31 Days Of Horror: 'Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer' (1986)
If there’s one thing that horror movies do well, it’s their uncanny ability to make murder and mayhem appealing. We fear for the characters as they get stalked by some unnamed killer, but as soon as the hammer (or the axe, or the machete, or the chainsaw) falls that fear manifests into wild cheers. It’s pretty rare when you come across a character in a horror movie who you actually feel bad for when they’re offed. Nine times out of ten the characters deserve it anyway, be it out of their own cosmic douchery or out of their own stupidity (DON’T. GO. OUTSIDE. WHAT ARE YOU DOING.). Consequently, most horror movies lose their impact, making them akin to a carnival funhouse or geek show.
The Sonics - "Psycho"
You would be hard pressed to cheer for the killers in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Following a pair of serial killers, Henry and his prison buddy Otis (Michael Rooker and Tom Towles in two dynamite performances), the film presents their grizzly hobby with bleak detachment. Their victims aren’t the cartoonish stereotypes of your average splatterfest—no sluts, jocks, geeks, or last girls with big “Kill Me” signs dangling on their backs. Henry and Otis prey on everyday normal people. So when you see Henry break the neck of a teen boy as he walks in on the pair assaulting his parents, it’s simply nasty--you can almost feel the boy’s neck snap.
When watching the movie, I couldn’t help but make a few mental references to Showtime’s popular serial killer drama Dexter. While both Henry and the series follow the exploits of a soulless killer, it’s interesting to see how differently they treat their subjects. Over the past 5 seasons of Dexter, Dexter Morgan has moved closer and closer to becoming a fully functional human being—complete with emotions like love, regret, and empathy. Despite that, Dexter still kills people—often. These new emotions only apply to the characters who, if Dexter killed them, would turn the audience against him, like his sister, his wife or his kids.
This is where Henry and Dexter part ways. In order for Dexter to succeed as a show, the hero, serial killer or not, needs to remain sympathetic to the audience. So while Dexter strives to be normal, you get the impression that Henry couldn’t even comprehend the concept of normality. He’s presented as a man who’s totally incapable of human attachment, who kills, not out of some sick joy (like his partner Otis), but out of some deep pathological need. Henry is both terrifying and sad. Terrifying because he would break your neck without batting an eye, and sad because it doesn’t seem that he can help himself, even when it comes to people he loves, he guesses. What's love to a serial killer, anyway?
Tomorrow: Which is scarier, a vampire or Klaus Kinski playing a vampire? Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)