'Serial Killer' depicts world of moral squalor


October 31, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

If you're going to do it, this is the way you have to do it. The question is, why do it at all?

But John McNaughton didn't worry about that; he went ahead and did it. His "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," the Charles' Halloween treat for bad boys and girls, is deeply unsettling and very scary. It's a still life with weapons of one of those spectacularly misconfigured human mutants who occasionally blow into the headlines, make us tuck our children in every night for a week, and then vanish into legend.

Henry kills because he kills. The movie conjures up the usual blather as theory, and it's certainly believable: The son of a prostitute, he was abused in all the ways a boy can be abused until, at 14, he took up either a bat, a gun or a knife -- his own accounts vary -- and did his mama in. He's been killing in her name ever since, mostly prostitutes, but generally anyone who wanders into his view when he's in one of his moods.

But actor Michael Rooker's vacant stare and vaguely courtly manner calls up the image of a man beyond explanation. Clearly inspired by the ravings of confessed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, Rooker's Henry is a killer both horrifying and commonplace at once.

The movie rides the very thin line between art and trash, between exploitation and illumination. It's true, certainly, that it takes one into a universe of such moral squalor that one feels tainted afterward: In one key scene, we watch as the thorough Henry industriously beheads a victim, the better to dispose of the remains. And there's a desecration of a family, as viewed through the cracked prism of a video camera viewer, that's very close to being the most appalling sequence of images captured in an American movie.

But it's also true that McNaughton makes choice after choice to avoid shock for the sake of shock. He actually shows very few actual murders, preferring to discover Henry's victims after the fact. He never sinks to the slasher-film level, where, through the genius of the empathetic camera, You become the Killer, enjoy the killer's power during the stalk and walk away having made the kill yourself.

Rather, McNaughton's technique is yoked to the sensibility of his subject: The movie is deadpan, gritty, sordid, sleazy, miles from any sense of glitz or "style." McNaughton slams us into what might be called drifter-culture, as bereft of the majesty of the psychopath as imagined in conventional movies as possible. Henry and his pal Otis (Tom Towles) aren't Jason or Freddy; they're trashy parolees living with roaches and dirty dishes on Chicago's dreary North Side. They are unlettered, illiterate, borderline dysfunctionals, formed by the dreary litany of abuse and incest, and ready to pass on their grief to any and all who come before them. If you saw them, with their dead eyes and slack mugs and tatty, greasy clothes, bells would go off: You'd stand aside, you'd vacate the area quickly.

One constant theme is society's helplessness to such casual beasts. Gun laws are no help at all: "One phone call and I can git a gun," says Henry. The "system" is almost invisible, represented by one self-deluding, inattentive parole officer. The police simply don't exist.

The "plot" concerns Henry's one brush with normalcy: Otis' sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), fleeing her trashy husband, comes North to spend some time with the boys, even as Henry is slowly initiating the slovenly Otis into the rituals of murder. She likes Henry, even as her brother "likes" her. Her presence, ultimately, is the catalyst that drives the two apart and drives the movie toward its dismal, resonant ending.

Why do it? One reason is to suggest the chaos that lurks in the universe in a way movies seldom can. This one suggests that if the smiler with the knife shows up, there's nothing to do but die. Short of that, obey the rules your daddy taught you: Don't pick up hitchhikers or take candy from strangers.

'Henry: Portrait

of a Serial Killer

Starring Michael Rooker.

Directed by John McNaughton

Distributed by Greycat.



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