Henry’s plot centers on a series of dysfunctional interpersonal relations. Becky, coming out of an abusive relationship, comes to stay with her brother Otis in Chicago; Otis is Henry’s friend and roommate. As the film progresses, and Becky finds a semblance of normalcy, Otis becomes Henry’s criminal apprentice. The narrative is structurally similar to a “buddy” movie, all laughs aside, in which an experienced man is paired with an impulsive beginner and teaches him his craft—in this case killing. Otis knows no boundaries, and by act of comparison Henry becomes the moral one of the pair.
By associating Henry with an even more vile individual, McNaughton beckons us into feeling for his killer. But then comes the ending and the final, somber note in the journey. Any sympathy we had for Henry is soon undercut. The film finds itself in a realm of which Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader are the godfathers—moralistic cinema. But it is the ruthless, almost banal, depiction of Henry’s existence that makes John McNaughton’s low-budget film so solemnly efficient. It is a horror film executed with an unexpected sense of realism. Indeed Henry’s style is neither M. Night Shyamalan’s stylized naturalism, nor the grounded camerawork that has made the pictures of Tobe Hooper “believable.” Unlike John Carpenter, McNaughton does not design elaborate camera movement around precisely choreographed blocking. Henry owes more to the observational cinema of Italian Neorealism than to any B-movies or genre pictures.
McNaughton’s camera frames ordinary life through frequent wide shots and sterile lighting—not too far from Michael Haneke’s angular and symmetrical aesthetic. The camera is always in the corner of a room, taking in the unfolding action—be it a group discussion, a meal, or one of many graphic murder sequences. McNaughton’s goal is simple: to grab the viewer by the throat and force them to watch.
Slasher films, due to their pulpy aesthetics, have rendered the very act of killing banal. Viewers no longer scream when Jason butchers his fifteenth cheerleader in one of the countless sequels or spin-offs of the franchise. But when that same murder scene is approached with a cool distance and tone of everyday life, then the audience is left running for the exits. Suddenly, the violence is more than just stylized imagery on a screen. It becomes more immediate, something that could happen to us. The tagline for Henry reads: “He’s not Freddy. He’s not Jason. He’s real.” And he truly is real. The inspiration behind Henry, played with genuine reserve by Michael Rooker, is drawn from infamous and prolific serial killer Henry Lee Lucas.
That said, the opening montage of the film is intercut with stylized, over-the-top zooming shots. We are looking at nude bodies of women staged against ordinary settings—a garden, a bathroom. The clean, naked flesh is punctuated by red blood. These brief moments suggest an iconography that precedes some of today’s fashion photography; McNaughton uses them as counter-aesthetics that, by their later omission, reinforce his own distinctive style.
Since John Carpenter’s Halloween, filmmakers have nearly always made an effort to contrive for their killers elaborate, psychoanalytic back-stories, shrouded in mystery and doom. McNaughton briefly acknowledges Henry’s past in referring to the killer’s first victim—his own mother—but he never goes so far as to indulge in any frivolous pop psychology in an attempt at justification. In Henry, as in real life, there is no satisfying explanation to all the mindless violence. Henry may kill because he likes it, because he’s bored, or because it seems normal to him. McNaughton refuses to rationalize, and leaves that up to the viewer.