Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ (1986) Is Masterfully Unrelentingly Bleak – Retro Review

Even if Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer isn’t the absolute scariest movie ever, it’s certainly one of the bleakest. Because of that, director John McNaughton didn’t have the easiest time getting it released. Its original X-rating was partly due to its violence, of course, but the film very often permeates with the main character’s hostility at life.

On that note, Michael Rooker is brilliant as the nomadic serial killer Henry (based on real-life murderer Henry Lee Lucas). Henry seems like he’s been in prison too long to remember, and not just a physical prison. His is more psychological. It seems his main thrill in life is going around killing people. Recently released from actual prison for murdering his mother, he continually takes out his frustrations on an unknown number of victims.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Delves Into Serial Killer Partnership

Henry is a man of few words, but he does occasionally hang out with Tom Towles’ Otis (based on serial killer Otis Toole, Lucas’ right hand man) as they share an apartment. Things get more interesting for Henry when Otis brings his sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), into the mix. When Becky presses Henry about what he was in prison for, he confesses to the murder of his mother. His explanation? It was no accident as she had abused him for years. His openness about the murder seems to lower his guard, and he almost seems to have positive feelings toward Becky as a result.

It seems Henry opens the door too wide, though, as he broadens his perspective to let Otis in on his murderous exploits, althpugh without Becky’s knowledge. Sure, Otis is initially shocked to see Henry murder two prostitutes (Mary Demas, Kristin Finger), but ultimately adopts Henry’s “them or us” philosophy on life. Soon enough, the two embark on fresh kills, including a seller of stolen goods (Ray Atherton) and a family of three (Lisa Temple, Brian Graham, Sean Ores). The family murder scene is definitely one of the hardest moments from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to watch, as Henry and Otis film it and treat it like a festive occasion. To make it even creepier, Otis becomes obsessed with rewatching the tape, threatening to out-Henry Henry (if you know what I mean).

Normalizing Murder

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is such a creepy movie because it pretty much normalizes murder for these characters and also brings the viewer into their point of view. Sure, you probably wouldn’t knowingly come over to the apartment or join Henry and Otis on a killer adventure, but you’ll better understand their mentality when such a moment arrives. The film lets you into their pit of frustration and degradation, of rage and a feeling of “no way out.”

Becky sort of keeps Henry grounded, and partly because she is so understanding. Henry probably also finds her cute. Unfortunately, so does the incestuous Otis, who hits on her frequently. Though Henry isn’t immediately smitten with her, he does seem protective, so when Otis crosses way over the line, there is pretty much no turning back.

The Legacy of Bleakness

If you’re not interested in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, it’s actually quite understandable. Personally, I find this movie more twisted, in some key respects, than even something like Cannibal Holocaust. In fact, one of my favorite scenes that truly conveys Henry’s hatred is the “fuck the Bears” scene, where someone asks his opinion on the sports team. It’s not just what he says but how he says it: It’s just oozing with hatred, and I love it.

So yes, this movie does go for shocks, absolutely. However, the most shocking component is just the almost unrelenting hostility the main character has toward humanity. Henry killed his mom, which he balks at, just as he does all of his other eventual victims. It’s hard to imagine him going out to a nightclub and dancing or even being smitten with anybody. Otis is also scary enough, twit that he is, and is not exactly dragged kicking and screaming into Henry’s horrifying worldview.

A Creepiness that Lingers

Perhaps the scariest thought is that there’s a little bit of Henry or Otis inside many people out there, if not all of us. You know, the tough-as-nails, hostile and macho, won’t take no for an answer mentality. Maybe they’re eager to pick a fight with someone’s boyfriend, drunkenly confront someone with a gun, or worse.  Some are a few negative life events away from the edge.

Most people don’t take it as far as these two maniacs, and they would at least regret awful behavior the next morning. However, there’s always someone out there who could put on Henry’s shoes, awaken in Henry’s bed, and hear the sound of a crash resounding in the apartment next door. Someone might share that “them or us” mentality and leave a body lying in the middle of the road.

That’s largely why Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer originally had that X-rating. It’s a movie that makes one think of bleak things. You’ll probably want a shower after watching it… if you can get over the fear that something could happen to you in one of your weakest, most vulnerable moments. Yes, this movie is freaky.

What are your thoughts on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer? Let us know in the comments!

About wadewainio

Wade is a wannabe artist and musician (operating under the moniker Grandpa Helicopter), and an occasional radio DJ for WMTU 91.9 FM Houghton. He is an occasional writer for Undead Walking, and also makes up various blogs of his own. He even has a few books in the works. Then again, doesn't everyone?

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