Review - Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Released September 1990
Director: John McNaughton

We live in a society where culturally our entertainment has a lot of violence in it; (this coming from a horror film reviewer...) but often times the violence in film and television is toned down to a quick punch in the face or it is completely absurd and the blood pours down the screen. We watch horror films to feel a sense of danger, shock, or just to get our adrenaline pumping, but rarely has there ever been a film filled with such hopelessness as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Whenever someone tells me that they are desensitized to violence, I tell them to watch Henry, because even the most desensitized film goer will shut up and respect the sheer realism that Henry provides. Simply put: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a brilliant film, but it is NOT a fun film. Nothing is sugar-coated, cartoonish or absurd. The character of Henry shares many biographical concurrences with real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Director John McNaughton makes clear in the beginning of his film that it is based more on Lucas' violent fantasies and confessions, rather than the crimes for which he was convicted; however, this fantastical portrait of Lucas’ life takes nothing away from this truly bleak film.

We are immediately introduced to Henry as a killer and follow him throughout his daily routine. No mention is given to any police inquiries and Henry is oblivious to any notion of avoiding capture or covering his tracks. Much of the film's power comes from this nonchalant approach, whereby, if a person doesn't register that something he is doing is wrong, then it quickly becomes almost acceptable. We then meet Henry’s roommate Otis (who later joins Henry on his murderous rampage) and Otis’ sister Becky, who’s coming from out of town for a visit. We watch as the movie slowly suffocates the viewer with countless murders, interwoven with a story of three tortured individuals trying to find some way of coping with one another. The film ends with no justice and no peace. Henry continues to drive around town and kill with no signs that he will eventually be captured.

Rooker, in the title role, is totally convincing and gives a performance free from the mannerism clich├ęs which detract from more famous serial killer characters like Hannibal Lector (the film actually made me stop watching Dexter, simply because it changed the way I view serial killers) Almost equally disturbing is Tom Towles performance as the half-witted roommate Otis, who is used as some form of comic relief until you realize just how many people you’ve met in your life that share some of Otis’ tendencies.

Everything about Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer feels genuine. Its low budget makes it feel homemade (shot on 16mm and only had a $110,000 budget) and the relationship between the characters is so downplayed by (then) unknown actors that everything feels real, which of course makes it scarier. Some films will scare you with monsters or graphically showing a kill, but I don’t think the murders are what makes Henry such a horrifying film. I think it’s simply the atmosphere painted across its entire landscape that brings viewers to the brink of terror.

Scariest Scene: Henry gets a bottle to the face from Otis and right as he’s about to kill Henry, Becky stabs Otis in the eye. In any other horror film, this may have just been another stabbing, but the sheer tension this film provides makes this scene truly unforgettable. (With help from the soundtrack, which is arguably the best in any horror film)

- Andrew Megow

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