Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Title: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Director: John McNaughton
Released: 1986
Starring: Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold, Mary Demas, Kristin Finger, Anne Bartoletti, Ray Atherton, Kurt Naebig

Plot: Henry (Rooker) a nomadic serial killer embarks on a killing spree with his roommate Otis (Towles), while at the same time trying to keep up appearances when Otis’s sister Becky (Arnold) comes to stay with them.  

Review: Despite not being a part of the video nasties list produced by the ruling of the “1984 Video Recordings Act” this film none the less still managed to generate more than its fair share of controversy, were it ran afoul of the James Ferman era of the BBFC and saw the film being trimmed of 113 seconds. In fact it would take until 2003 before we saw a fully uncut version here in the UK. Thankfully now that the uncut version is readily available the film can be enjoyed in its full grimy glory, with the previous edits through the year and how detrimental they were certainly becoming obvious when you watch the film in the form it was intended to be seen even if it is frequently uncomfortable viewing to say the least.

Shot in a month on a shoestring budget of $110,000 and given the brief of making a horror film with plenty of blood, Director McNaughton found his inspiration after watching an episode of “20/20” about serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. This however is not a straightforward biopic as McNaughton instead bases the film on Lucas’ fantasies and confessions rather than the actual crimes he was convicted for, while many other similar details between the lives of the two Henry’s being altered to make them less shocking such an Otis’s sister being made older than her real life counterpart, while here Henry and Otis are noted as having met in prison rather than in a soup kitchen. Interestingly though McNaughton decides to keep Henrys’ childhood traumas almost identical to the ones described by Lucas.

Despite the link to a notorious serial killer, the film more than stands on its own even without the comparisons to real life events thanks to an incredible debut by Michael Rooker, who was an actor I’d become more accustomed to seeing playing more straightforward psychos and trashy redneck style characters than anything resembling a leading role, but here he embodies the character of Henry as he effortlessly shifts between the shy and awkward face he presents to those around him and the sadistic and quick to violence dark side. It is easy to understand while his performance was so quickly acclaimed, let alone the amount of further jobs he was offered as result of tapes being passed around while the film was being put through the censorship shears, especially when Rooker reportedly spent most of filming in character which no doubt wasn't particular fun for costume designer Patricia Hart who would carpool with Rooker to the set each day. At the same time he plays well off Towles’ unquestionably sleazy Otis who largely serves to provide a dark style of buffoonery when not trying to hit on his own sister as he takes an almost apprentice style role, while equally highlighting the limits which Henry has set for himself, even when it frequently doesn’t seem to have any.

While the violence within the film is a source of much controversy this is not a splatter happy slasher, especially when we witness only the aftermath of Henrys’ murders for the first half of the film and even then the film does with perhaps the exception of the murder of a TV salesman, McNaughton remains surprisingly restrained for these scenes, instead proving that he can shock with simply shot yet surprisingly effective imagery as more than clearly emphasised with the home invasion sequence which would suffer the most cuts over the course of its journey to its current uncut status and unquestionably it is not the easiest sequence to watch, especially when its aftermath lingers on longer than you would like after the violence has passed, while as the film switches to Henry and Otis rewatching their handiwork on video unfazed by their actions and certainly in the case of Otis who demands a rewatch a mixture of pride and amusement which carries over from the tape.

Perhaps also due to the lack of budget McNaughton was forced to restrain the gore here, which in a strange twist of fate plays in the films favour like so many of the aspects of the film which came out of pure coincident. Examples including the fact that the limited budget meant that the cast wore their own clothes, with Rooker who at the time was still working as a high school janitor taking his jacket off during the murder scenes so that he wouldn’t get blood on them, which at the same adds a sense of process to the murders he commits. Elsewhere not being able to afford extras McNaughton just used the pedestrians who happened to be on the streets when he was shooting, while the two guys arguing as Becky walks up from the subway were in fact just two guys having an argument.

Unquestionably though it is a sense of ill ease which McNaughton shoots the film with as he never allows the audience to feel at any point comfortable around these characters, with Rooker frequently coming across like he might snap at any moment into one of his violent rages, while at the same time forgoing the inclusion of any representative for the forces of right as like the title states here he is aiming solely to provide a portrait of this character and while Henry’s world starts to crumble around him at the films climax, McNaughton allows us something of a slight reprieve as he hints of salvation for Henry through the character of Becky, only to slam the door close with an ending which is nothing short of chilling.

A grimly fascinating film, which while far from an enjoyable experience is none the less an engaging one, while in many ways paving the way for the likes of “Man Bites Dog” and “Behind the Mask: The Rise of LeslieVernon” while Rookers performance remains ingrained long after the credits have rolled, with this classic example of low budget film making.


  1. I remember this film left a sour taste in my soul...but I loved every second of it for it. A shocking film no doubt, I'd love to revisit it for sure. What stands out is Rookers performance, as you mentioned, chilling! A vastly underrated film, ever seen McNaughton's The Borrower (1991)? It's a sci-fi gore-comedy weird ass film, I recommend it!

    1. I haven't seen "The Borrower" yet but have added to the list, so hopefully get around to watching it in the new year.

  2. Hope you like it, it's kind of half assed, yet totally insane. Certainly nothing as serious as Henry.


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