Don't Do That Otis, She's Your Sister: Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (1986)

I am constantly in search of a film whose opening shot thoroughly and evocatively establishes itself as something to be taken seriously, and am usually willing to extend this concession to an opening sequence.  Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one such film that uses an open shot that pans out disturbingly slowly affording viewers a realization of exactly what they are getting themselves into, followed by a series of back and forth scenes establishing the serial killer narrative which will unfold throughout the film.  In many instances this type of sequence would emerge somewhere in the middle of the front half of the movie to set the stakes for the remainder of the film, but that is not the case here, the stakes are known by the title and the viewer enters into the experience out of a sense of perverse curiosity.  Director John McNaughton's work in Henry is both clearly influenced by similarly abrasive auteurs like David Lynch, Michael Mann and David Cronenberg, while also creating examples of how to make aesthetically pleasing films about the most deranged and debasing of subjects and individuals.  The score for this film which could be easily lost in the violent milieu of on screen body horror and a non-linear, but, nonetheless, temporal diagetic track of the various murders, make for moments that should receive nothing more than abject disgust take on a level of serenity that challenges the viewer to first not find comfort in some sense of beauty, only to critically reprimand any sense of safety that might emerge by jumping back to the violence on screen.  I often find myself having to step back from critically engaging with a genre film, wondering if I am indeed reading too much into the narrative and am in some ways expecting more out of a director in the way of filmic theory.  With a work like Henry, however, I am certain that McNaughton is playing with cinematic conventions both in terms of the meta and the traditional genre as a means to push towards a new understanding on not only how a person reacts to cinematic violence, but, more importantly, how such preoccupations with simulated violence can allow for real societal degradation in the way of murder and rape to become ignored to the point of a troubling collective ignorance.

Henry begins with a series of shots of women, who have been brutally murdered while cutting back to images of the title character Henry (Michael Rooker) going about his rather monotonous daily routine, a clear suggestion arising that he is the one responsible for these murders, eventually verified when a woman he picks up hitchhiking is shown murdered in a living room.  Meanwhile the narrative introduces viewers to Otis (Tom Towles) a ex-convict whose work at a gas station serves as cover for his work dealing marijuana.  Otis' sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) arrives at Otis' house in need of a place to stay after the final falling out with her ex-boyfriend, an occurrence that is of little surprise to Otis,who knows of Becky's troubled past involving erotic dancing and bad relationships.  It is then revealed that Henry is Otis' roommate and the two are close drinking buddies.  Becky, intrigued by Herny's silent demeanor and overt sense of good manners, becomes instantaneously enamored with Henry, despite the frustrations and misgivings of Otis who has a rather unhealthy attachment to his sister.  After an intense altercation relating to this realization, Otis and Henry attempt to rekindle their friendship by a night out for some beers.  This night out quickly turns into buying prostitutes, which then involves Henry killing not only his prostitute, but Otis' as well when she begins to panic.  Initially hesitant to let Henry's act go unreported, Otis has a change of heart, realizing first that he would probably be arrested as well, but also because he seems to take a perverse pleasure in the act himself.  This leads to the two going on joint killing sprees, which are eventually recorded on a video camera they bum off of one of their victims.  All the while, Becky continually makes advances towards the apparently asexual Henry, leading to considerable jealousy on the part of Otis, who is suggested to be bisexual, if not outright gay, during a drug selling sequence.  As such, when he awakes at home to find Becky attempting to seduce Henry, he goes into a rage, eventually being shot by Henry, who then suggest that he and Becky leave to start a new life.  During their first night in a motel, Henry does not attempt to sleep with Becky, but merely suggests they go to sleep.  However, the film concludes with Henry driving a car down the road alone before stopping on the side of the road to unload a heavy blue folding suitcase, its contents become somewhat obvious given Henry's violent nature and his penchant for destroying women who are open in their sexual behavior.

Looking, as I have already established in quite a few films here on the blog and even at least twice this month concerning horror films, is something that is assumed to be male and carries with it a degree of objectification.  Other elements such as castration, death drives and fetishism fall into this looking and too become issues within Henry considering that the opening scene is an eye at the center of a screen looking at/confronting viewers, the deceased nature of the body responsible for this stare adds on a layer of death to the entire act.  In fact, every moment of this film possesses a considerable feel for voyeurism, as the cinematic world of Henry suggests one fully involved in the notion of cinema verite, despite being a fictionalized version of real events.  I would argue that through this low-key, realistic depiction of the life in a lower class space, McNaughton establishes a difference between the priviliged viewer (this would certainly have been the case for moviegoers at Indie cinema scapes in 1986) and the othered lower class person.  While Henry and Otis' behavior is clearly to be chastised the way the narrative flows and how the two are established as working class, affords those looking at the film to detach themselves from the still present violence by asserting that it is not something that would occur within their more well-to-do spaces.  It is a vicarious look of sorts, but in the sense that the one looking is hyper-privileged as opposed to longingly desiring an item.  Here, murder and the look upon its occurring is all associated with the primal, wherein, some portion of the psyche of Henry, and later Otis are open to being barbaric and ruthless, because they have not learned the counter to this behavior due to educational lack.  Indeed, one could even consider the gaze to be one of a death drive on the part of a privileged individual who has achieved a higher level on the hierarchy of needs, thus privileging them to look for experiences in the violent for purely philosophical or ethnographic curiosity.  Indeed, as I write this down I realize how similar this film and Steven Soderbergh's stunning Bubble become.  Both look with disconcerting pity on troubled lower class spaces, but where Soderbergh finds attempts at protection and belief in a higher calling, McNaughton discovers a sense of morally degradation.  The larger question, however, is not the ethical problems of the individuals in the respective films, but instead; how one who is given the ability to watch condemns or empathizes with the acts of those on display.

Key Scene:  The metacinematic moment involving Beck and Henry kissing, wherein Henry continually wipes his mouth, is a perfect syncopation of direction, writing and acting and is one of many great payoffs in a disturbing, yet incredibly engaging film.

Netflix Watch Instantly is a great venue to look into this film, although I intend on filling my shelf with a bluray copy in the near future.

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