Movie Review – Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

The horror genre is no stranger to controversy, and one of the most controversial films of the 1980s is 1986’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The film began when director John McNaughton was hired to helm a horror film for a meager budget. At first unsure of what to make, McNaughton came upon a 20/20 episode about the serial killer Henry Lee Lucas who was convicted of eleven murders and claimed (mostly unsubstantially) to have killed hundreds more. Taking inspiration from Lucas’s life and his outlandish claims, and his friendship with fellow killer Otis Toole, McNaughton crafted a loose adaptation that was disturbing in its realism. It was filmed on 16mm film in less than a month for only $110,000, and yet it shocked audiences upon its general release four years later, with its realistic portrayal of murder, and garnered an “X” from the MPAA, further cementing its base reputation.

Michael Rooker was a janitor when he was cast as Henry in his first film role. His performance sells the apathy and impulse of the killer. Other performances are memorable, if not completely strong, though Tracy Arnold, who plays Becky, Otis’s sister, is quite natural.

Henry’s Chicago seems devoid of law and order. It is a gritty concrete corpse that the characters occupy like insects, feasting on the weak like nature’s cruel creations. Henry kills on a whim but still functions in society, never standing out enough to draw suspicion. In one brilliant but disturbing sequence, the audience sees the murder of a family via a home video made by Henry and Otis like an early but effective found-footage snuff film. The two men sit lazily watching it from the couch. When it’s done, Otis rewinds it. When Henry asks what he’s doing, Otis says he wants to see it again, but this time he uses the slow motion feature.

Henry 1986 still

There’s plenty here to make the audience uncomfortable, but the filmmaking is actually quite good and, in a way, compelling. Unlike most 1980s slashers, there’s no flair to these killings. Murder is quick and cathartic, and the fragility of life is fully displayed. Despite the increase in killings, Henry never seems close to being caught, and one can’t help but wonder how many murders go unsolved each year, and whether or not the stranger one sits beside at the bar has killed innocents without hesitation and is willing to do so again.

In a 2013 study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences two Belgian psychiatrists looked at the depictions of serial killers in film and found that most are entirely unrealistic, with a few notable exceptions. One of those was Henry, which they thought effectively fit the profile of common serial killers. They wrote: “Another realistic interesting example is Henry (inspired from Henry Lee Lucas)… in this film, the main, interesting theme is the chaos and instability in the life of the psychopath, Henry’s lack of insight, a powerful lack of empathy, emotional poverty, and a well-illustrated failure to plan ahead.”

Perhaps Henry disturbs so much because it offers a depraved truth devoid of the Hollywood tropes that so often soften the subject matter. It is visceral in its presentation and is a movie that, despite one’s wishes to the contrary, will stick with the viewer long after seeing it.

Grade: B