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Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer – putting the bleurgh into Blu-ray

October 24, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 1 Comment

Next time you’re in a TV showroom and the staff are trying to prove how good Blu-ray is by showing you Avatar… get them to show you Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer instead.  Go on, I dare you.

Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer
(John McNaughton, US, 1986)

Alternatively – a portrait of a society, and what an unflattering portrait it is, too. Henry’s blank mirror continues to implicate us all.

Well, here’s a film that resists the glamour of Blu-ray. John McNaughton’s movie, unreleased for years and censored for many more, probably looks more squalid and nasty now that it must have then. The details of Henry’s filthy apartment are there for all to see (never mind the murder, the sink is nearly unwatchable) but the image, permanently grainy and fuzzy, remains resistant to high-definition. There’s simply no gloss.

So, while this edition of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer might be packaged as a revolutionary classic of horror, it also continues to look cheap, nasty and opportunistic. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. It’s both.

This is a weird film, at once lurid and dispassionate, in ways that would baffle the censors, and even the film’s marketers, for years. How can an exploitation movie, shot as an afterthought after funding was secured for another project that fell through, achieve such psychological precision and disquieting commentary on the nature of movie violence? And yet how can such a serious-minded art film also lapse into such Grand Guignol that it is often played for sick laughs?

The answer lies in Henry’s assertion that any serial killer who follows a pattern deserves to get caught. Hence the random, unpredictable nature of his crimes and of his film alike. If Henry has an MO, it is simply to leave his victims as they lie – something captured in the film’s opening moments, as we see past kills arranged in grisly but artfully posed tableaux, the camera panning gracefully across the crime scene as the soundtrack bears witness to what happened. Film lovers should be quick to realise that this is inspired low-budget filmmaking, but there’s also a huge amount of meaning in it because Henry himself is a blue-collar killer, one without the means to stage elaborate kills. He shows up, gets it done, moves on. And the film is wired with the knowledge that anything could happen, giving even the most banal conversations a frisson of skin-crawling danger.

The key word in the title is ‘portrait.’ Slasher movies just don’t use that kind of language, but McNaughton’s film opts largely for detachment in order to show the grubby reality of killing. Henry gets little pleasure and limited satisfaction from his life; it’s a compulsion rooted in a troubled childhood that he seems half-minded to end if he knew how to. When his flatmate’s sister comes to stay, we see the dichotomy: a courteous gentleman fuelled by hatred. But McNaughton throws a curveball – Henry’s apparent backstory never gels, the details always changing. It’s either a damaged mind in denial, or Henry is even more calculating than we thought, spinning yarns for undeserved sympathy.

And already we’re into McNaughton’s thesis of the serial killer as installation artist, someone whose work can be watched and rewatched – something that becomes even clear in the film’s two most controversial kills, in which televisions and camcorders play their part. Long before Man Bites Dog and Natural Born Killers ironised the serial killer genre, here’s a film that truly implicates the viewer in Henry’s crimes, as flatmate Otis joins him in his spree. Somehow, the crude sexual pleasure and cackling enjoyment Otis gets out of murder conspires to make Henry noble in comparison – but, of course, Otis’ is just another form of emotional damage. Anybody who doesn’t recoil as they realise McNaughton has positioned us to sit alongside these two as they play back their crimes, should also think about seeing a shrink.

McNaughton saw the two big themes of the 1980s – the cruelty of recession and the nihilism of post-modernism – and simply merged the two to create a blank amorality in which life itself becomes worthless. Of course, both of McNaughton’s subjects remain defining to the era we live in now, where recession begets rioters and a supposedly moral victory like the overthrow of Gadaffi just looks like another of Henry’s kills. This is one of those rare horror films, like Night Of The Living Dead or the early work of David Cronenberg, that is so prescient that it still looks startling, modern and frighteningly vital even now.

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One Comment

  1. permanentplastichelmet.comOct 24, 2011 at 8:10 pmReply

    Brilliant review. I'm still never watching it again, however…

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