Trigger Warning: The following contains references to violence and sexual assault. Possibly one of the most disturbing movies of all time John McNaughton‘s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer feels like a true independent film that unnerves audiences with its nonchalance. While serial killer movies often instill fear through wild killings and gory deaths, this image uses deliberate pacing to show without apology just how brutal its titular character is. The killings are slow, direct, and downright disgusting, even embodying some elements of a snuff film: it feels real, and in a way it is. Systematically draw from the crimes of Henry Lee Lucas and Otti’s tool, McNaughton’s work is a shining example of a film that dares to terrify without all the cheapness and effects. Everything in this picture is a systematic, burning build-up that never seems to end, even when it ends.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer opens uncompromisingly with a montage of corpses, the work of the film’s title character, Henry (Michael Rooker), a psychopathic, perpetually traveling individual who kills along the way. He lives with Otis (Tom Towles), who then met her sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) back to their shared apartment. Becky meets Henry by asking her how he murdered his mother, and he relentlessly answers her questions, justifying it with her abuse to him. Becky reveals that her father exploited her as a teenager, to which Henry replies that he doesn’t like sexual abuse of women. In this first exchange, they probably form a bond. In another conversation at dinner, Otis goes after his own sister. Henry relents and threatens him not to do it again, and the scene hints at the idea that Becky is in love with his “protector”. Early on, the film unnervingly presents and critiques audiences’ affinity for tough, mysterious villains. Becky, perhaps out of innocence, reveals one of her secrets to a man she barely knows, a mistake most are familiar with. Because of this nonchalance, she now has a dangerous man in his sights. It is worth noting that this painting’s characteristic carelessness acts as its driving force, both narratively and thematically.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer finds fear in the casual
After a series of “heartwarming” conversations, Henry and Otis decide to cool their hot heads and head into town for some fun. They take two sex workers with them, and in one of the film’s most iconic scenes, the camera slowly zooms in and surveys the car to reveal a kind of dichotomy: Henry kills his partner while Otis kisses and caresses his. However, when Otis’ girl sees what Henry has done, the latter breaks her neck. They dispose of the two bodies and Henry drives the car with a stoic expression on his face as if nothing happened. He persuades Otis to stop talking about it, and Henry grabs a bite to eat and, in a moment of unintentional hilarity, offers Otis some fries. What’s striking here, and probably McNaughton’s whole intent, is to show just how cold, calculated, and ruthless a serial killer is, especially when standing (or, in this case, sitting) next to an unwilling accomplice. Once again, the nonchalance of the images of Henry eating a cheeseburger after having just brutally murdered two innocent women strikes fear into the hearts of viewers. Henry terrifies the audience while paradoxically having the demeanor of your everyday neighbor after scratching his back, grabbing a beer from the fridge and enjoying a beautiful summer’s day in front of his lawn.
The following sequence further emphasizes Henry’s everyday behavior. Otis, now noticeably cold-hearted and more violent after their encounter, breaks his TV and they head to a fence to get another one. When the fence starts berating them for only having $50 in their pocket, Henry snaps and repeatedly stabs him with an electric wire while Otis holds him down. Henry ends his suffering by banging a television on his head while Otis plugs in the device to electrocute him. Increasingly, the violence in this image becomes more apathetic. In the transition, McNaughton shows every gruesome detail of the murder. Each stitch feels like a gut punch to viewers, seeming to revel in its disturbing nature. Similar to its main character Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has no remorse, no shame, and no emotions. Just the thrill a psychopath gets from this deplorable activity. They then snatch a camcorder from the dead fence’s inventory, a new toy that would only fuel their emerging bloodlust.
Increase in terror through voyeurism
After unsuccessfully attempting to sexually assault a teenager, Otis retires to Henry for advice on how to end the boy’s life. Henry advises him to forget it. Perhaps in love with their previous murders, the two set out on a killing spree, first murdering a driver who tried to help them with their “broken” car. The two soon arrive at what looks like a suburban home. The film later reveals that they videotaped the entire endeavor and they are gleefully watching the results from their apartment. What transpires on the videotape is perhaps the most disturbing scene in the entire film, perhaps even in film history. The tape continues to show how Henry presumably murders the father and son of the family who live there, while Otis sexually assaults the mother. It’s a sequence that asks the audience to look away, but at the same time wants them to keep looking. The camera lens has become a watchful eye, representing its viewers, who have no choice but to continue watching this brutal defiance of morals and ethics, still carried out in nonchalant ways. As the savagery of the murders continues to increase, Henry, and consequently Otis, still represents the coldness and nonchalance of killers who have become desensitized to the whole idea of taking another person’s life. Another thing that makes this interesting is that it messes with viewers’ “standard of badness”. While Henry is indeed a hideous character who embodies pure evil, Otis seems to fly away as the more repulsive and irrevocable character. One can read that it is a slap into the reality of life. The film indirectly tells us that no matter how despicable a person is, there is a more despicable person somewhere in the world.
Does this mean Henry is a replaceable character? As we near his end, it makes us believe that he is. When Otis interrupts Henry and Becky’s lovemaking, Henry, frustrated, rushes out for a drink. Otis ends up sexually assaulting his own sister when they are left alone, and seeing this, Henry brutally kills his “friend”. The serial killer might save a damsel in distress? no The movie completely throws that out the window when we see that after disposing of the body, they move into a motel together, but in the morning only Henry comes out the door. Henry pulls up in the middle of a country road, pulls out a suitcase and leaves it there, presumably with the mutilated remains of Becky. After faking a redemption arc, McNaughton brings us the stark reality of the fictional portrayal of a real killer: there is no love or nostalgia in her eyes. Only death and sorrow hide behind a casual look, waiting to come out to smack his next unsuspecting victim.
https://collider.com/henry-portrait-of-a-serial-killer-john-mcnaughton-horror-casual-fear/ Portrait of a Serial Killer Makes the Casual Truly Terrifying