Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) starring Michael Rooker
What’s it about?
This fictionalised account of real-life self-confessed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas features Michael Rooker in the title role. While he carries out a series of random murders he lives with Otis (Tom Towles), a sleazy pervert whom he met in prison. One day Otis’s sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) comes to stay with them while fleeing her abusive husband Leroy. Becky starts to see she has a bond with Henry and falls in love with him.
Meanwhile, whilst Becky spends her days working as a hairdresser and preparing meals for the two guys, Henry grooms Otis into becoming a partner on his murderous spree.
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Why is it significant?
Henry Lee Lucas confessed to over 600 murders between 1975-1983. He even made such wild claims as having supplied the poison used in the Jonestown Massacre. However, the vast majority of these have been verified as false. He was ultimately found guilty of 11 homicides in total. John McNaughton’s controversial debut - while highly realistic and matter-of-fact in tone - takes more basis from his confessions than it does from his actual police convictions.
The film proved problematic with censors both in the US (where it got an X rating, meaning that most cinemas wouldn’t show it due to the rating’s general association with pornography) and in the UK (where it received 62 seconds of cuts on its cinema release and 113 seconds of cuts on video). In 2003 Optimum Releasing finally managed to get it passed uncut in the more lenient UK censorship climate. It’s one of those films which garnered initially mixed reviews but has subsequently grown in critical stature.
Incidentally, despite being of a nature which isn’t exactly well-suited to a sequel, director Chuck Parello made a stab (pun intended) at it anyway: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part II. Unsurprisingly, it’s not well-regarded and remains little-seen.
How does it hold up?
While Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is an extremely violent and disturbing films it’s also remarkably anti-exploitative. Shot with a budget of around $111,000 it has a grainy lo-fi appearance that’s entirely in keeping with the pure ugliness of the milieu and those who inhabit it. This trio is stuck in a metaphorical sewer from which, realistically, no redemption is possible. However, each one has ended up in this purgatory for quite different reasons - and each coming with their own (radically different and tragically irreconcilable) focus.
Michael Rooker is impressive as the titular character; a human coil of barely-contained rage masked behind the cold poise of a cobra waiting for its time to strike. At the same time, there is a politeness and even a slight social awkwardness around women that makes him, while hardly charismatic, seem strangely endearing. The film paints him gradually, bit by bit, while retaining his status as a frightening enigma in the viewer’s mind. In one scene he stops trailing his potential prey when he sees her kissing a man who is clearly her partner outside her home; in another, while conversing with Becky, he keeps changing his story about the method he used to kill his abusive prostitute mother. Here it is arguably implied that he sees each new murder as him metaphorically killing his mother one more time in a different way - however a later moment, rather than shedding further light on this childhood, reveals that he uses different methods for each kill so that the police can’t link them up.
Otis, although by far the more rashly inept of the murderous duo (who would probably get caught in no time if Henry wasn’t there to carry him) is the more outwardly loathsome character. He’s a creep who sexually molests a schoolboy, a housewife before - and after - killing her, and even his own sister. Becky meanwhile is an innocent who has never known anything but abuse from men - be it her father, Otis or her erstwhile husband. Her new squalid cohabitation with this evil duo is simply part of a grim continuum in which she is mentally stranded.
Is it as brutal as its reputation suggests?
One notable element here is the variation in how graphic the depictions of the murders are. An antecedent was Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) which showed an incredibly explicit murder early on, and then (literally) recoiled away from showing the second via a reverse tracking shot pulling away from the scene and right down several flights of townhouse stairs. Hence, the latter murder worked within the insidious power of the mind having been exposed to the nauseating imagery of the first. McNaughton elaborates and inverts this idea by having most of the murders depicted with a creepily cold distance; some scenes don’t show the act at all but merely slowly draw the camera across the resultant corpse while accompanied by an electronic soundtrack hum and the sounds of the victim’s wails. Others are seen via the POV of a camcorder from several metres away. However, two later murders are shown in an extremely graphic manner; tellingly these two are the frenzied result of objectionable behaviour on the victim’s part, hence drawing in the previously distanced viewer and allowing them to examine whether they are really any better than Henry or Otis.
Paradoxically, the final murder here (implied by the sight of a bloodied suitcase) is the least explicit and most harrowing of all. It’s significant because of the way in which it abruptly snuffs out the one potential ray of hope for the characters. Henry remains a frightening, untameable enigma, eluding any comfort blanket of psychological understanding and rationalisation.
Runtime: 83 mins
Dir: John McNaughton
Script: John McNaughton, Richard Fire
Starring: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles