Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Why does Hollywood glorify serial killers? I’ve been looking at this misguided question and the crazy answers all day thanks to Google and my silly, yet unbreakable habit of always starting a review with my thoughts on a topic loosely based on the item in review. This time around, serial killers and the frequently voiced complaint by many that depicting such ‘monsters’ on the big screen only serves to glorify them and their awful crimes. Of course many of the people that answered this question then went on to blame Hollywood for the violence in our society, but we really can’t fault them for this. After all, it is an easy connection to make, especially given how peaceful society was in the thousands of years before movies were created. Just think, without Hollywood and their relentless drive to turn every normal human being into a remorseless killer everyone on Earth would still be living in perfect harmony with one another, our bright blue sky always made beautiful by a never-fading rainbow, our lawns graced by unicorns . . . and yeah. Want to hear my opinion on this? Hollywood frequently gives us movies about serial killers because that is what the public wants. It is as simple as that. Don’t worry, though, there is a question that can follow, one which is much more interesting to think about than the Hollywood glorification one. It is: Why does the public want this? I’d love to see how the masses answer that one.

Now, when looking at the answers to the question I stated above there were many movie titles and movie villains that were rattled off within the angry rants, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer being one of them, which proves to me that most of the people crying foul don’t even watch the movies they are denouncing. If you have seen Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer you will understand how I arrived at this conclusion. If not, well, let me just say there is no way anyone could ever interpret this movie as ‘glorifying’ the life of a serial killer. If anything, it does just the opposite.

As you can probably guess the movie focuses on a man named Henry and his life as a serial killer, only not in the way one would expect from a movie like this. Rather than getting a typical beginning, middle and end, viewers are simply dropped in and allowed to follow Henry for a few days. Because of this one almost feels like a voyeur into his life as a serial killer rather than a movie watcher, something that doesn’t happen too often with Hollywood. This voyeuristic approach begins with Henry eating lunch in a diner where he makes innocent little comments to the waitress, all while un-glorified images of dead women are occasionally flashed upon the screen. From there we watch as he observes women in a shopping center parking lot, a predatory sense present but not overly played. Eventually he chooses one and follows her home, but doesn’t end up killing her then due to her husband being there. This scene lets viewers in on something that is chilling; Henry is patient and can control his urge to kill when needed. Eventually Henry goes home for the day. He lives with a guy named Otis, a fellow ex-con who doesn’t seem all that bright and who has some serious social issues (ones that seem different from Henry’s issues). Eventually the two start killing together; all while a third member of the household, Otis’s sister Becky, remains unaware that her new home is the lair of such killers. Making things even more bizarre is the gentle, almost protective nature Henry has for Becky, one which eventually spurs an attraction toward him from her. This protective nature is especially needed because Otis is attracted to Becky and doesn’t seem to have any qualms about getting it on with his sister. Henry, however, won’t allow such a thing. Needless to say things eventually get out of hand between the three.

Now, I am not easily disturbed by movies and can pretty much handle anything Hollywood throws at me. This one, however, got under my skin and left me feeling like I needed a long hot shower afterward. It was the simple grainy realness that did it, especially during the kill scenes -- none of which were overly bloody I might add, especially by today’s standards, yet still caused me to wince -- and the unnerving gentle humane side that Henry displayed toward Becky throughout the film. Actually it was this humanity within him that really did it because you can tell it isn’t an act. Henry is capable of kindness, but in a flawed unemotional and unattached way, which is why it doesn’t prevent him from killing. It also doesn’t sway his decisions when it comes to self preservation.

All in all this movie provides an unflinching nonjudgmental look at the life of a serial killer, one which is guaranteed to leave viewers feeling uneasy and somewhat soiled, especially after realizing that while they feel nothing but hate for one of the killers in the movie, they might feel a little bit of sympathy for the other, which is just unnerving.


Will Errickson said...

I bought the 2-disc DVD of this recently but haven't brought myself to watching it again. Saw it in '90 when it came out on VHS and it was the first time I wanted to turn a movie off and get away from it. But I knew it was a great, great movie anyway and still do.

If you're interested, here's my review (which is mostly my college newspaper review from back then):

William Malmborg said...

Excellent. I will check out your review right away. I plan on buying this DVD set as well for my collection as soon as I can find it -- the store I went to today was sold out -- but like yourself probably won't be watching it right away, unless of course my girlfriend Eva is with me since she hasn't seen it yet. After that it will sit on the shelf for a long time because this isn't something you just sit down and watch when nothing else is on.