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold).
When the film begins, the audience is treated to an elliptical montage portraying the gruesome outcomes of Henry’s ongoing murder spree, depicted in a series of gory tableaux. McNaughton’s camera glides over each crime scene and details each victim with slow pans and unhurried zooms, all accompanied by the sounds of piercing screams, garbled shouts and a low-key synth soundtrack. In leaving out the actual details behind each incident, McNaughton forces the viewer to fill in the blanks and create their own versions, implicating us in a way that actually helps orient us to the story that unfolds. By forcing us into Henry’s mindset, or at least giving us the space to empathize with him in a way we usually don’t with horror movie figures, the director establishes the perfect psychological tone while also setting us up for the acts of obscene cruelty that eventually transpire.
Taking a self-reflexive approach that anticipates Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, McNaughton tinkers with our conception of on-screen violence throughout Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. In one scene, Otis, who’s taken to Henry’s murderous ways after witnessing him kill two South Side sex workers, uses a camcorder to film a fight between two homeless people, at one point turning his camera directly toward the audience, directly referencing our desire to witness the violence reflected back at us. Later, he uses the same camera to film himself and Henry while committing a horrific home invasion. The sequence starts out as if in real time, detailing their insane brutality with bludgeoning realism, before an abrupt cut reveals Henry and Otis are actually back at their apartment, reminiscing over their experience with beers in hand. Otis, in particular, is so taken with his handiwork that he rewinds and watches himself rape and kill his victim frame by solitary frame, illustrating the pleasure he takes in experiencing (and re-experiencing) his own violent impulses, which plays into the audience’s own enjoyment in witnessing the same.
But where Otis’ destructive nature is twistedly understandable, Henry’s remains disquietingly elusive. Rooker’s disaffected performance is the bedrock of the film; sometimes it seems as if he’s barely acting at all, which is sort of the point. The character’s mixture of soft-spoken amiability and callous sociopathy is so thoroughly disturbing because nothing in Rooker’s face or demeanor suggests that the former is a cover for the latter. Both sides exist simultaneously, making it harder to process and scarier to witness. (It’s also perhaps the most accurate portrayal of a serial killer ever committed to screen; vicious murderers like Ted Bundy and Dennis “BTK” Rader concealed their violent behavior by assimilating into polite society.) “It’s always the same and it’s always different,” Henry admits about his murders, and the same can easily be said about slasher movies themselves, especially the kind of misogynistic violence they invariably expose and reflect. Indeed, the question of whether Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer basks in a particular sort of sickness or actually exposes it ultimately proves irrelevant. Just as we can’t reconcile the conflict of Henry’s personality, we can’t square the paradox at the center of cinematic violence, particularly as it pertains to horror movies, and to reside within this conflict proves to be the most frightening aspect of all.