John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” was made back in 1986, but it did not get a theatrical release until 1990. All these years later, it remains a very disturbing look at a murderer lacking a conscience who essentially kills at random. For those who’ve seen “Henry,” you know how unnerving it gets, and the fact it got released at all is amazing.
Michael Rooker, who plays the Henry of the movie’s title, appeared at the Egyptian Theatre back in 2011 to talk about audience’s initial reaction to it. Neither he nor anyone else involved in its making believed it would ever get any response whatsoever. They filmed what they thought people wanted to see, a scary movie, but this was no average horror flick like “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th.” “Henry” involves real life horror, the kind we often do not go to the movies to see. And in the end, what’s scarier than real life violence?
Chuck Parello, who would later direct “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part II,” managed to get the film screened at the 1989 Chicago Film Festival, and this later led to it being shown at the Telluride Festival. Rooker recollected about the first time he saw “Henry” in a theater, and he said there was around forty people in the audience. There were not a lot of sounds coming from them, and no laughter. This led Rooker to say that, after you’ve watched “Henry” twenty times, you begin to see the humor in it. For the record, I completely agree with him on this.
“Henry’s” most disturbing and controversial scene comes when Henry and Otis (Tom Towles) do a home invasion and murder an entire family. We watch these two as they view the video they shot of them killing each member, and Otis finds watching it once is not enough. After this scene ended, Rooker said more than 60% of the audience left after this scene, and they all left at the same time. Many of them were vocal about what they had witnessed:
“Fuck this shit!”
“This is bullshit!”
“This is what cinema’s coming to?”
Rooker was sitting with the producers when this happened, and he freely admitted how they all loved the response “Henry” was getting.
People came out of the film stunned and silent, and Rooker remembered seeing one guy walking out of the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles with his hands shaking. The actor also said a friend of his yelled at him because the film made him think “those thoughts.” There were no car chases, no gratuitous violence, and the violence shown in “Henry” is mostly minimal. Many of the murders Henry commits are never shown but heard as the camera circles around the bodies of his victims as we hear them take their last breath over the speakers. It ends up leaving a lot of room for imagination as you can’t help but think about what you didn’t see. Sometimes it is what you don’t see which is the most frightening thing of all.
But the most memorable incident for Rooker happened when he arrived late to one screening. As he headed into the theater, a woman, who was not walking but running out of the movie, ran right smack dab into him. When she realized who he was, she screamed and raced to the women’s bathroom. The ushers and producers had to come out and calm her down, saying to her over and over, “He’s really an actor. “
“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” is seriously disturbing, but for good reason. Unlike other horror movies which revel in blood, gore and vicious fantasies, this was one which dealt with horror of real-life viciousness. Every once in a while, you need a film like this one to remind people of the ugliness of violence, and to make us realize we are not as desensitized to it as we may think. If “Henry” didn’t cause a good portion of moviegoers to walk out, then the filmmakers would not have succeeded in making this point clear.