Sunday, December 13

Quick Weekend Views: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) & Death Warmed Up (1984)

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You gotta love how the producers of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer were expecting a formulaic slasher only to get a hulking block of stark brutality from a director and lead working on starting gate creative highs. John McNaughton proceeds to kick your teeth in while Michael Rooker then forces you to eat those pearly whites. The effortless pacing, cold character interaction, and near total lack of liquid red body warmer acts as a reminder of the true horror that's potentially fumigating a neighbor's home or opening their door for a hitchhiker across town.

Rooker's career-cementing "my mama was a whore..." speech is what first crystallizes the methodical character to the viewer. A lesser work would have had a more overt red herring, not merely an opening attention-grabber of Henry driving about intercut with the murdered, but all the trembling psychosis is right there in that kitchen table conversation. Little touches such as his fractured morality shunning sexuality and Henry's bloodlust running hot and then suddenly ice cold for no obvious reason add to the complexity of the psychopath. Rooker makes his character a simplistic brute outwardly, but a terrifyingly cunning mangled corpse generator that is extraordinarily self-aware of his capabilities and limits.

The chameleon-like actor Tom Towles and Tracey Arnold do an excellent job supporting Rooker's seething powerhouse. Towles' Otis favors himself the smartest man in the room and he seems the "right" type of personality for Henry to nurture in the ways of murder. Though the inhuman power taking human life grants the perpetrator becomes too much when mixed with Otis's panache for various sexual perversions. Arnold's Becky is the lop-sided love interest of Henry who becomes smitten and then attracted to Henry's damaged past like her own. A shame her acting career floundered afterward.

This line sounds trite, but this deviant drama leads to one of the most chilling last frames ever filmed. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a rite of passage of sorts. If you can see the mastery on hand through the unforgiving savagery, you're prepared for most anything the screen can muster and possess the insight to see the beauty in the blackest of nihilistic conclusions. Pony Canyon's Japanese VHS is completely uncut in the film's original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

On the other hand, I'm unsure what to make of David Blyth's Death Warmed Up, one of New Zealand's first "proper" horror features. The story concerns a mad doctor mucking around with nature and creating pissed off punk mutants through off-kilter brain surgery. The film begins in flashback with this same madman hypnotizing a teenager into coldly shotgunning his parents to death whose subsequently institutionalized for seven years. Upon release, the young man's life seems to idyllically kickstart as he and three happy-go-lucky friends travel to an island the doctor and his experiments inhabit for revenge...I guess...?

It's the type of flick that defies easy categorization. I don't know what it is with New Zealander films in general, but this one undeniably has that certain sunny kiwi charm like Jackson's Braindead (Dead Alive) or 1987's Contagion. Though this heady brew isn't squarely "horror", there's a bit of post-apocalyptic Running Man-esqe action with a hint of leathery cyberpunk mixed in with the copious splatter.

Blyth directs with flare initially but as the film wears you get the impression the director loses a bit of interest. Of course, I have no idea whether or not the film was shot in-sequence. The bloody mayhem involving exploding heads, ruthless stabbings, and intimate skull bone sawing coupled with its lightweight charm are enough to make up for the story's carefree attitude. I might warm to this weird concoction with repeat viewings. Vestron Video's VHS runs just under 83 minutes and might be missing slivers here-and-there with some of the gorier shots sloppily cutting too quickly.

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3 comments:

Jonny Metro said...

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of my all-time favorite horror films! I always say that it's the only film that makes me feel dirty after watching it. I reviewed this film on my blog, too, as well as the disappointing sequel. Have you seen part 2? It just wasn't the same without Mr. Rooker.

--J/Metro

Richard of DM said...

Much love Death Warmed Up. The movie is seriously totally amazing!

Will Errickson said...

Great post on Henry! I saw it way back in '90 when it first came out on VHS and ugh, oh my god, it changed my entire idea of what horror was, could be, and should aspire to. That final shot is *brutal* in its simplicity.

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