John McNaughton characterised Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, his acclaimed, controversial 1986 thriller, as a horror film using the technique of realism to achieve its effect on the audience. This sounds maybe a little cold-blooded and opportunistic, and maybe it is: it seems to suggest that those who see the film as a deep insight into the mind of a murderer could be wasting their time, since all the filmmaker wants to do is scare you, and he realised that being as convincing and low-key as possible was a good way to do it. Never mind that Henry Lee Lucas, the allegedly wildly prolific real-life killer McNaughton took as inspiration, was in all probability a fantasist who confessed to dozens of unsolved killings because he liked visitors while he was in jail.
Still, the film has an undeniable power in its merciless bleakness. McNaughton had been commissioned to make nothing more than a cheapjack exploiter, and he chose something more ambitious, a character study and an evocation of the deadened, affectless world of the psychopath. His movie is commendably free of overt sensationalism and slasher cliché, which sets it apart from nearly everything made on the theme of serial homicide in the decades since it appeared. Many of the killings are presented as crime scenes (a little fetishised, it’s true) with only the sound of the murder itself echoing, disembodied, on the soundtrack. The performances are marvellously restrained and naturalistic. Michael Rooker naturally garlanded most of the attention for his still, quiet work as Henry, but Tracy Arnold as Becky is the most believable and normal character, which is a hard job to pull off, and Tom Towles, as her repulsive brother Otis, really pushes personal unpleasantness as far as it can go in a performance that’s not so much free of vanity as wallowing in obscenity. As the most ebullient character, he has to walk a fine line to evoke Otis’s offensive heartiness without violating the total conviction the movie needs to pull off its central trope.
Music is always an issue in realistic films: the trio of composers credited here manage a menacing ‘Henry theme’, which sometimes seems to risk glorifying its killer by empowering him, and elsewhere we get some revolting synth sax on a love scene and a bizarre accompaniment to Becky’s job search: some attempt to play ‘jaunty normality’ as a musical motif, I guess. Dreadful. So the movie works best without any dramatic mood elevation, with the impassive camera observing coldly; even better, the home invasion murders filmed by the killers themselves and seen only on playback on a boxy tube TV, the scene the British Board of Film Censors felt compelled to prune. In the new DVD it’s back, uncut. The dead eye of the camcorder imparts a horrible documentary snuff flavour that adds another layer of faux-reality.
The victims are mostly shown without sympathy, perhaps as Henry would see them. A dignified lady dog walker is spared, and we’re being teased with the possibility that Henry might have redeeming traits. He tells a sob story of childhood abuse, but when he describes killing his mother, the method keeps changing: like the visitors in Haneke’s Funny Games, he shuns simple explanation by offering a succession of fake stories. The reasoning here is perhaps simply that Henry will be more frightening if he remains free from reassuring Freudian interpretation. He can’t be tidied away.
So, taking McNaughton at his word, I see Henry as a Halloween tale for grown-ups: skilfully made, convincing while it lasts, packing a few nasty twists and some seriously disturbing images, but not ultimately rooted in any deep understanding of what makes a psychopath, and so not chilling in a way that outlasts the taut running time. Maybe I’m just desensitised?