There’s something the matter with Henry

Trigger Warning: Gore.

Even Hollywood comes up with some new ideas, now and again.

In an earlier post, I talked how physical deformity is often used as a clue towards explaining the relative evilness/untrustworthiness of a character. You couldn’t count the number of facial scars, eyepatchs, or claw hands if you tried.

By 1986, horror was just lousy with trope portrayals of killers, ensured by the massive success of Friday the 13th, Halloween, their sequels and imitators. Everywhere you looked, mass murderers were idealized as masked murders, monolithic, calculating reapers. The killers were not men, not people, they were death given form.

Wow, such death, very spoopy.

As effective as these killers were, and they undoubtedly, and deservedly did and do inspire terror, they cannot compare to Henry.

He’s just eating a sandwich.

 

He isn’t creepy at all.

 

Oh, I see.

Jason and Michael Myers are wolves in wolves’ clothing; Henry is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

That’s what, for me, makes Henry the scarier. The movie emphasizes the real over the ideal, leaving Henry to play cards and buy cigarettes. He has an unremarkable area of Chicago, no haunted lake or long-abandoned house for a home base.

The mundane surroundings is also visual rhetoric, the same selection of real vs. idealized. His average face, the could-be-a-million-places feeling of his backdrop produces the terror. Unlike Jason, Henry can be anyone. Anywhere. And that’s scary. That’s the real fear of Henry. His face is a mask, and you worry how many others like him are hiding behind masks. He knows it, and tells us, is too smart to use the same method more than once to avoid recognition for what he is.

In showing killers how they really look, rather than relying on idealized icons, Henry, Portrait of A Serial Killer provides chills by stripping away any of the audience’s ability to dissassociate the actions of the killer with the face of a regular Joe.

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3 comments

  1. I think it’s interesting that you choose to focus on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer for this post, given that the film was based off the confessions of actual serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Tool. Of course Henry is going to seem more real and thus more frightening than other slasher villains: He was a real person.

    1. Yes, he’s based off a real person, but both Pyscho and and Friday the 13th were inspired by Ed Gein. And isn’t that the point? Idealizing portrayals moves them away from reality and into boogeymen.

  2. To continue on this trail of horror through defamiliarization, I’m reminded of Village of the Damned and the Twilight Zone’s It’s A Good Life . Both use the ideas innocence of youth to make us afraid of something like everyday children. Arguably, something real and commonplace is much more frightening than something fictional like the Tingler, for example.

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