In my 3rd year university film theory class, my professor thought his lesson plan genius in picking each film for the year from the horror genre. It was, in his words, to keep us awake. I have yet to thank him for it, but I’d like to think this review may be an appetizer to my eventual revenge. To his credit, however, the films spanned many decades, and the ones from the earlier part of the century, with clunky technology and transparent “effects” were easy and even amusing to watch. But it was upon reaching Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer when things got very real.
Filmed in dark lighting and muted tones, the slow pace of the story and extended scenes of silence after conversations ended, or walking for block after block created a very documentary feel to the film. It was a serenely eerie reality show before there was an inkling of reality shows, with mundane conversations about everyday things including whether people were hungry and where they were headed. The film slowly paints a picture of Henry, played by Michael Rooker, who is a serial killer. There was nothing remarkable about him at all. Other than the look on his face, which was the opposite of inviting, he was just a regular guy. The plot is not complex, the story not hard to follow. Henry lives in a small apartment, has one friend and his only activity is to kill the people he doesn’t like. “It’s either you or them” he tells his friend, showing us how black and white he sees the world. There isn’t enough time in the day to kill the people that are morally corrupt. He doesn’t seek them out, they just keep crossing his path. It seems he doesn’t even do it with a great sense of vengeance for the most part; he takes control because he’s bigger and stronger and because he can.
It is the pace of the film and the calmness of the action that makes you feel unsafe in the theatre. An occasional sharp movement will startle you, Henry’s brief temper, a stabbing, the sound of a gunshot and the numerous murders themselves. But the camera doesn’t help you by cutting away, or ending the scene or fading out. When Henry does cut up a body, he places it over the bathtub and starts sawing. He saws as blood pours and he continues to saw until he aches and has to stop and take a breath. Then, with mild renewed energy, he begins again, at the same pace, continuing to saw flesh as if it were lumber, a task he has sought out but feels annoyed at having to complete. The scene is endless. You can look away, but the scene continues, as if waiting for you to return.
This film wouldn’t stand up to today’s standards of fast-paced, big-budget killer flicks. But in that sense, it’s 70’s or even 60’s look gives it that detached chilling feeling that doesn’t leave you throughout the entire film. Henry is in nearly every frame, haunting you. I can’t remember the name of my professor, but I will never forget Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
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