Monday, July 21, 2008
#41: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)
I rented this film from the Blockbuster Video located two blocks away from my dormitory at the University of Nebraska twelve years ago. I was a sophomore in college then. If I'd had a car at the time, I wouldn't have rented it from Blockbuster. My bicycle wasn't an option, either. The short-lived and dearly missed Pig of Destiny Video hadn't opened yet. Named after an epiphany the owner received while watching Babe, the store was small, but full of great and terrible stuff and a five-minute bike ride away. I rented Caligula, Meet the Feebles, China Girl, and lots of early Cronenberg there. Just a few short months later, Pig of Destiny violated some arcane city tax law, owed some back taxes, and got their sales tax privileges revoked. It was such a bizarre situation that the college paper, the alternative Omaha weekly, and the legitimate daily all covered the story. The owner decided to keep it open until his money ran out, so anyone with a membership could check out movies for free for the two months it took for the store to die. That was a pretty sweet two months. Bittersweet, but sweet. I think I rented seven or eight movies a week for free. Later, the owner ended up managing a coffee house next to the record store where I worked, and my coworkers and I regularly got drunk with him at a country-western karaoke bar. I really miss those few years of my life, and I think about them more than the entire time I attended public school in my hometown. Although, I am glad those years are over. All of them. I'm not too keen on dying, but I rejoice in the passing of each year. So long, past and present. Fuck you! Bring on the future! Whoo! This is a long way of saying that I wish I had rented Henry at Pig of Destiny instead of Blockbuster because it was a Pig of Destiny kind of movie.
Watching Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as a relatively naive 19-year-old, I admired the film but found it an almost unbearable viewing experience. I wasn't alone. Distributors were so turned off by the film's reputation that Henry didn't show up in theaters until four years after it played the festival circuit. I don’t know if the world has become a more violent place or if I have become more inured to simulated violence. Maybe I've just seen more sadistic films that wallow in their own filth. Whatever the case, watching a second time twelve years later, I was surprised to discover an effective character study of three social misfits with detailed, expressive uses of its Chicago setting (though some interiors were filmed in Austin). It's a dark, unrelenting movie, but there's a lot of humor I missed the first time around, and a lot less graphic violence than it's reputed to have (much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Only one scene, in which Henry and Otis murder a family during a home invasion and videotape their exploits, made me feel rotten. However, I remembered that particular scene going on interminably during my original viewing. It doesn't. The scene lasts only a few minutes. Ten years later, Michael Haneke basically turned this scene into a 97-minute feature called Funny Games (or Funny Games U.S. if you opt for the shot-for-shot American remake). I'm a great admirer of Haneke's work, and Funny Games is formally and narratively admirable, but its political/social message is simplistic and ham-fisted and lacking in the restrained ambiguity of Haneke's other films. John McNaughton, director and co-writer of Henry, beat Haneke to the punch by a decade.
SPOILERS AHEAD: Haneke is fond of mentioning that he makes you cheer a murder about midway through Funny Games, and how this cinematic manipulation forces an audience to confront its complicity in viewing violence for entertainment. However, the character who gets killed spends the preceding 45 minutes of running time torturing a family, and his murder can quite easily be read as an act of self-defense. Haneke then has the other torturer/murderer/home invader hit the rewind button on the remote control and bring his accomplice back to life. McNaughton's manipulations are smarter, trickier, and subtler, and they bring audiences to the same conclusions. In McNaughton's film, the audience knows Henry is a conscience-less killer from the beginning, but he methodically instills empathy in the viewer toward Henry. By mid-film, the audience (or at least I) felt so much empathy for Henry that the murder of a loudmouth asshole selling stolen TVs becomes an almost heroic act we (or maybe just I) applaud. After being confronted with the overwhelming terribleness of the videotaped murder of the family a few scenes later, I realized how I was being manipulated earlier, how easy it is for films to implement their manipulations, and how murder is murder, even if the victim's a prick. McNaughton, unlike Haneke, doesn't need his characters to turn to the camera and explain these concepts to us. END OF SPOILERS.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was an impressive feature debut for director John McNaughton. His work finds a rich source of inspiration in that weird little world where the art film and the exploitation/drive-in/b-movie meet (The Borrower, Mad Dog and Glory, Wild Things). Part of why Henry works so well may be due to McNaughton's life experience. He wasn't an 18-to-23-year-old movie brat whiz kid like Spielberg, Lucas, De Palma, or Scorsese. He was a 36-year-old man with a degree in still photography who logged time as a construction worker, ship builder, silversmith, factory worker, bartender, member of a traveling circus, and, in the early days of video, an installer of looped Keaton and Chaplin short films on video projection screens in Chicago bars. He assembled a straight-to-video documentary about the deaths of famous gangsters before being offered a low budget to make a straight-to-video slasher film. Loosely inspired by a 20/20 episode about alleged Texas serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole (there is much evidence now that these two men lied about most, if not all, of the murders), McNaughton and his co-writer, Richard Fire, delivered a real movie instead. Hiring veteran Chicago stage actors Michael Rooker (Henry), Tom Towles (Otis), and Austin native Tracy Arnold (Becky), and making creative use of the low budget, McNaughton avoids both the show-offy flashiness and stilted amateurism of many first-time directors' projects. Instead, McNaughton unites setting, acting, and structure to make a formally satisfying, confident narrative feature. Bootlegs of Henry circulated in Hollywood while the film sat in limbo, and Rooker scored parts in major films because of it. He deserved it. He plays the character just right, with an intensity that never devolves into mannerism or grotesque caricature. Towles and Arnold are excellent, too, especially Towles. He has possibly the trickiest part to pull off, playing an initially likable buffoon with a barely suppressed layer of sickness (including murder, necrophilia, incest, and possible sexual attraction to Henry) waiting to be unleashed. He has to play this change convincingly and realistically. He pulls it off.
I like this film very much. McNaughton has been criticized for not punishing Henry, not explaining his motives, and refusing to interject a moral message. Just watch the damn thing. If you need a movie to tell you that killing people is wrong, you have problems, dude. (That last sentence was written by Bones Valentino, the wisecracking Southern California surf bum from the upcoming sitcom Life's a Beach 90210, coming to an imaginary television set near you in 2010!)