Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. 1986. Directed by John McNaughton. Screenplay by Richard Fire & John McNaughton.
Starring Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, and Tom Towles.
Rated 18+. 83 minutes.
There are movies people talk about like they’re the Holy Grail of horror, such is the now infamous classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Now, the difference between this one and the others of the same grain is the fact that Henry truly delivers. There’s a certain charm to its raw, low-budget appeal and the gritty way in which John McNaughton captures all the sadistic and terrifying violence.
Right from the beginning of the film, we get a shot of a dead woman lying in the grass; the camera pans out, away, becoming disconnected from the kill. Then, there sits Henry in a diner; he is polite, he tips. Again come further invasions of the violent imagery – a woman sitting on a toilet, dead, a glass bottle jammed into her cut and bleeding face. The entire first five minutes of the movie is highly disturbing, and so it sets the tone from which everything else will extend. So few movies can get the atmosphere and tone of their script right – I think Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer really nails the sort of dreadful air it needed to be an unsettling piece of horror cinema.
I’m a big fan of criminal psychology, specifically involving serial killers. I’ve read a couple books on the subject that I loved including How to Make a Serial Killer & Serial Killers: Up Close and Personal by Christopher Berry-Dee and Hunting Humans by world renowned expert Dr. Elliott Leyton; among plenty others.
This film is based on, very loosely, some of the murders committed by Henry Lee Lucas, as well as his sick friendship/partnership with fellow serial killer Ottis Toole (some know him as the chief suspect in the murder of Adam Walsh – son of America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh). There are liberties taken with the actual details. Not to mention the fact Lucas was notorious for embellishment, or straight-out lying. So there’s no telling when it comes to certain crimes he allegedly confessed to which are real and which are not. Of course there are a few, enough to call him a serial killer, that have been confirmed and put in the books. But Henry Lee Lucas confessed to something like 600+ murders, most of which ended up being bullshit in terms of his involvement.
However, there is enough known about Lucas, his past, his murders, that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer rings plenty true to me. There are finer details that don’t jive with the reality – for instance, Ottis Toole had a 12-year old niece that preferred to go by the name Becky versus the film version with him having a sister much older than twelve. But that doesn’t bother me because the story, the themes, all of that stays the same.
Henry: “Guns are easy to get, Otis. Anybody can get a gun.”
Long before I knew him as Merle Dixon, bad ass redneck on The Walking Dead, this is where I first came across Michael Rooker – well, this and the fantastic yet disturbing adaptation of Bastard Out of Carolina. Here, as Henry (loosely based on serial killer Henry Lee Lucas), Rooker is so wildly effective that it’s downright creepy. Anybody says they don’t find Rooker’s performance here scary is just hardened, or they don’t know good acting. He’s so cold and detached a lot of the time, he has this strange moral code (SPOILER ALERT RIGHT HERE! For some reason he kills Otis as he rapes his own sister then only to later kill her himself! END SPOILER). There’s so much nuance in the performance, which isn’t often the case with serial killer films, whether they’re slashers or what have you. I love that Rooker really broke out with this role; it definitely made people perk up their eyes and ears to watch him down the line. There’s a quiet, raging energy inside him that is just under the surface. That’s what makes the character of Henry, as Rooker plays him, so chilling and terrifying.
Part of what really disturbs me about this whole film is how Henry and Otis use the video camera. It’s like early found footage horror at that point. What makes it so horrifying is the fact it looks and feels beyond real. There’s such a visceral nature to that stuff.
When Henry wrestles the son of the family he and Otis are killing, it’s such a tense and sickening few moments that it is real disturbing. Plus, you’ve got Otis making out with the wife, sucking her breasts – disgusting. Yet, though disgusting, Henry reels Otis in almost like a dog on a leash – “No, Otis – Otis – NO!”
Then as Otis plays the tape back, he wants to watch it over and over in slow motion – the heartbeat-like music begins and it’s a gripping moment. Really hits at the heart, deep. Depraved stuff.
The violence in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer absolutely is deranged. As you can see from the above shots – which by the way are what I described earlier from the opening 5 minutes or so – Henry most certainly has a predilection towards violence against women. We get bits and pieces of exposition on the subject. He and Becky (Tracy Arnold) have a long chat across the kitchen table at one point where he reveals what he’d been in jail for, how his mother treated him, et cetera.
But when you know more about the real Henry Lee Lucas, it is beyond disturbing.
Henry lost an eye at age ten; his brother knifed him. His father had no legs after a railroad accident, became a drunk, then his mother would bring men home all the time right there in the house and have sex with them. She was a prostitute and made Henry watch her have sex. Not only that, his mother sent Henry around in a dress for so many of the first years of his life. Eventually, he killed his mother – dear ole Viola – by whacking her in the head, supposedly with a broomstick; she bled out on the floor as Henry took off.
So there are a ton of mother-related issues floating around inside Henry. The character in the film, we only get a glimpse of, but still – both Rooker and the script give us so much to work with and so much to see/understand.
Corner Store Clerk: “How ‘bout them Bears?”
Henry: “Fuck the Bears”
For me, while it isn’t perfect – most of that being dialogue/acting issues – Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of the most effective horror movies I’ve ever seen. It really does hit the mark on what it aims to accomplish. While it also is not a true representation of Henry Lee Lucas, there’s a part of me that says “Why does that matter?” Because in the end, he was a serial killer, a murdering rapist and all around immoral, terrible human being. He lied about his own “accomplishments”. It’s only fitting someone takes his story and runs with it to create a great horror. Which is what John McNaughton did with the screenplay he and Richard Fire wrote.
I think the whole aspect of Henry and Otis fooling around (how silly to call it that when they used it while murdering) with the video camera was something that spoke to the whole aspect of who Lucas was in reality. Henry didn’t seem to interested in the camera – you can tell when it breaks, as Otis freaks out Henry doesn’t care too much, it’s inconsequential to what he wants to do/needs to do. And ultimately, I think Lucas felt that way about his life – if he could make up enough stories and claim to have done such-and-such many murders, and this and that, if he could build up a person out of what he said with words, then that was fine with him. He could do that. If it were all recorded, the way Otis records their crimes, then it would be different. People could prove who he was in actuality then.
However, if Henry could keep on going then that’s exactly what he would do.
SPOILER ALERT! AHEAD THERE BE SPOILERS!
The end speaks to that perfectly because Otis dies then it’s just Henry and Becky left. Instead of go on with Becky, maybe try to start some type of new life with her, running and on the road, Henry decides to chop her up, stuff her in a suitcase, and toss her to the side of the road.
The film works, in a way, as a sort of examination of Henry Lee Lucas the actual murderer within the fictional realm of Henry, played by Michael Rooker. Not only that, the whole video camera part of Henry and Otis’ rampage has things to say about how we see horror movies, what a movie really is – or maybe I’m just being pretentious? I don’t think so. There’s more to horror sometimes than just being scary and shocking, which I believe comes out at times here amongst all the rough material.
It’s a disturbing and wild film with gritty, raw realism. Excellent horror, one of my favourites out of the 1980s era of the genre. Check it out if you’ve not yet seen it! An absolute 4.5 out of 5 star horror in my eyes.