#163 Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer
(1990, John McNaughton)
“I’d like to kill somebody”
One of the most infamous serial killers of all time was Henry Lee Lucas, a man who claimed to have killed over 600 people during the sixties, seventies and eighties (although many of his claims were since debunked). A killer with claims such as these is bound to generate media interest, he did, to the point where even a movie was loosely based on him. That film was Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. While many specific details are changed, the inspiration is still there.
As the film starts, we see a man named Henry (Michael Rooker) going about his daily business, intercut with gruesome shots of murder victims, strongly hinting that he is the one who murdered them. Eventually, we realise that, yes, the man is indeed a remorseless serial killer, seemingly operating with impunity. He lives with a man he met in prison, Otis (Tom Towles), and Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold), who has recently left her husband. Over time, Otis becomes an accomplice in Henry’s killing sprees, and things kind of go downhill from there.
Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, as you might imagine, is not a pleasant movie. Filmed on a very low budget, the movie is a grim, gritty work operating mostly in dark, dank rooms. The murder scenes, and even just the shots of the victims seen early on, are all graphic and horrible, demonstrating a violent and entirely unhinged human being.
The movie’s low budget works for it. At times it can feel almost like a documentary, making the graphic horror of the murders all the more shocking. The low budget also causes the movie to have a lack of polish, normally a criticism, but it actually fits perfectly in with the squalid apartment Henry and Otis live in, as well as the grimy locations that surround them. It also makes the movie look very dark, adding to the atmosphere.
Not that this necessarily makes Henry a good movie. The low budget also works against it rather considerably, since there are times where some of the blood and gore effects can look a little cheesy, and on a much larger scale, the sound levels are absolutely terrible. There are times when it’s difficult to make out dialogue under anything else, and at times it can also sound a little buzzy.
There’s also the issue that the movie’s plot is barely there at all, resulting in a movie that does little but show a series of gruesome killings one after the other, with some brief character interaction in-between. While the movie is clearly intended to be a thriller showing us the dark underbelly of Henry’s world, there are times when it can feel like it’s glorifying serial murder. The fact that the movie practically gives a guide on how to be a successful serial killer in its dialogue was a little troubling. Instead of pushing us to question Henry’s actions, it’s almost suggested that we should identify with him.
I also had serious issues with the characterisation of Becky. Clearly she and Otis are from a broken family, but her revelations about being abused by her father come out way too suddenly in conversation, and she generally seems a little too naïve and trusting. The fact that she falls in love with the always emotionally distant Henry is incredibly baffling, and further points to issues with her character. Sure, a lot of this could stem from the abuses she suffered, but she also came across as too cheerful most of the time despite what was clearly going on around her. She just feels very poorly written overall.
Overall, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer was a weird movie that felt a little pointless. It’s a little creepy, sure, but it has no real story and can sometimes feel a little too happy to be throwing all this murder in our faces.
Starring Michael Rooker, Tom Towles & Tracy Arnold
Written by Richard Fire & John McNaughton
Produced by Malik B. Ali, Waleed B. Ali, Lisa Dedmond, Steven A. Jones & John McNaughton
Music by Ken Hale, Steven A. Jones & Robert McNaughton
Cinematography by Charlie Lieberman
Edited by Elena Maganini
Favourite Scene: I did like when Henry and Becky were talking, since Henry’s ever-changing story about how he killed his mother helps define the character.
Scene That Bugged Me: When Henry is giving his advice on how to be an effective serial killer, which feels like it’s really glorifying things way too much.
Watch it if: You like movies about serial killers
Avoid it if: You want more than just gruesome murders