Monday, April 10, 2006

I finally got around to renting Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which is the kind of horror flick film geeks, sick of the moralistic and sugar-coated slasher genre, wet themselves over. Henry is pretty much a white-trash Silence of the Lambs, and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible, given that it's a dispassionate, minimalist character study of a vapid nihilist murderer. But the movie doesn't judge, and neither will I. That's what makes it... I won't say "scary," but haunting and lingering, and ultimately refreshing when set against Hollywood's current cadre of R-rated splatterfests that aspire to nothing more than cramming as many grotesque make-up effects into ninety minutes as possible. Henry, played by Michael Rooker (who, by the way, is awesome in Thief on FX), is the anti-Hannibal: he's not smart, or charming, or — even as a guy who makes murder part of his daily routine — remotely interesting in any way. There's no pop psychology behind the character; no psychology period, in fact. Just a guy in a vicious cycle of frustration and brutal murder who has no interest in getting out.

I wish I could've seen Henry back when it first came out, sometime between 1986 and 1990, before the Interweb and the twenty-four hour news networks and 9/11 made it impossible to stand outside of anything, as part of the audience. It's easy to see, as an academic exercise, why the film was stuck in ratings-board limbo for three years — we get squirmy when someone presents us with the dichotomy between evil and not-so-evil and refuses to take sides. It's one thing to show Henry putting a glass bottle through a prostitute's face (actually, in a nice touch, we only get audio of the murder and pictures of the aftermath — director John McNaughton saves the real voyeurism for later on), it's another thing to come out, take a look at the violence, and then refuse to say, "This is bad," as if the camera itself is complicit.

We eventually meet Henry's roommate and ex-jailmate Otis, a dim-witted hick who Henry introduces to his serial killing spree. Unlike Henry, Otis gets a visceral kick out of serial murder, and not even stoic McNaughton can stand by and direct indifferently when Otis videotapes the slaughter of a family. Henry, however, can, and he and Otis (and the viewer) watch this tape over and over again like it's porn. Henry takes over the director's role here, simply a part of what's going on, not liking it but not not liking it either, and in what's a kind of chilling meta-statement about the objective nature of film, McNaughton — and the audience — can only watch casually and any judgment you can make against bored, passive Henry has to be reflected in your own fascination with Henry's vocation. I don't see myself ever killing anyone, especially without any provocation (as if no one in the world ever provokes me), but I also don't see myself, if I did kill someone, freaking out over the damage my eternal soul sustained due to my new murderer status. I'd lose my shit at the thought of getting caught, and after many, many years of Law & Order and CSI, I've done a lot of fantasy homicide planning about what I'd burn and where I'd flee if I had to. (Note to TV villains: once you murder someone, you need to get out of Dodge.) But if I got over the idea that I'd be nabbed, then who knows...

So no wonder the MPAA got a bit skittish when McNaughton handed them the final cut. I'm personally hoping that a few of those raters had a few weeks of nightmares — especially over the infamous Good Samaritan scene and the videotaped family murder. Camcorders were pretty new back in 1986, and this was before the days of one idiot criminal after another keeping a video record of their crime sprees to later be used as evidence against them. Who'd want to watch Henry, much less record and relive all the death?

Which leads me to the most awesome part of the VHS: after the movie, after the end credits, the 1-800 number if you want to buy the official Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer t-shirt, in case you want to scare the nice old lady across the street. Or you're, you know, a psycho.