Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

A man drives his car, from where (to where) is not clear.  Every once in a while we flash to a shot of a dead woman, obviously murdered, her body dumped somewhere or just left where she died.

In the first minute of Henry, we see four dead bodies.  The soundtrack switches to the the sounds of struggle that took place before the women were killed.  A perfect way to set the tone for this bleak and uncompromising portrayal of a psychopath.

Henry is really the ultimate serial killer film.  Movies that came after- Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Saw, American Psycho- were fine films, but they missed the point or didn't even try.  Silence is a great movie, but Hannibal Lecter is not a psychopath.  Seven is also a great thriller but it's less a movie about a psychopath than it is a movie about police tracking down (or really, failing to track down) a serial killer.  Saw is just sadism and special effects.  American Psycho is fantastic and it's obvious that everyone involved did their research, but the movie is exaggerated to make a point and is thus more a comedy than it is any kind of serious look at psychopaths.

Henry, on the other hand, is a really masterful "slice of life" look at a day in the life of a psychopath.  Henry is not your typical movie psychopath.  He's not an evil genius like Hannibal Lecter.  He's not a sanctimonious, moralizing character with no depth whatsoever, like the Saw guy.  He's polite and charming, but he's not well-educated (in fact, he is illiterate).  He doesn't revel in his killing, he just does what he thinks he needs to do and does it.

Performances are really phenominal all around.  Michael Rooker's portrayal of Henry is simply amazing.  Every time he talks you just sit there mesmerized.  When he talks about his childhood at one point, you can't help but get chills.  And there is a twist to that discussion too, if you pay attention.

It's a refreshing take on the concept now, never mind back in 1986.  Surprisingly, there isn't even any kind of subplot involving cops on the case.  Henry's murders never even come up on TV or in the news in the movie.  At one point he and his "friend" Otis kill a couple of prostitues and while Otis is worried about what will happen, Henry assures him that there is nothing to worry about, because nothing will happen.

It's a deceptively clever movie.  Rather than just striging together a bunch of murders and calling it a day, everything build up intelligently.  There are two scenes in particular that just blow me away.  The first is a scene where Henry and Otis go to buy a television on the black market, and the end up killing the totally unlikable guy selling the set.  Every single person I have watched with this has the same reaction: laughing and cheering.  The characer is just that slimy and detestable.

Shortly after that, there is a scene where Henry and Otis break into a house and murder a family.  The camera pulls back and you see that the two of them are watching it on a tape they make using a camcorder they stole from the TV guy.  Every single person I have watched with this has the same reaction: dead silence.

There's more to it than, well, the TV guy was awful, and the family didn't do anything to deserve getting murdered.  But did that TV guy deserve to die, just for being a jerk?  Not in hindsight.

Having said all that, the movie is surprisingly bloodless, though you sure won't remember it that way when you are done.  It's that effective.

It's really hard to imagine a more perfect psychopath film.

Maniac (1980)

Frank is a pathetic specimen of a human being.  He lives by himself in a tiny apartment surrounded by manikins that he has dressed up.  He's got pictures of (we assume) his mother up on the wall, and some really unsettling artwork as well (watch on DVD and really pay attention to what he's got up on his wall...)

Years of serial killer movie experience allows us to surmise quickly that this guy is not okay.  And he isn't.  And the movie wastes no time in establishing this.

Maniac is an interesting movie, because while it is about a serial killer, there are no mysteries.  You know from the very beginning that the main character is a psychopath and the only thing that is up in the air is when (if?) he will be caught.

It's a very bleak horror movie, and probably at that point in time included the most realistic portrayal of a psychopath out there (to be eclipsed by Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer six year later).  It's bleak because it offers no easy answers, and because Joe Spinell's performance is so eerie and believable.  And the creepy and inventive soundtrack doesn't hurt.

As Frank continues his spree it appears that he's getting worse.  He's less able to control himself and his outbursts aimed at his dolls get more and more manic, less and less understandable.  And he starts getting sloppy.

The movie ends sadly on a low note, with a scene you are supposed to wonder whether it is supernatual, or all in Frank's head.  Up until that point though, the movie is really amazing.  It would only be another six years before the serial killer movie was perfected...

The Gate (1987)

Some kid, his older sister, and his buddy are terrorized by demons as a result of an inprobable chain of events which has just happened to summon all these demons.  Will they survive?????

I've kept the plot summary short for three reasons.  First, there isn't much to it.  Second, I like this movie a lot, and don't want to really go into much detail so that you will be intrigued and then go watch it.  Third, if you want to check a plot summary, you can go to IMDB or wikipedia or what have you.

The first time I saw this movie was when I was a kid in middle school, on a class trip to Montreal.  Whereas all the older kids were out drinking and going to strip bars with their teachers, all us good (that is, stupid) kids were stuck in our hotel room eating convenience store food and checking out late night movies in French.

Well, this movie came on and I was transfixed.  I understood French a bit back then, and could follow what little story there was.  But more importantly: the effects.  The little demons running around.  The laborer who came out of the wall and fell to the ground only to turn to worms.  The large demon at the end of the movie.  These images all stayed with me over the years.

Once I found out the movie had been released to DVD, I ordered a disc and sat down to watch it.  If anything, it was better than I had remembered.  The other night, I watched it a third time and was really impressed.

It's a clever movie.  It was probably meant for children; it's not very gruesome and of course the main characters are all young kids.  However, it's got a really great sense of humor and no matter how old you are you really have to appreciate the effects, which are a mix of stop motion and guys in rubbers suits and forced perspective shots.

And what kid in the 80s couldn't relate to this movie?  You really can't get more 80s than demon summoning spelled out in heavy metal record album notes.

The performances are all really great, with the exception of the main character who is totally outclassed by heavy metal-loving best pal.  The kid playing him is amazing, and he's also a really well-written character.  The way the three kids act together is really believable and helps the movie to be more than just a special effects flick.

If more "lite" horror movies were more like this, I'd still be watching them in the theaters.