:— Serious killer

Completed as far back as 1986. Henry: Portrait ()fA Serial Killer follows the horrifying exploits of an amoral mass murderer. Trevor Johnston assesses the chilling and grave vision of one ofthe year‘s most significant releases. while Alan Morrison traces just why it‘s taken so long to reach our screens.

Involving and disturbing. .lonathan I)emmc's film version of The Silence 0/ Tlft’ Lambs cranks up the tension with masterful case. In a year of much

wrongheaded media babble about serial killers.

Demme‘s rich harvest at the box office is not only down to Anthony Hopkins” I lannibal Lecter and his contemporary revamp of the Basil Rathbone school of suave screen villainy. but because the carnage which has the audience's knuckles whitening is so skilfully integrated into a more or less mainstream movie narrative.

John McNaughton's Henry:I’m-trait ()f/t Serial Killer refuses to let us enjoy ourselves in this way. The film‘s cool. level-headed view of mutilation. brutality. sexual assault and the motivelcss termination of human life avoids the usual crescendo and diminuendo ofcinematic thrill and release. In doing so. Henry may be less conventionally ‘accessiblc‘ than Silence ()f The Lambs. but its rigorous anti-glamour poses questions for the viewer and our society that unquestionably makes it a film ofgrcater moral stature.

The title is certainly apt. From the scaringly oppressive opening sequence. which juxtaposes images of I lenry‘s victims uneasily out of synch with the pitiful sounds of their suffering. this Portrait 0le Serial Killer rarely strays from its

focus on the protagonist. a variously employed blue-collar worker whose nefarious activities have some basis in the real-life crimes of Henry Lee Lucas. Memorably played by Michael Rooker. Ilcnry lives in a rough area of(‘hicago with prison buddy ()tis (’I'om 'I‘owles) and his sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). Ile kills repeatedly as if it were just something to do. routine as a trip to the store for cigarettes. and encourages ()tis to join him in his frequent local outings.

As the body count rises. the forces of law and order are nowhere to be seen. and although McNaughton sketches in the disadvantages (sexual abuse at the hands of a prostitute mother. social disenfranchisement) which have marked Henry‘s experience. there‘s little in the way of special pleading or attempts to explain away Henry‘s psychosis. Instead. McNaughton's apparent lack of perspective on the material urges the viewer into drawing up their own response.

Michael Booker in the lead role ofHenry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

The much-discussed VCR sequence. whereby we watch (complicit?) along with I lenry and ()tis as they run through the borne videotape they‘ve shot

of themselves mercilessly dispatching an entire family. goads us into questioning why we‘re looking at such footage at all whether such horror. true horror. is simply beyond responsible ' cinematic representation.

This kind of questioning process. which anyone l who sees the film could hardly fail to go through. is l precisely the means by which Henry increases our I awareness ofjust how blase society has become to l the myriad of atrocities which occur in every city every day. ()nly apparently lacking in moral ; perspective. Henry shows us how close we are to i the heart ofdarkness. "l'he lesson that it‘s not just ' famous madmcn who’ve moved beyond the pale. but that a whole indifferent society is rapidly , moving in the same direction. is one that will haunt us. as well it should.

I 1985: The film is commissioned by MPI Home Video in Chicago, with John McNaughton at the helm, actors from the city's experimental Organic Theatre Company, and a budget of $125,000. McNaughton says: ‘Let's redefine the horrorlilm. Let's take this medium and push it as far as it can go.‘

I 1986: Afterfourweeks, filming, followed by post-production and editing, the film is shown to its

backers. Producer Steven Jones says: "mes;

‘They were saying: ‘Where’s the blood? Where’s the tits? What is this? It looks like an artfilm!’

I 1987: The initial video deal with Vestron falls through, and although Atlantic Releasing are interested in world rights, the film must be passed ‘B‘ by the Motion Picture Association of America. They object to its ‘moral tone‘ and rate if ‘X’. A spokeswoman forthe MPAA says: ‘Mr McNaughton, this is not a film where I can tell you what needs to be cut. Every time you kill somebody, you kill him three or four


I 1988: The ‘X‘ rating means that, in the public perception, the film is linked to pornography. Cinemas refuse to show it, newspapers and television stations refuse to take advertising, and finally Atlantic withdraw. Star Michael Booker says: ‘Our movie is not like pornography. It's not for everyone, I grant you that, but it doesn‘t deserve to be rated up there with pornpgraphy.‘

I 1989: MPI take the plunge and blow up the 16mm negative to a grainy 35mm. A single New York screening is arranged, and Village Voice critic Elliot Stein is in the audience. He says: ‘The

best film of the year. . . one of the most impressive directorial debuts of the 803.‘

I 1990/91 : After various film festival showings, Henry opens to the public in New York and Great Britain. The British Board of Film Certification trims one minute from the film. Its head, James Ferman, says: ‘l’ve seen itfive times, each time increasingly analytically, and I don't think I‘ll ever be as shocked as l was the firsttime.’

And Henry says: ‘lt's either us or them. Know what I mean?’

i l

The List ZbJuly-- 8 August 199119