Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)


This is the kind of film that the phrase ‘gritty realism’ was made for. The startlingly bleak reality of ‘Henry…’ adds to the disturbing tone of the movie and it’s no surprise that the film spent 3 years in limbo due to the MPAA refusing to grant the film even an ‘R’ rating in America. Likewise in the UK, the BBFC insisted on over a minute of cuts before finally granting the film an 18 certificate four years after its initial release. The story is loosely based on real life killer Henry Lee Lucas and follows the horrific murder spree of heartless criminal. Henry’s increasingly grotesque actions occur with apparent impunity from the law and his emotional indifference to murder is unwavering.

Director John McNaugthon shot the film using actors from a local theater company in his native Chicago in the lead roles and assorted personal friends were drafted in for the rest. There was no budget for extras so in any bustling street scene, that’s just members of the general public milling around. Thanks to this low-fi production technique, the movie has a very intimate feel to it. It is like you are simply glimpsing into the character’s private lives and yet it involves some truly appalling scenes of violence, brutality and rape. So do be warned, this film will not be to everyone’s taste.

Henry lives with a fellow ex-con called Otis. The two of them share a dank and dingy inner city apartment in the claustrophobic confines of which we spend a great deal of time. Otis’s sister Becky soon moves in to, herself running away from an abusive partner back home. Becky becomes fascinated with Henry and his violent past after Otis lets slip he met Henry in jail after he had murdered his own mama. Soon Otis gets caught up in Henry’s grisly murders and the two of them go out at night baying for blood. The two of them don’t profess to be killing those deserving death or perhaps those who they deem immoral like many other movie serial killers, they simply pick at random and show no remorse for their victims. One particularly harrowing scene sees the two video tape themselves invading a family’s home and killing them all, with Henry snapping the neck of a teenage boy before stabbing the tied up father to death. There is also a disturbing sense throughout the film that perverted Otis may have unhealthy desires on his own sister and as Becky and Henry become closer a disconcerting love triangle develops.

What makes Henry’s spree so shocking is not just the total lack of humanity he possesses but also the noticeable lack of any horror movie tropes that we are so used to. This isn’t like a standard slasher flick where there is a hero or heroine to root for and the killer remains a masked mystery throughout. Nor is there any dark humour or cheap scares put in to make you jump. This is just the story of an unhinged man who kills for fun and that gives the film a really unique tone.

Michael Rooker is a terrifying presence as Henry and deserves a great deal of credit for portraying such a heartless creature. He is a menace whenever he is on screen and Rooker provides a bullish brooding quality which gives Henry such an air of danger. Worryingly it is reported that Rooker stayed in character on set which can’t have been fun for the rest of the crew at all.

The film was financed by a Chicago Home Video Executive called Waleed Ali who hired McNaugthon to make him a low budget horror film with plenty of blood and gore for around $100,000. It’s fair to say the end product wasn’t quite what Ali had in mind. What McNaughton did though was take a subset of the horror genre, the slasher, and transpose it to the mundane day-to-day lives of blue-collar regular Joes. This is what gives the film its power, the sense that it is happening in the real world and not in some cine-friendly High School filled with beautiful teenage girls.

There are very few characters like Henry out there in the movies and in a strange way, his unrelenting malevolence is refreshing. There’s no rhyme or reason attached to his actions, he’s just a disturbed man with no remaining connection to mankind and there’s nothing they can do to stop him. It’s an indisputably horrific movie but one that still deserves great credit for its undeniable power and haunting nature.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is out on DVD 24th October 2011.

Director: John McNaughton
Writers: Richard Fire, John McNaughton
Stars: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnol, Tom Towles
Runtime: 83 min
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★½☆

  1. Kevin Matthews says

    An amazing film. I didn’t really notice you highlighting any flaws, Rob. Is the 7/10 just right for where you think it stands or is that because of the discomfort factor too. Just curious. I can’t recall what I would rate it, I’ve got to rewatch it soon.
    Great review 🙂

  2. Rob Keeling says

    Yeah, it’s a powerful film but no more than a 7 for me. Like you say, the discomfort factor limits it slightly in a way.

    I have no realy strong urge to watch it again in a hurry, but well worth a watch if anybody hasn’t seen it before!

  3. Kevin Matthews says

    There’s a similiar movie, but one with more black humour in it, called “Tony”, which I recommend (with reservations). Low budget, low key but excellent. Perhaps after you’ve rinsed off the grime from this one though, haha.

  4. Mark Wall says

    Still not seen this bad boy! it’s been on my radar for years, but never got round to it. may bump it up the list now though.

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