Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

I haven’t seen Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in quite a long time; I was probably 13 the last time I saw it and it didn’t impact me the same way it did this time. It’s a rough film, extremely low-budget (costing around $110,000 to produce), and relies less on gore than malevolent motivation for its horror. Initially finished in 1986, Henry wasn’t released in theaters until four years later and supposedly the MPAA wouldn’t give it an R-rating – and it’s not because of the gore but because of the situations. Henry is rife with rape, incest, and brutal, sadistic murder which are not uncommon for the horror genre but there’s something particularly gruesome about this movie: a certain, grittiness which makes the film seem more like a documentary at times than a feature film.

Although Henry isn’t an excellently constructed film, implementing the same fadeout each time a scene changes, it’s not the editing that makes the film fascinating. Many of the scenes are well framed and crafted and the film’s lacking budget seems responsible for these limitations. It was shot on 16mm and edited in somebody’s living room and there are times this is evident. However, don’t let the limited budget deter you if a truly appalling depiction of serial killers is desired – Henry delivers in spades. What it lacks in production it makes up for in acting, story, and its representations of violence.

The story centers on Henry (Michael Rooker), based loosely on Henry Lee Lucas (who falsely claimed he murdered over 600 people), an ex-convict who goes around killing people randomly. Staying in Chicago with former jailhouse buddy Otis (Tom Towles), Henry makes ends meet by working odd jobs. Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) later arrives and immediately has a crush on Henry – a feeling which isn’t exactly reciprocated by Henry. Eventually Henry allows Otis into his world and the two go around killing people left and right; some with guns or knives, others are tortured first. After dropping a black and white television on a black market dealer’s head, the two acquire a video camera and begin recording their acts, reminiscent of Charles Ng and Leonard Lake actions from the early to mid ‘80s. These scenes, where Henry and Otis record their murders, are particularly ghastly and even feature the murder of a teenage boy who comes home to find his parents the duo’s newest victims. All in all, the motivations the protagonist’s exhibits are disgusting and quite troublesome.

The gore, on the other hand, is rather mediocre and doesn’t really match the actions of Henry and Otis. Of course the film’s budget is responsible but some of the scenes, especially when a nail file is rammed through a man’s eye, looks phony and are comical. I feel that with the proper budget the violence could equal the film’s actions. Then again, with the proper budget the film could also feature better editing techniques and not come across as somebody’s first film, mimicking a post-graduate’s film project. Regardless of the film’s lackluster financial situation, what director John McNaughton accomplished with the limited resources at his disposal is quite extraordinary. McNaughton crafted a film responsible for much controversy and was hailed by many critics as a truly innovative piece of cinema.

I feel that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a quite interesting film that deserves at least one viewing before pushed aside and labeled violent trash. It presents an honest view of Americans from a lower socioeconomic class during the 1980s, demonstrating what factors lead to crime and a life of violence. Naturally Henry is an oddity amidst a sea of underprivileged people, a man whose actions go beyond normal criminal motivations, but the cause of Henry’s mental state is not singular. The film features a great deal of commentary on the patriarchal family structure of America’s south, where women are little more than property or sexual objects. Becky, an unwed mother arriving in Chicago to escape an abusive partner and limited economic opportunities, discusses sexual abuse at her father’s hands and the audience sees firsthand Otis’ sexual assaults. This aspect reminds me of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, where the protagonist Bone is constantly assaulted by her stepfather Glen. Of course Allison’s semi-autobiographical novel doesn’t contain the murderous aspects Henry explores but the similarities regarding a woman’s place in America’s rural south are uncanny.

The soundtrack, performed by Ken Hale, Steven Jones, and director Robert McNaughton is absolutely creepy and sinister, relying on minimalism for its atmosphere. Primarily implementing synthesized drones and piano, especially for the opening theme, these three musicians turn their financial limitations into a positive. Like John Carpenter’s scores, most notably Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13, and Halloween, using a large ensemble takes away from the personal nature of the film – Henry is a small film and the soundtrack doesn’t trying to make it seem bigger. Whereas Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is a large scale serial killer film, worthy of a multiple piece orchestra for the score, Henry would sound awkward with anything more than it has. Henry’s score also works outside the film’s context and many of the tracks are simple, eerie tunes perfect for creeping somebody out.

Below is a link to a free version somebody uploaded onto Google video and an embedded version of the film. The film is available in both Blu-Ray and traditional DVD formats (I watched an old MPI videocassette version a friend loaned me) but it’s available free so why not take advantage.


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