Part of the reason that I sign on for the October Horror Movie Challenge is to guide my cinema consumption. While I've devoured innumerable hours of film for as long as I can remember, the films tend to drift through genres, nationalities, subject matter. And because there is no disciple to my viewing practice, I've neglected too many essentials. So among the films chosen due to curiosity and whim, I've also used the October as an excuse to watch films that I might otherwise avoid. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has none of the thrills, suspense or scares that I want in a horror movie. As expected, Henry was not a particularly enjoyable film, but probably an informative one.
Before watching Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, I hadn't really taken much time to consider what makes a horror movie tick. Henry is absolutely a horror movie, but it defies the expectations of a 1980s horror movie. There is a campiness to a lot of the 80s movies and quite a bit of humor, but the thing I associate with horror movies of the period is gore and inventive methods of killing teen-aged victims, like Johnny Depp being killed by Freddie in the water bed and the resulting tidal wave of blood. There's not much of that in Henry. Instead, Henry is a rather drab, character study of a man who kills a lot of people.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is exactly that; an attempted portrait of the convicted serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas. At one time, Henry Lee Lucas was thought to be the most prolific serial murderer, as he confessed to over 600 murders. He was convicted of 11 homicides, but it was it was likely that Henry was admitting to murders that he couldn't have committed, so it is unclear just how many people that he killed. There is little doubt that that he was responsible for the murder of his mother and Frieda Powell or "Becky", played by Tracy Arnold. But if Henry had committed the hundreds of murders that he confessed to, he would have been killing a couple of people a week, which is what is depicted in this film.
So Henry is a bit different as it is a docudrama that does attempt to depict the actions of a man with no conscious, who kills with ease and no signs of remorse. The film opens showing the trail of bodies that Henry has left behind. Women in various stages of undress, lifeless and discarded. And with those images, there is no doubt that Henry murders women in his spare time. But the majority of the film is spent seeing Henry from Becky's perspective. She has come to live with her cousin, Otis, to get away from an abusive husband. And to Becky, Henry is fascinating and powerful. During their first conversation, Henry talks about killing his mother after years of abuse. Becky isn't frightened by this, but probably sees it as justified retaliation as she shares a childhood of sexual abuse. Henry seems to easily fall into a role and lover and protector for her.
But when he is away from the apartment, Henry can snap a prostitutes neck in the blink of an eye, without even a momentary change of expression. His are the actions of a man who has no empathy. It isn't just that he doesn't see women as human, he is simply lacking all empathy. He has the ability to kill even those closest without a moment of hesitation. This is what I found most troubling about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. This film mechanically and without passion depicts the taking of life that captures that detachment that Henry must feel from humanity. Doesn't make for the most warm and engaging of viewing experiences, but it does make an impression.
Really, Henry is a sad portrait of a disappearing working class America. Henry and Otis have menial, low wage jobs and share an apartment. Much of their time is spent drinking beer in front of the television. With this drab, hopeless existence, murder seems almost a way to pass the time. A distraction from the daily humiliation at the service station and the general pointlessness of existence. And likely the only way that they can feel a sense of control over their life. Thankfully, the majority of humanity are not psychopaths or more might take up this past time.
October Horror Movie Challenge Tally: #18 and 15 first-time viewings (FTV)