Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990)
“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” is a study in contradictions. Ostensibly a horror film, it was widely praised upon its release in 1990 as a chilling drama that gives a glimpse inside the mind of a psychopathic yet undeniably charismatic manhunter — sort of a low-rent Hannibal Lecter in a wifebeater, a year before “Silence of the Lambs” came out. Some critics called it the best film of the year.
The film’s progeny is muddled. A pair of erstwhile producers gave director John McNaughton $110,000 to make a documentary about professional wrestlers of Chicago in the 1950s, but when that project fell through they told him to make a feature film instead with, according to Wikipedia, “the proviso being that it was to be a horror film with plenty of blood.”
“Henry” does have a couple of pretty bloody scenes, but it’s fairly tame stuff by hardcore horror standards. That didn’t stop the MPAA from slapping it with an “X” rating, and subsequent wranglings over the film’s content caused its release to be delayed four years after it was shot in 1986.
The film is more or less what the title implies: A character study of Henry, famously played by Michael Rooker in his breakout role. In the conception of Rooker and McNaughton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Fire, Henry is a remorseless machine who kills because he has lost all empathy for other human beings. All interaction is, on some level, a competition, Henry says, and it’s either them or you. Henry looks upon his victims not as innocents but as people who will harm him unless he strikes the first — and final — blow.
The story is closely based on the real case of Henry Lee Lucas, who may or may not have been responsible for hundreds of deaths. (Lucas’ own confessions changed frequently during his long incarceration, and many legal experts consider most of his murderous stories simple boasts.) The character of Otis (Tom Towles), a cellmate and accomplice of Henry’s, is modeled after Lucas’ lover and collaborator, Ottis Toole, who once claimed to have participated in 108 murders with Lucas.
The character of Otis is in some ways more interesting than Henry himself. As played by Towles, Otis is a bundle of id and impulses. Hideously ugly with grotesque teeth (Towles wore a prosthetic) and a smile like some imp spat up from hell, Otis seems to have unyielding sexual desires, including ones for young boys and his own sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold).
Becky comes to live in Chicago with Otis and Henry after her marriage falls apart and finds herself stuck in something of a love triangle. Otis clearly has salacious feelings toward Becky, teasing her about her former job as a nightclub dancer and making inappropriate comments. Meanwhile, she finds herself attracted to Henry, who has a strange code of chivalry that he applies rather subjectively. Henry defends Becky from Otis’ advances, which sets up an inevitable showdown.
The movie’s most disturbing scene is a home invasion in which Henry and Otis videotape themselves slaughtering an entire family and break the neck of the young son who walks in on them violating his mother while his father lies bound and gagged. Then they kill the woman, and Otis begins to fondle and kiss her corpse with clear inclinations for escalating the depravity before Henry grows angry and makes them leave.
Henry is depicted as a sexless creature or at least one repulsed by physical contact after being forced to watch his prostitute mother ply her trade. Sexual repression is a tried-and-true reflex for cinematic portrayals of killers, from Norman Bates in “Psycho” on down. It feels a little stale and trite.
The big question is whether Otis would have become a killer without Henry’s influence. I vote no.
From a technical standpoint, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” is barely amateurish. McNaughton frames his subjects clumsily and uses long, languid takes that are not a stylistic choice but simply reflect the lack of a budget for multiple takes from different angles or extensive editing. Any competent film-school freshman could probably bring in a more polished final product.
But ultimately it’s not the gilded frame that made “Henry” a modern horror classic, but its unblinking portrait of a remorseless killer who stares back at the audience and forces them to turn away.