Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is currently available on instant Netflix.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) – Rated R

“One of the most notorious films of the 1980s still terrifies. Serial killer Henry serves as mentor to dim-witted fellow killer Otis and as the object of his sister’s affections. Trouble is, Henry’s heart is too hard for friendship to penetrate. Disturbing, chilling and full of knockout power.”

“If you shoot someone in the head with a .45 every time you kill somebody, it becomes like your fingerprint, see? But if you strangle one, stab another, and one you cut up, and one you don’t, then the police don’t know what to do. They think you’re four different people. What they really want, what makes their job so much easier, is pattern. What they call a modus operandi. That’s Latin. Bet you didn’t know any Latin, did you kid? “

Let me start with a warning. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is, as befits the title, a very ugly film. It is low-budget, though that actually works in favor of the grittiness of the film. It is not fun and you will feel like you need a shower after watching it.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is written by John McNaughton and Richard Fire and directed by John McNaughton. It is a heavily fictionalized version of the story of Henry Lee Lucas. McNaughton does a wonderful job of capturing life among the working poor while also acquiring the mindset and brutality of a serial killer.

The film opens brilliantly with a slow, pull-back of a victim in a field. We then cut to Henry finishing a meal in a diner. Scenes continue of Henry going about everyday life interspersed with scenes of victim’s bodies. While showing the bodies, audio is played lightly detailing their last moments.

Henry is Michael Rooker’s feature film debut and Rooker knocks it out of the park. His portrayal of Henry is amazing. He borrows some mannerisms from interviews with Henry Lee Lucas, imitating how soft-spoken and shy Lucas was but Rooker creates a very layered portrayal out of that. It is unfortunate that he quickly became typecast as a heavy because of it.

The only two other stars of the film are Tom Towles as Henry’s friend, Otis and Tracy Arnold as his sister, Becky. Everyone else is incidental or a victim. Tracy Arnold was quite good but abandoned films fairly quickly. Tom Towles nailed playing a scumbag and would go on to become a character actor, often specializing in heavies as Rooker has done. Most recently Tom Towles was in several of Rob Zombie’s pictures (Halloween, The Devil’s Rejects, House of 1000 Corpses).

The two reasons to watch Henry are Rooker’s understated, down-to-earth performance and McNaughton’s bleak, nihilistic yet authentic view of suburban America as filtered through the eyes of a serial killer.

Sequel-itis: In 1996, Chuck Parello, a man who had nothing to do with the first movie, wrote and directed Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer 2: Mask of Sanity. Michael Rooker was, of course, offered the title role but he turned it down.

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