Henry – Portrait of a Serial Killer



USA 1986 (commercially released 1990) : John McNAUGHTON : (83-)90 mins

Though never a headline-grabbing cause celebre like The Exorcist or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Henry – Portrait of a Serial Killer is if anything an even more frustrating example of Britain’s post-video-nasty climate of censorial interference. Made in 1986 and shown in the US four years later, the film endured a spectacularly stormy relationship with the censors on both sides of the Atlantic, taking two years to get through America’s MPAA and one year with our very own BBFC. But now we’re finally able to see the full 90-minute version, either on the big screen (for two weeks at the Other Cinema off Piccadilly Circus) or at home, on DVD and VHS.

If anything, the latter is the most disturbing option, as the most controversial and interfered-with section shows Henry (Michael Rooker) and his animalistic partner-in-crime Ottis (Tom Towles) calmly sitting on their sofa watching footage of their murderous exploits, which they’ve filmed on a clunky video-camera. This restoration confirms Henry as a descendant of the original ‘scopophiliac’ epic, Michael Powell’s 1959 Peeping Tom, and a precursor of deliberately provocative explorations of screen violence like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and the Belgian black comedy Man Bites Dog.

Because there’s certainly a lot more to Henry – Portrait of a Serial Killer than its rather lurid, sensational title would imply. Though originally intended as a commercial exercise in cheap ‘exploitation’ cinema, the film transcends its genre (and budgetary) limitations to stand alongside the likes of The Stepfather and River’s Edge as a savage time-capsule critique of America’s social alienation and breakdown during the Reagan eighties. Drifter Henry, his former jail buddy Ottis and Ottis’s beautician sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) face a daily struggle to make ends meet in minimum-wage Chicago, with financial considerations absolutely paramount: “I was hoping for a little more work,” Henry tells his boss when he starts a job as a pest fumigator. “So was I,” comes the less-than-sympathetic reply.

According to McNaughton, “The characters that interest me are the unglamorous ones, the not particularly successful ones. I’ve worked in factories and steel-mills – these people have interesting lives, and nobody’s there to sing their song.” Henry’s ‘song’ is rather more Nick Cave than Woody Guthrie: brutalised since his earliest childhood, this bull of a man gratifies his impulses through murderous violence, articulating his philosophy to Ottis in vocabulary straight from America’s rapacious ‘me generation’: “Open your eyes – look at the world. It’s either you or them!”

21st April, 2003
(90-minute version seen on VHS, 16th April 2003)

click here for an exclusive interview with Henry director and co-writer John McNaughton

by Neil Young