A cult film in the making, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was actually completed in 1986. The movie was shelved by its backer, MPI Home Video, after receiving an X rating and then rediscovered last year at several film festivals. Earnest and creepy, but also lavishly overpraised, this grim little curiosity is being given a limited national release (with no official rating), and people are talking about it — as they probably will be for some time.

The central character is a quiet, sad-faced loner (Michael Rooker) who kills women to erase the gulf he experiences between them and himself. Henry is so repressed he can’t even say good morning to a waitress without sounding timid, forced. Killing isn’t just his release — it’s his way of restoring equilibrium to what he sees as a sexually imbalanced world.

Henry, who has served time for murder, is staying in Chicago with his former cell mate, Otis (Tom Towles), a leering redneck who reads comics at the dinner table, works at a gas station, and sells marijuana on the side. The two are soon joined by Otis’ sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), an exotic dancer who has arrived from the South to get a respectable job. When Becky, Otis, and Henry sit around their cramped kitchen table exchanging taunts and casually intimate details, you can tell director John McNaughton is trying for a tone of little-people existentialism — i.e., what Norman Mailer got when he wrote The Executioner’s Song. He wants to bring out the psychopathic aggressions hidden within the scuzzy working-class milieu.

Except the film’s atmosphere doesn’t feel remotely authentic. It’s flat and overdeliberate, with too much silence hanging between lines. Henry offers the chintziest sort of low-budget ”realism.” (Perhaps that’s what has led some to compare the film with John Cassavetes’ work — as though this were a compliment.)

Henry reveals that his mother was a prostitute who dressed him up as a girl and made him watch her in bed with her johns. At 14, he murdered her. Yet even upon hearing this sordid confession, Becky can’t help but be drawn to the shy, chivalrous Henry. She doesn’t see that his mind is a homicidal dreamscape.

Henry gets Otis to accompany him on a killing jaunt. This leads to the film’s one knockout, creepo-to-the-max sequence: The two videotape their attack on a suburban couple. The scene is a direct spin-off of the pivotal rape-and-beating in A Clockwork Orange. Only in Henry, with the atrocities coming at us through the grainy immediacy of video, we feel, for a few ghastly moments, as though we’re right there in the living room, knee-deep in the horror. Later, Otis replays the tape at home, and it has the same sicko-voyeuristic effect.

Before long, it’s apparent Otis is even more enthusiastic about committing over-the-top violence than Henry is. On one level, this seems plausible enough. After all, Otis is a grotesque goon who doesn’t think twice about sexually assaulting his sister. After a while, though, you may become aware that the film hinges on a rather cheap device: It comes on as the study of an ambiguous, dispassionate sociopath and then builds sympathy for him by turning the plug-ugly Otis into a far more vile creature. Henry, as presented, isn’t even a serial killer but an amalgam of several different types of psychopaths. He leads Otis on a random, gory spree, but the movie doesn’t get into the meticulous, masturbatory obsessiveness that marks true repeaters.

As Henry, curly-haired Michael Rooker gives a softly implosive performance. He’s both there and not there — hypnotized by the voices in his head. Yet despite the intensity of Rooker’s presence, we never really get close to Henry as a character. What’s missing from the movie is the near-embarrassing intimacy we shared with Tony Curtis’ family-man killer in The Boston Strangler (even though he, too, was finally unknowable).

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is undeniably disturbing, especially that video scene and when it shows us (however discreetly) a body being hacked up in a bathtub. Yet the critics who’ve hailed it as a landmark are going overboard. Henry is just a superior B-movie with an artsy-clinical title. The fact that Henry is affectless on the surface but commits exploitation-movie mayhem on the side is, by now, less an unsettling revelation than a rote banality, like those obligatory quotes in news stories about how the killer down the block always seemed like such a nice guy.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
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