With special thanks to leading LGBT film historian and activist Jenni Olsen, we at Diabolique are going to publish past pieces from writers and critics who left a super important legacy in film culture. One such artist is the late Mark Finch, who wrote for numerous periodicals during the eighties and early nineties, including the following piece on HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986). We feel that these vitally significant pieces of film criticism should be kept alive and in the public consciousness, as they are part of the fabric of a greater understanding of movie history and culture that exists outside of current commentary and analysis. The pieces will be provided by associates, archivists and – most importantly – dear friends of these greatly missed individuals whose work needs to be honored for all time. We hope you enjoy the following piece and that Mr. Finch’s memory lives on through his remarkable words.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Film review by Mark Finch
Editor’s Note: This vintage film review by Mark Finch originally appeared in the April 19, 1990 issue of the Bay Area Reporter (San Francisco’s LGBT weekly newspaper). One of the leading figures in the LGBT independent film world in the 1980s and early ‘90s, Mark worked as the BAR film critic while also serving as head of Frameline Distribution, the LGBT film distribution non-profit; he was also the gay porn reviewer for the BAR and also did film reviews for San Francisco’s other gay paper, The Sentinel as well. Mark was known for his whimsical film criticism style in which he often incorporated mentions of his friends, lovers and roommates as well as frequently making insider jokes about Bay Area institutions and referencing his British heritage. During this time Mark was also head of The London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. In 1992 he became director of the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival as well. In January 1995 he ended his life by leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge.
My friend Judith is here visiting this week from London. It was too hot to shop so we decided to see Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, half expecting (and keenly wanting) to see something set in the fashion world starring Anthony Perkins and maybe Jaclyn Smith.
Instead, Henry is a creepy and obnoxious documentary-style thriller that — like asbestos in school ceilings and poison oak at Black Sand Beach — people should be warned about.
It’s low-budget and easy to synopsize. Henry (Michael Rooker) and Otis (Tom Towles) live in the meanest, crummiest part of Chicago. Otis is a drug dealing ex-con with problem hair who, as the movie opens, hasn’t yet figured out his handsome pal is a habitual killer. On the surface, though, it’s Otis who is the roommate from hell, and Henry the mild-mannered one who remembers to stack the dishes in the sink.
Good Sister Arrives
Otis’s sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) arrives in town. We know she is essentially good — even with a sleazeball for a brother — because she’s on the run from her wife-bashing husband and, instead of falling back on her old showgirl skills, she finds honest work as a hair salon assistant.
Becky is immediately attracted to Henry, however. (This is one of the truest parts of the movie: how many times have you had friends come stay and then found them fall in love with your roommate? Fortunately this hasn’t happened yet with my respectable British friend Judith and my uncannily mild-mannered roommate.)
Nothing much seems to transpire for the first hour of Henry. It’s part of the film’s style to suggest the humdrum quality of homicide. Henry spends his day like a delinquent schoolboy, finding new ways to murder women.
These are some of the most horrible and upsetting killings ever portrayed. After so much nastiness Judith and I just had to cab to Macy’s White Flower Sale in search of restorative niceness. At Macy’s the sales just become better and prettier, whereas in Henry the murders get grizzlier and uglier.
In between slaughters we are mostly confined to Otis and Henry’s grotty apartment. The radio drones on and the tension arises. Otis makes a play for his sister; Henry stops him and persuades him to pick up a prostitute instead.
But when Henry murders both of the hookers, Otis becomes first nervous over, then excited by, his roommate’s nasty habit. Pretty soon they’re like a regular Bonnie and Clyde, shooting, stabbing and razing their way through suburban family homes and burnt-out back alleys, while Becky supervises a rinse and polishes off a perm.
Even this sounds pacey on paper, but the point about Henry is that it deliberately confounds genre expectations. It’s not really a thriller or a horror movie; it’s like a grubby, brown-tinted version of those weird reenactments on America’s Most Wanted, without the voiceover or the ads.
Henry is probably a culty success because it refuses to offer an explanation for the two killers’ behavior. Again and again it presents the murders in a blank-faced fashion (often as a close-up of the corpse while the murderer is replayed on the soundtrack), denying the sexual and psychological symbolism so beloved by most thrillers and, especially, by Murder, She Wrote.
Instead, Henry offers a kind of sociological context. These people are the detritus of modern metropolitan life. Their home is drab and colorless; they watch TV, drink beer and listen to loud rock music — just like my friend Judith’s London neighbors. In other words, they’re the unhip opposite of the film’s intended audience. But being poor doesn’t make you a murderer.
Nevertheless, other possibilities for motivation leak out. Otis, for instance, is characterized as sexually desperate. After being rejected by his sister he attempts to pick up a college boy, who punches him in the nose. This is not really homophobic — I’d punch Otis in the nose too.
When Becky learns he was jailed for killing his mother, Henry himself offers an account of his screwed up family life as a kind of excuse. In retrospect this is the movie’s best scene. Henry is lying (first he says he shot his mom, then he says he stabbed her, and starts to invent a tale about being forced to watch her make love, dressed in girls’ clothing). Becky retaliates with a true story about her father abusing her.
Supposedly the “normal” character, Becky is clearly drawn as one of the most needy. She uses her tragic history to flirt with Henry, latching on to one psychopath after just fleeing from another.
Henry is a grim, joyless movie experience that seems symptomatic of a new noncommittal moviemaking style, first apparent in River’s Edge. Things are presented as if they’re disconnected facts, or at best possible clues to a psychopathology, and the audience is asked to decide which pieces are important.
Disingenuously, the film doesn’t want to be caught out judging its maniac protagonist. But, really, what’s wrong with moral judgments? Judith and I had lots as we left Macy’s. For instance, we both agreed that we couldn’t see the point of any movie where there are more corpses — Dead Woman Number One, Dead Woman Number Two, Slaughtered Family — than characters in the cast list, and in which the deadpan style says nothing new about murder, loneliness, poverty or even hairdressing.