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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1985)

Review by Kelly

“Henry, a drifter, commits a series of brutal murders, supposedly operating with impunity.”

I was really looking forward to reviewing this film as it’s been a favorite of mine for years and I bought a wonderful new blu-ray copy of it recently. You know, the one with all the special features and the documentary on Henry Lee Lucas himself, the good stuff. I thought that since we were doing another 80s horror month, that it would be a perfect time to revisit it. It has also inspired me to launch a new aspect of my reviews called The Blacklist - title pending. I enjoy dark, dangerous, graphic and violent horror movies; movies that a lot of people tend to shy away from. If I run into a top 10 list of the goriest or most disturbing movies, I am immediately looking to check out anything I haven’t seen yet! I am always up for that movie challenge.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was created in 1985 but wasn’t released officially until 1990. This was due to issues with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA essentially “banned” this movie and gave it an X rating. Of course, the MPAA can’t officially ban movies but giving any movie an X rating would guarantee a severely limited theatrical release. Henry received an X rating due to the graphic violence and sexual content and actually, the X rating is usually reserved for pornography. There were other films that were also given this rating like A Clockwork Orange. This motivated a bunch of filmmakers to come together and sign a petition to overhaul the whole rating system. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer eventually got an NC-17 rating, meaning no children under the age of 17 were allowed to view the film and was released. It was one of the first movies to start the serial killer boom that went well into the 90s with movies like Silence of the Lambs and Se7en.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer stars Michael Rooker as Henry (in his first theatrical release), Tom Towles as Otis (roommate turned killer), and Tracey Arnold as Becky (Otis’ sister). It was co-written and directed by John McNaughton. This was McNaughton's first film and its budget was a mere 100K. Henry is loosely based upon the life and crimes of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas and his partner, Otis O’Toole.

The movie opens with a juxtaposition of dead women, disturbing audio recordings and shots of Henry going about town. It’s essentially a day in the life of a serial killer. Henry lives with Otis whom he met in prison and soon Becky, Otis’ sister, moves in to get back on her feet after leaving an abusive husband. Becky is immediately romantically interested in Henry and we can see the inappropriate feelings that Otis has towards her early on. One night Henry brings Otis into his killing game after picking up two sex workers and killing them in the car. This leads to a dangerous deepening of their friendship and things turn absolutely disturbing and tragic at the climax of the movie.

Director John McNaughton went into this film knowing that the audience wants to sympathize with the protagonist; they want an empathetic lead character. He wanted to trick us into identifying with the killer before showing us how absolutely wrong we were the whole time. In Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Film from Frankenstein to the Present, it talks to this hugely important element to the film that makes it so impactful. We want to see Henry be absolved for his crimes and perhaps become rehabilitated into our society which could be helped through the love, compassion, and understanding from Becky. We want to believe there is some good inside of Henry. However, Henry is well beyond any rehab and judgment; he is unchangeable. As the viewer, the tone and plot of the movie are guiding us towards an ending that we are not expecting, one that shows us very little but at the same time is heart-stoppingly brutal. There is no remorse and no turning back. Henry lacks a moral compass and no one will stop him.

The person who we truly should feel empathy towards is Becky. She is the woman in this story that no one talks about. She grew up in an abusive, incestuous household which she seems unable to truly escape from. Becky threw herself into a terrible, physically abusive marriage to escape her family life to only have it come full circle when she leaves her husband and goes to live with Otis and Henry. Otis continues to have sexual feelings towards Becky and acts upon them; sometimes in a more “playful” manner but sometimes more aggressive like when he tries to kiss her. Later in the movie he rapes and tries to strangle her before Henry comes home and intervenes. Becky often tries to laugh off his advances and comments but desperately needs a place to stay and with limited options, she is in the home of her brother, this putrid shell of a man. There are times when you can tell that she is avoiding being alone with him and no one can blame her. She gravitates to Henry due to his own dysfunctional family. Henry’s mother used to bring men home and force him to watch her have sex with them, sometimes in women's clothing, sometimes not. She would also have her invalid husband in the room during these sexual excursions. With his troubled childhood that mirrors Becky’s, Henry’s gentleman-like mannerisms and soft-spoken words is a breath of fresh air in her turbulent life.

Otis. I have never been so disgusted and reviled by a character than I am from Otis O’Toole and played to gross perfection by Towles. He completely unnerves me and makes me absolutely sick. Besides his interest in Becky, he is shown to enjoy rape, necrophilia and watching the videos Henry and him made of them murdering an entire family over and over again. I am pretty sure he was masturbating to it as well, though all we see is his motionless hand in his underwear. I can only speculate but it would fit his profile. So, when we see Otis and Henry together, it makes Henry seem less depraved and more “saveable”. Henry somehow raises the bar on how despicable humanity can be, imagine that!

I really love Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. From the acting (Rooker is brilliant!) to the gritty low budget aesthetic, and to the ominous, powerful synth score, this movie is fantastic. As much as I adore it, it’s not one I can watch regularly as it is very unsettling. It’s actually one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen. Something that is so incredible about the film is how commonplace the murders and the actions of these people are. There are multiple scenes of Henry, Otis, and Becky just eating dinner or playing cards. The banality of their lives makes this a fascinating look into the life of a serial killer. They work, eat, drink beer and go for car rides just like any one of us. Henry picks up odd jobs like the one we see in the movie which is for pest control. Henry is allowed into people's houses, with the homeowner obviously unaware of his crimes. He is unsuspecting because he is so polite and very handsome. The real Henry was far from the charming, good looking man that Rooker portrays. Serial killers are not glamorous, nor should they be given any rise to fame and stardom. They are brutal, psychopathic killers.

The real Henry & Otis

The movie tagline for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer wasHe's not Freddy. He's not Jason. He's real.” As per John Kenneth Muir in Horror Films of the 1980s, Henry arrived at the end of the huge boom of horror in the 1980s. After many uninspired slasher sequels, rubber reality, practical and special effects, Henry brought “a spare and uncompromising effort of kitchen sink authenticity”. It was going back to what horror was trying to become in the more artistic 1970s, which was “personal, apocalyptic, daring and intently questioning of our moral values and society.” Henry is raw, violent, pessimistic, sinister, unapologetic and wonderfully basic in its production. Henry is what will truly haunt you when the movie ends because there are thousands of men just like him living in the world right now.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is in my top 10 horror films of all time. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly encourage you to do so. Well, that is if you can stomach it.

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