Rob Lozak is the admin for the Facebook page, The Saturday Morning Vault. So, maybe this piece should have posted yesterday. Then again, as the topic for today’s piece couldn’t be farther from the hi-jinks and antics of Looney Tunes , the spooky mysteries of Scooby and the gang, or the whatever the Hell FooFur did, maybe today is a more suitable day. Really though, did anybody actually watch FooFur? I assume from its quick cancellation that, no, they didn’t.
For his 3rd round of Halloween Horrors, Rob takes a look at John McNaughton’s 1986 film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer; one of the more grim and grisly tales of insanity and murder to come out of the 1980’s. As Rob’s previous entries include the slasher parody Student Bodies and the religion-based horrors of The Prophecy, it’s nice to see him consistently approach drastically different film styles with regularity.
All that said, none of what happens in Henry is as sick and sadistic as what happened on The Snorks. Sure, there were no decapitations or families being murdered on that show, but as any child of the 80s that made the mistake of watching it can tell you, it was like being murdered on the inside. Slowly.
This Halloween season, I’d like to suggest a fun game to play with your friends. Introduce them to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but don’t tell them anything about it other than the name of the movie. While most die-hard horror fans are familiar with the very grim and disturbing Henry, to everyone else it is an unknown quantity. And that’s where the fun begins! Oh, and please note, you may not have any friends left after this viewing is complete.
You see, if you don’t know anything about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer other than its title, you might not know what to expect. You might think it’s some goofy direct to video horror movie. To some the title sounds a bit silly, suggesting a breaking of the 4th wall, and might be a genre parody film, similar to Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (another excellent movie, by the way). However, after the first 10 minutes, they’ll quickly know they’re watching something very different, and if they make it to the end they may very well be scarred for life. That’s sort of what happened to me, after all.
Before I get into my little story of the first time I watched it, let me briefly recap what Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is, and give you a little background on it. This is a low budget movie about a drifter, appropriately named “Henry”; a cold and very competent serial killer, played by Michael Rooker at his unemotional best. The story involves a few days in his life, along with his dimwitted and easily influenced partner-in-crime Otis, and Otis’ sister, Becky, who was more or less born with the word “victim” on her forehead.
When the movie came out in 1986, slasher movies were arguably at their height and being released on a weekly basis it seemed. You couldn’t swing a machete without hitting a homicidal maniac who was trying to dismember a teenager. Henry wasn’t that kind of a horror movie though. It was in fact, the anti-slasher. When Henry kills someone in this movie, there’s nothing glamorous about it. There is no spectacle, no funny one-liners, and no clever camera tricks. The filmmakers used its low budget to its favor and created a grim and very realistic film that seemed more like a documentary and, at times, a snuff film. Throughout this piece I’ve made jokes (we can debate later whether or not they’re funny), but rest assured there was nothing even slightly funny about Henry. This was a disturbing and unsettling piece of cinema.
Critical reception was mostly positive. Many thought it was brilliant and praised its straight-forward sober realism, though a few thought it was simply too violent and disturbing to be “good”. Censors, on the other hand, were much less divided. They universally thought it was highly offensive and slapped it with an X rating. The rating created controversy that brought Henry some attention, but also kept it out of a lot of theaters and doomed it to just barely achieving cult status.
So, let’s get back to my experience with the movie shall we? I was introduced to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in a horror film class I took in college back in 1998, where I went in knowing absolutely nothing about the movie. In fact, despite this being a class made up of film students and movie geeks, none of my two dozen fellow students had actually seen it, and only a few had even heard of it. Remember, this was the late 90’s and it was still a VHS world where Blockbuster Video was the reigning king. The “king’s” policy was to not carry movies that were rated X or NC-17, which made Henry unavailable for viewing. The only chance anyone had to see this movie was if they were lucky enough to have a “mom and pop” video store nearby that carried it, and by this time King Blockbuster had done a pretty good job of making sure there weren’t many of those left. Needless to say, it wasn’t a huge surprise that no one had seen it.
When our teacher announced we would be watching Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, all I could think of was, “Dear lord, what a ridiculous title! What kind of movie is this supposed to be? A comedy?” After thinking it over, I finally decided that it was most likely a British horror comedy that probably starred one member of Monty Python, but not Eric Idle. I can’t remember how I settled on this idea, but god knows I couldn’t have been more wrong.
This particular class started a little unusually. On most days, the professor would say a few things about the movie first to prepare us as to why the film was considered important, saving the main lecture for the following day. That wasn’t the case this time. Instead, she just waited until we were all there, and started the film. For the next hour and a half we sat there, watching this gritty film that almost looked like a documentary. And we watched Henry kill people. Sometimes it was in view of the camera. Sometimes it was just implied. But it wasn’t goofy. No one chuckled. And John Cleese never showed up.
Usually at the end of every film, the class would break up and we’d all discuss what we just watched as we made our way out of the building. Not after watching Henry. We all sat there for a minute, trying to process what we had just seen. A whole class of horror movie fans was left stunned. After a minute or so, people slowly started to get up, pack their bags, and walk down the hallway without saying a word. We were too busy processing what we had just watched. The only person in the room who was showing any kind of emotion was our slightly amused professor, who in the next class confessed to setting us up by sending us in unprepared.
Our professor had turned a viewing of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer into a game to shock her students, and now I pass that game onto you to play with your friends. In truth, once the shock subsided and I absorbed it a bit, I started to realize how good of a movie Henry really was, and now it’s one of my favorites. Whether or not your friends will come to appreciate it as much as I have will probably depend on the individual. You know who your cool friends are, and which ones might be traumatized, so choose wisely. Then again, your cool friends have probably already seen Henry. So, instead maybe just rewatch a classic with them this Halloween instead.