SLASHERS & SERIAL KILLERS IN REVIEW : HENRY : PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER 1986
In June 1983, drifter Henry Lee Lucas was convicted of 11 murders. Later, he confessed to over 3,000, but retracted many of these over time. Today, most believe that Lucas was responsible for about 40 separate killings, including his sex worker mother, and Becky Powell, the intellectually-impaired 15-year-old niece of his close friend and lover, Ottis Toole.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) is as much a biopic and crime drama as it is a horror film. It is as far from the territory of Jason, Michael and Freddy as an 80s serial killer movie can be, and its uncompromising violence and dread-soaked atmosphere ensured controversy and a release plagued with censorship issues. These problems set its American release back by 4 or so years, while in the UK, the uncut version of Henry was only made available in 2003, a full 17 years after it was made.
Before The Walking Dead and Mallrats, Michael Rooker made his name portraying a vicious serial killer. His stoic, menacing performance along with John McNaughton’s all-too-real direction help keep Portrait a grueling watch, even now in 2018.
From the opening few minutes, which intersperse Henry driving and drinking coffee with haunting shots of his victims lying in various states of death and undress, Henry is stark, moody, and disturbing. During my re-watch for this review, I realised that I’d never before seen it in its uncut “glory”. The gruesome image of the murdered prostitute on the toilet with the broken bottle protruding from her lips had been removed from the DVD I owned as a teenager, as well as a notorious video camera sequence that shows the murder and sexual assault of a family.
This semi-fictionalised version of Henry’s murderous exploits retains his close real-life relationship with Otis (in the film named “Otis), but removes explicit mention of their sexual relationship, and makes Becky a young woman and Otis’s sister instead of his niece.
When Henry begins, he is living with the sleazebag Otis, who he met in prison. Otis’s fragile sister Becky comes to stay following an ugly breakup with her violent partner, and it is through Henry’s interactions with them both that we learn about the man. Henry is a brilliantly-realised character with a deliberately inconsistent back story, an emotionless poise, and a relentless hunger for death. During the film, Becky becomes infatuated with Henry, and Henry welcomes Otis into the dark world of serial murder.
Henry’s near-documentarian style, with its fixed camera shots, lack of glamour and natural lighting can make the viewer feel more like a fly-on-the-wall than a popcorn-munching cinema-goer. It’s a stylistic device that becomes almost unbearable at points, making every character aside from Henry a potential victim, and every plot development a new opportunity for murder.
The video camera sequence is probably the most troubling of the film, and carried the most difficulties for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) before it was originally released in the UK. In the film’s uncut form, we witness the assault, torture and murder of a family (including what I assume to be a boy) on the grainy screen of an old-style TV. After all three family members have been degraded and killed, the camera draws back and we realise we have been watching it alongside Otis and Henry. This eloquently raises questions about the nature of exploitative film violence and the motives behind why we would want to view it. The idea that we have just witnessed snuff footage serving as porn for a pair of serial killers remains a difficult proposition.
While the film is immensely powerful, it isn’t without flaws. There are moments when the kitchen-sink-style acting give scenes a stilted, pause-filled awkwardness that you could argue is deliberate, but which had me questioning if that was the case this time around. The violence and murder scene footage is still uncomfortable, but there are a few moments where the effects haven’t aged as well as I’d hoped, such as a gonky-looking comb-in-the-eye and a couple of the corpses looking just a little too alive.
Altogether, though, Henry is a near-masterpiece in tension, and one of the most gritty, depressing portrayals of a real-life serial murderer I’ve seen. It’s one of those films that I tortured my friends with while I was growing up, as it feels so grimy, so uncompromising, and just so fucking real. It has retained this over the subsequent years and will no doubt retain it for many more.
A troubling, important film.
As a last comment, having once again seen the world through Henry’s eyes and this time taken notes, let’s take a few sick seconds to absorb his basic views on serial killing.
- Always keep moving, from city to city, town to town.
- Variate your murders and body disposal methods.
- Always remember that, one way or another, when it comes down to it, it’s you or them. You know what I mean, don’t you?
My rating : 4.5 / 5
Jonathan Butcher is an English writer of naughty words and nasty ideas, and a creator of odd characters and icky concepts. He’s had an inordinate amount of articles, stories and content published, including What Good Girls Do released through the Sinister Horror Company and, coming soon, his debut novel The Children at the Bottom of the Gardden. His latest is a collaborative novella called Demon Thingy: Book 1, released through Burdizzo Books, which contains all kinds of stuff that you wouldn’t want your grandma to read.