This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

"I'd like to kill somebody!"

"Say that again."

"I'd like to kill somebody."

"Let's me and you go for a ride, Otis."
-Otis and Henry

I'm not the type who condemns a film simply because it has extreme violence, and I'm certainly not the type who blames violence in movies for real-life horror such as Columbine or, more recently, the killings in Norway. Extreme on-screen violence, when used in a certain way, can enhance a film's impact. One great example of this is Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971). I honestly consider this film a work of art, but I can certainly understand why some people dislike it (my father, a man I very much admire, is one such person). Most people remember the moments where Malcolm McDowell's Alex brutalizes innocent people. Where this film's greatness comes into play, though, is that it takes into account the reactions of other people to Alex's crimes; in the case of this film, those people are society in general. When Alex is incarcerated, the issue becomes what to do with him-and whether the route taken is the moral one in that regard. The scenes in which Alex initiates violence serve as the catalyst for that dilemma.
Contrast that with, say, The Devil's Rejects (2005), which simply shows scene after scene of violence by characters its director, Rob Zombie, will go to his grave insisting are supposed to represent 'real' people. On top of that, the film seems to go slower and slower as it reaches its boring slow-motion climax.
In his book Your Movie Sucks, Roger Ebert wrote this in response to criticism of his less-than-stellar review of the movie Chaos (2005):
"I believe evil can win in fiction, as it often does in real life. But I prefer that the artist express an attitude toward that evil. It is not enough to record it; what do you think and feel about it?"
This perfectly sums up why I love Clockwork but dislike Rejects, even though they both contain deplorable content (ironically, Ebert gave a thumbs-down to Kubrick's film, but a thumbs-up to Zombie's).
This brings us to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. John McNaughton, perhaps best known today for making the quirky sex drama Wild Things (1998)-which, after Basic Instinct (1992), is my favorite guilty pleasure movie-made this film is just a month with a budget of just over $100,000. The inspiration for the story came from a 20/20 segment on serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to over 600 murders after he was captured. He died in prison in 2001.
The title character (Michael Rooker) is someone who randomly kills people with his partner Otis (Tom Towles). One day, Otis's sister Becky(Tracy Arnold) comes to live with them and, eventually, falls for Henry, while becoming more and more repulsed by Otis. Eventually, Becky and Henry kill Otis after he brutalizes her. Rather than calling the police, they spend the night in a motel before Henry dumps a trunk on the side of the road the next morning, which, presumably, contains Becky's body.
Leonard Maltin commented that this film focuses on other sick minds besides Henry's. Indeed, as murderous as Henry is, Otis is even worse. In addition to raping Becky, he is all-too-eager to go after innocent people, such as the salesman who berates them for wasting time at his shop just as Henry is about to leave. The only lucky one is this film is a boy who sells him marijuana. Otis places his hand on his leg, prompting the boy to punch him in the face and fleeing. While he escapes, though, Henry uses Otis's frustration at the incident to kill a passerby on the highway after they fake car trouble.
Maltin also commented that this film resembles Peeping Tom, and I agree with that to some extent. Henry and Otis steal a video camera from the salesman they kill and later use it to record themselves slaughtering a family in their home. Unlike Mark Lewis, though, Henry doesn't wish to make a film of his deeds to show the world, but is content with carrying out his horrific acts in private.
The film's counterpoint is Becky, who listens to Henry from the moment she meets him. One reason being that they both claim to have been abused during their childhood by their parents. She's seems to be a lonely soul who wants someone who won't shun her, and she believes Henry is that someone-even when she points out that he changes his story about how he killed his mother.
Hence, the response to Henry's violent acts in this film come from someone who, ironically, wants his love and, tragically, is killed for her desire to be near him.
Rooker is great in the title role, coming as an everyman in some scenes and a downright terrifying S.O.B. in others. This was his first film role and it segued into a great career as a character actor, although the role I'll always know him for is as Kevin Costner's government-fearing aide in JFK (1991).
In Scream 2 (1997), one of the characters (played by Rooker's JFK co-star Laurie Metcalf) says that she hates it when people assume that a person's family or upbringing led to them murdering people. Indeed, many slasher films have pinned the cause of their mass slaughters on family trauma but this film, in a way, puts that cliche on its ear by mentioning it only once.
Although the film was made in 1986, it wasn't released until 1990, mainly due to its violent content, which, naturally, led to disagreements with the MPAA. However, it did form a cult following, enough to warrant the inferior Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part 2 (1996).

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