In the 1980s John McNaughton was given $110,000 to make a horror film and he set about making one that would horrify. He certainly succeeded. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a truly disturbing and frightening experience.
So often these days horror films contain humorous deaths; you spend half a Final Destination laughing at the ridiculous ways the characters meet their demise. Dying is often a kind of punchline, while in an action film we root for our heroes as they kill their enemies in “positively shocking” ways. What Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer does, is show just how horrendous the act of murder is.
The film was very loosely based on the real serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. It has a documentary feel, as we simply follow this man go about his business of murder. The film does not really judge him, it merely shows us how he does what he does. There are no heroes, only victims, and this serial killer, who is eventually aided by his friend Otis. The film is mercifully short. That is not to say that it is bad, it is just distinctly unpleasant – but then again, that is its point. Certain sequences linger with you and it is hard to shake them from your head. There is no glamorising here.
Well… that isn’t exactly true. In fact quite subtlety Henry is shown to be not that bad. First of all Michael Rooker, who plays Henry, is far more handsome than the man it is based on. Henry Lee Lucas was a hideous looking man. With strange eyes and missing teeth. He looked like the monster he was. Rooker is tall and strong with a masculine chin and looks like he could be a ladies man. Steve Buscemi after having acid thrown in his face would have been a closer match to the real killer. That said, Rooker is very good in it. The film also leaves out the fact that Henry was a necrophiliac and makes his love interest his friend’s 20 something year old sister, while in real life it was his friend’s niece, who was only 12 years old. Here he even saves her from his friend Otis who tries to rape her.
The character of Otis is yet another reason that makes Henry seem not as monstrous. Otis is brilliantly played by Tom Towles, who has gone on to star in Rob Zombie’s equally violent but far emptier horror films. The character of Otis becomes obsessed with killing and he appears to enjoy it more than Henry. In context, all of a sudden Henry seems more human and more relatable.
Michael Rooker’s Henry gets away with murder and just keeps killing. The real Henry said that he killed hundreds, this is almost certainly a lie, but the film takes it as fact and this adds to the idea that he is unstoppable and almost more than a man.
The film does however work a treat as a horrific picture of how serial killers go about their days. The Blu-Ray is not such a treat. The quality is terrible and the special features are not particularly engaging. There are three different interviews with the director where we hear the same anecdotes. It gets to a stage where you can finish the stories before him. There is also a documentary from the early 90s about the real Henry which is poorly made and is quite incredibly tacky. It contains interviews with the real man, who is a vain bastard; and bizarre keyboard jazz plays as cops who support the death penalty talk about his revolting crimes. Amazingly, it is more unpleasant than the film. As well as a more up to date documentary it would also have been nice to have a commentary track.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a solidly made low budget movie that captures the true essence and horror of murder. It is hard to watch and won’t be for a lot of people. Some ten years later John McNaughton outdid the film and himself with the threesome in Wild Things; a scene that could teach Hitchcock, Kubrick and Kurosawa a thing or two. Or maybe not.
Film Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Harry Davenport
Release Date: 24th October, 2011 ( Blu Ray)
Cast: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold , Tom Towles
Portrait: The Making of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas
Interview with Director John McNaughton
John McNaughton in conversation with Nigel Floyd
Deleted Scenes and Outtakes with commentary by John McNaughton