XXX 1/2 ``Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,'' with Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold, David Katz, Ray Atherton. Directed by John McNaughton, from a script by McNaughton and Richard Fire. Neptune. No rating; includes rough language and graphic, disturbing violence.
The most hotly debated film of the festival circuit during the past year, John McNaughton's ``Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer'' was actually completed in 1985.
Although it was shown at the 1986 Chicago Film Festival, it took three years for the picture to surface elsewhere. Saddled with an X rating, it was shunned by most distributors and other festivals (even the Seattle festival turned it down three years ago, finally showing it earlier this week). It appeared only at midnights at a Chicago theater until Errol Morris, director of ``The Thin Blue Line,'' became its champion.
Morris sponsored ``Henry'' at the Telluride festival last September, incurring the wrath of numerous festival-goers who stomped out during the first screening. When a second screening of ``Henry'' was announced from the stage the following night, the audience hissed vigorously.
``I was shaken by the discomfort I felt was present in the theater,'' said McNaughton just after the Telluride screening. ``But the movement of emotions may start a concomitant mental process. I love to see bad-guy films with dark material, dark passions. We're a violent breed. We kill to eat. We shouldn't cut ourselves off from exploring that.''
Morris said he had been criticized for spending a lot of time in college interviewing mass murderers, but ``I figured it's much better to talk to one than become one.'' He added that people who blame such movies for violence are demonstrating ``a lack of awareness of history prior to 1900.''
Unlike some controversial films, ``Henry'' is worthy of the debate. It's extremely well-made by a filmmaker who knows what he's doing and doesn't let the limitations of a $100,000 budget get in his way. The photography, acting, editing and use of sound effects and music are quite professional; McNaughton's movie looks and sounds as if it cost much more.
It's also genuinely upsetting. It's not for children or even young teen-agers and it isn't for anyone in the mood for a light thriller. It isn't even for fans of slasher movies. Unlike such R-rated junk as ``Friday the 13th,'' it relies for its shock effects on the amoral psychology of a killer, not on special-effects gore or predictable suspense techniques.
McNaughton's film is a portrait of a state of mind that knows no limitations on brutality, that understands only how not to get caught. This is Henry's one talent: his cunning ability to keep from being noticed.
Played with chilling authority by Michael Rooker, Henry is a stranger to human loyalties. But he knows how to fake them, and he manages to convince an old prison buddy (Tom Towles) and the buddy's newly single sister (Tracy Arnold) that the three of them form some kind of family.
``You're not judgmental,'' the lonely sister tells Henry while trying to draw him out about his past. During a dinner with the mild-mannered Henry at which her brother is misbehaving, she announces that ``at least there's one gentleman at this table.'' Eventually she announces she's in love with him.
Like Terrence Malick's ``Badlands,'' McNaughton's movie is a dark comedy about the illusory nature of such relationships, the blinding power of an unrealistic love, and the creepy banality of junk-food-culture evil.
The script is loosely based on the case of Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to several hundred murders and is now on death row on Texas. But much of the film is fiction, and possibly so are Henry's confessions; he later recanted and blamed some of the crimes on a friend. This is not a docudrama, nor does it pretend to be. McNaughton acknowledges all of this in a prologue.
The worst that can be said about ``Henry'' is that it doesn't tell us a lot we don't already know about the psychology of serial killers. McNaughton suggests that Henry was a victim of child abuse, forced into voyeurism and cross-dressing at an early age. It also implies that he's impotent and that he kills when he's sexually frustrated or threatened. Didn't ``Psycho'' cover the same territory? Do we really need another film that tells us this?
Maybe not. Then again, in a world in which eight nearly identical ``Friday the 13th'' movies offer the adventures of Jason the ax-murderer as entertainment for teen-agers, maybe we do need this sobering alternative.