Sunday, April 19, 2009

Regarding Henry: My Rational Fear...

Regarding Henry:
My Rational Fear of an Irrational Killer (or Vice Versa)

(WARNING: Thar Bee Spoilers Here!)

A few years back, while fumbling through the bargain bin at Blockbuster Video, I came upon a tape with a black matte cover, a photograph of Michael Rooker centered on the front, looking rather depraved and manic in his undershirt, staring at his own reflection in the bathroom mirror. "Totally uncut and uncensored," it was the director's edition of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, ostensibly based on real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Needless to say, I took Henry home with me that day, and I curled up in my patchwork throne for a few hours of viewing pleasure.

I came to find out that the viewing was anything but pleasurable. I was disgusted, shocked, appalled and ultimately disturbed. Yet I could not look away. Henry, with its unsettlingly realistic depictions of murder, proved to have all the bizarre lure of a highway traffic accident. As humans, we can not help but rubberneck.

What is perhaps most astounding is Henry's staying power. Long after the film was over, that general feeling of unease lingered on. A shower did nothing to cleanse me, a cigarette did little to calm my nerves, and a good night's sleep was out of the question. Instead, the video sat untouched on the shelf, collecting dust and mocking me.

And then I found the sequel.

Sucker for punishment and self-torture that I am, I pulled up the old patchwork throne once again and settled down for a Henry double feature.

Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer
The opening credits roll over a score that is haunting if for no other reason than because I already know what is to come. We meet Henry in a small diner, where he interacts with the waitress and we immediately see how normal he appears. He's friendly, he's handsome, he drives a shitty car, he listens to rock music, and he smokes Kools. He's just like one of us, only we know he's not because of the scenes that keep flashing on screen, apparently depicting at random Henry's former victims, all beautiful and mostly nude women—lying in the forest, floating in the river, or sitting in the bathroom with a coke bottle shoved down her throat. Certainly these shots appear random, and for good reason. That is exactly how Henry kills.

Henry travels to the mall, where he goes "shopping," waiting in his car and searching for his next victim. Once she is chosen, he follows her out of the parking lot and into a busy city street, showing us that you're safe nowhere. She leads him to her house, but Henry drives off when her husband appears in the yard. Instead, he opts for a hitchhiker, but the scene fades to black before anything happens, unwilling to show us Henry in action just yet.

Next, we're introduced to Otis, Henry's roommate who is picking up his sister Becky at the airport. She's just left her husband, and Otis lectures her about her poor choice in men, unaware of what her future holds. Becky is obviously enamored with Henry from their first meeting, when he bestows Otis with the gift of an acoustic guitar, pried from the cold dead hands of the hitchhiker. Henry turns on the charm for Becky, which seems all too natural for him and is how we imagine most serial killers bait their victims.

When we see Otis dealing drugs outside of the gas station where he works, we're given a better glimpse at what kind of a person he is. Definitely the criminal type, we also see him ogling a young high school boy who's looking for some marijuana.

We can only assume that drugs were the cause of Otis's stint in the prison where he met Henry, doing time for murdering his own mother, although whether it was with a baseball bat, knife or gun, it's unclear to even Him. Becky confesses to Henry that her father was both physically and sexually abusive, which paved the way for Otis's later behavior. Henry says that his mother was a whore, constantly taking men up into their apartment for sex and that on certain occasions they would make him wear a dress and watch. On his fourteenth birthday, one way or another, Henry murdered his mother and whatever man she was currently bedded down with. This would obviously be a basis for Henry's contempt of women and all things of a sexual nature.

The viewer can almost see the bond between Becky and Henry forming. This bond is strengthened even more when Otis makes a pass at his own sister, and Henry steps in to stop it. Things are rather tense between the two men until Becky, in a case of history repeating itself, urges them to go out together for a beer, sweeping the problem under the rug just like her mother did for years.

They decide instead to go out looking for prostitutes, which they find and take into a dismal alley. During his climax, Henry snaps his girl's neck like a twig. Not knowing what else to do, Otis grabs his girl to keep her from running away and Henry kills her too, pulling Otis unwillingly into his world. While they go out for some burgers, Otis is quiet and moody at first, but he soon begins eating his fries with zeal. The return of his appetite goes along with his acceptance of what they've done, and when Henry begins preaching his dog-eat-dog, us-against-the-world philosophy, it all starts to make sense to him.

When the television set at the apartment breaks, Henry tells Otis, "Well, let's go shopping." We the viewers, of course, already know the double meaning here. They're preparing to purchase a small black-and-white television and walk away when the salesman insults Henry. Having the reason he needs to murder a man (unlike the women that he kills for pleasure) they kill the salesman and take with them a large screen color television and handheld video camera. Otis is obviously obsessed with his new technology, refusing to set the camera down even when the others grow frustrated.

As they continue their murderous spree, Henry teaches Otis all the rules: Kill at random, never use the same method twice in a row or the same weapon more than once, and always keep moving. Otis seems to pay little attention to Henry's time tested method, however, simply wanting to seek and destroy, catching it all on tape. The most disturbing scene of the movie is arguably that in which they break into a house and kill the entire family. Otis begins to kiss and fondle the wife's still-warm corpse, and is only prevented from full intercourse by Henry's demands. Suddenly, the scene shifts backwards, Otis watching it on tape again and again, this time in slow motion.

When Becky tries to seduce Henry, he seems very uncomfortable and is relieved when Otis interrupts. Searching for any reason to get away, Henry goes out for a pack of cigarettes and hopefully a kill. You can see that he's trying to provoke the male cashier at the mini-mart, hoping for a reason to attack him, but finding none. Instead he returns to his apartment, and walks in on Otis raping and sodomizing Becky, on the verge of strangling her. In a rage, Henry knocks Otis off of her and, with Becky's help, they kill him. Becky goes into hysterics, proving to us once and for all that she is not like Henry. She is not a killer, just a victim who falls in love all too easily with the wrong men, again stemming from the abuse of her father.

Together, Henry and Becky hit the road talking about their future together, Henry fighting the demons inside quite possibly harder than he ever has before.

The fact that the movie ends with Henry still on the road, without the slightest hint of cops on his trail is chilling. And although Henry is based on Henry Lee Lucas, he's symbolic of much more than that. By never using the same methods twice, it's as if he's not a killer but he is all killers. This perception is strengthened by the many possible “reasons” that are hinted at throughout the course of the film: his sexual abuse, lack of education, poor prison and rehabilitation system, the media. By naming them all, the blame is not being placed on any one man or any one thing.

We're forced to realize that sometimes there is no reason for evil. Sometimes evil just is.

I smoke myself a cigarette, pace back and forth in the alley for a moment, unsure of what to expect next. Could it possibly be worse (or is that better?) than what I just saw? I bit the bullet, slid in the DVD, and braced my tattered senses.
Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer 2
Mask Of Sanity
Henry has a new face in this film, Michael Rookers role being reprised by Neil Giuntoli, and from the first scene it's obvious that the new Henry is not going to be anywhere near effective as the old. He's too rough and tumble, not good looking enough or likable enough to gain our trust. Regardless, he's still drifting and still killing, currently staying in a homeless shelter with a creepy old man who sodomizes others while Henry is trying to sleep.

Desperate to get away from that place, he takes a job at a portable toilet delivery company. One of the workers, Kai, invites Henry to stay with him and his wife Cricket until he can find a place of his own. It is evident that, at least when he drinks, Kai is very reminiscent of Otis in that he is rude and condescending toward women, especially Cricket's niece Louisa. Louisa is said to be an excellent artist, and when we finally do see her drawings, they are bloody and murderous pictures that could have been ripped directly from Henry's memory.

One day, while coming home from school, Louisa is taunted by two young boys on bikes. Henry sees this and rushes to her aid, throwing the boys to the ground. “Find somebody else to pick on,” he tells them and instantly becomes her knight in shining armor.

When it comes into the light that Kai works a second job—that of an arsonist-for-hire involved in insurance scams—he invites Henry to become his partner. He teaches Henry the tricks of the trade, much in the same way that Henry once taught Otis, and we understand why the two have clicked so well. Henry is trying to recapture that lost friendship. While on a job, they discover a couple of runaways smoking crack inside the building that they are about to burn. Not wanting any witnesses, Henry kills them and once again drags his only friend into his twisted little world and they embark on a series of random killings.

After Kai and Cricket get sexual in front of him, Henry's sexual frustration reaches its peak. That night, they try to pick up some underage girls outside of a liquor store. When the girls leave, Henry blames Kai although he had done nothing to discourage them. That night, Louisa joins Henry in bed to fend off nightmares of the mother who abandoned her, and everybody thinks there is more going on than actually is.

Louisa approaches Cricket and accuses her of trying to steal Henry away from her. Thinking that the two are having sex, Cricket in turn tells Kai that she wants Henry out. Initially, Kai is enraged and makes to hit her, but snaps back to his old self before he does. To make up for his actions, he promises that Henry will leave.

Henry and Kai decide to go out for one last hurrah, breaking into a house and murdering a husband and wife. But when it comes down to the wire, Kai has second thoughts and Henry has to do the deed. They get in a scuffle and Henry is on the verge of killing Kai, until he promises to do whatever Henry tells him to from now on.

Later, when Henry and Louisa are left alone, she tries to seduce him. He refuses and tries to leave, but she threatens to kill herself if he does. Still, he leaves and returns with Kai and Louisa that night. They find Louisa on the living room floor, with a gun to her head. She's been waiting all night, wanting Henry to see her die. When she pulls the trigger, a series of events unfold that leave Henry's ties to the family in ashes.

And once again, Henry moves on.

Upon completion of the second film, I realize that the terror doesn't stem only from the fact that Henry is a monster, it's that he creates monsters as well. His evil is like a virus that he passes on from one to another. Even though Henry hasn't been heard from in nearly a decade, be sure that I'll be locking my doors tonight.

He's still out there, somewhere...

...and a hundred more just like him.

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