I Watched It So You Don't Have To: Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer
Sometimes a film’s reputation precedes it in such a way that you actively avoid watching it for years. Sometimes it turns out that fear was just due to a whole lot of hype. Listen, of everybody here at Back Row I’m probably the wussiest when it comes to actively seeking out horror films. But like most of the people in this country, I can’t deny that I have a morbid fascination with serial killers. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) has been on my radar for ages, largely because I kept hearing about how shocking and brutal it was from my more horror-seasoned friends. I also knew it was made on a tight budget, shot on 16mm and completed in less than a month, with friends and family cast as bit parts and dead bodies. Sounds charming! Well, I finally worked up the courage to see it and I’ll tell you up front: the shock value in this is seriously overhyped at this point. But that’s not to say I wasn’t pleasantly surprised by its nuances.
Loosely based on real serial killer roommates Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer focuses on the lives of two disturbed men as they wantonly kill in the seedy gloom of Chicago. Henry (Michael Rooker) is a serial killer whose modus operandi is to kill at random, both in how he carries out the murder and whom he targets. He’s a drifter, but when we meet him he’s been living in a dingy flat with a fellow ex-con named Otis (Tom Towles). The film starts with Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) coming to stay with them in an attempt to get away from her abusive husband. Though Otis seems anywhere from indifferent to lecherous towards his sister, Becky manages to strike up an uneasy friendship with Henry. Having heard from Otis that Henry was in prison for killing his mother, she confesses to him that she was molested and raped by her father throughout her childhood. Henry seems to respect her for this admission, and opens up to her too. He says the reason he killed his mother was because she used to beat him, make him wear a dress and then force him to watch her have sex with multiple strange men.
While Becky gets a job at a hair salon, Henry and Otis score some prostitutes and then murder them. Well, technically Henry murders them and Otis passively lets it happen, which is how Henry justifies it when Otis freaks out a bit afterwards. Though, less than the lives taken, what Otis is worried about is his parole. In a moment of frustration Otis kicks in his television set, and then he and Henry end up in a garage trying to pick out a new one. Further frustrated by the salesman’s snippy attitude and high prices, they both decide to brutally murder him–first burning him with a soldering iron, then breaking a television over his head and plugging it in to finish him off.
Up to this point, there hasn’t been any on screen violence–either we’ve been shown the scene just before Henry kills, or the disturbing tableaus of his aftermath. Now the on-screen deaths start to ramp up, from snapping the necks of the prostitutes to the explicit zapping of the electronics salesman. After Otis’ sexual advances are rejected by a teen boy he’s selling drugs to, he officially snaps and decides to embrace serial killing to the fullest. ”I'd like to kill somebody” he proclaims to a delighted Henry. Otis and Henry then go on a killing spree with a camcorder they stole from the television salesman. It all culminates in a scene with the two of them watching a recording of themselves murdering an entire family. Their spree slows down after Henry mistakenly smashes the camera, causing an open rift to develop between the two of them. Tensions further inflame as Henry has to forcefully stop Otis from ‘teasingly’ molesting his sister.
Becky decides to go back home for her daughter, and courts Henry to go with her. She’s forward in her desires for him, but Henry seems cautious if not overwhelmed by her physical displays of affection. They get caught making out by a drunk and jealous Otis, which causes to Henry become flustered and leave the apartment to buy cigarettes. (This is when he says his famous reply to the convenience store owner’s question of ”How about those Bears?” “Fuck the Bears.”) By the time he returns, he finds Otis raping his sister on the floor. Enraged, Henry tackles Otis and they both beat the shit out of each other. After Otis seemingly gets the upper hand, Becky stabs him through the eye with the sharp handle of her metal comb. Otis writhes in pain until Henry finishes the job, stabbing him to death and then later dismembering him in the bathtub while Becky sobs. They both make a pact to run away to California, and book into a motel for the night. The movie ends as we see Henry exit the motel alone, stopping briefly to dump a heavy and blood-stained suitcase on the side of the road.
Okay after that rather bloody description you’re probably thinking I’m potentially dead inside to have not been shocked by this film. While I won’t rule that option out, the truth is that in this world of American Psycho and Martyrs, or even television’s Dexter, Game of Thrones or Hannibal, we’ve unfortunately seen far worse since the year 1986. To be fair, Henry was one of the early films that inspired the Motion Picture Association of America to create the NC-17 rating to begin with; it was quite controversial upon release despite garnering multiple positive reviews. That said, if you’re going into Henry without the expectation that it will shock you to your core, I’d say it depends on how much you can suspend your disbelief (or perhaps tap into similar personal experiences–though I sure hope that’s not the case for you). That said, there’s plenty to latch onto here in way of Henry being a creepy and unique movie that’s worth watching.
Henry’s low budget does the film all sorts of favors. It’s so understated and naturalistic that it was even compared to Cassavetes upon release. That a lot of is left to the imagination–either because of budgetary constrictions, stylistic choices, or both–also adds to the casual eeriness of the murders. Having the camera pan around Henry’s already dead victims, with their last moments echoed in the soundtrack, is an interesting and powerful way to put us in both Henry and the victim’s shoes. It normalizes the visuals of death, something Henry is quite enured to, and acknowledges the life that now only lives in memory. It’s that unflinching depiction of the banality of death and casual cruelty of Henry that certainly makes this film stand out in a sea of slasher horror.
This movie also has quite a uniquely wicked sense of humor that keeps it chugging along. When Becky first meets Henry she asks him about his relationship with his father and he relates a story about how his dad once brought him and his brother bikes, only to take them away because they were too small to ride them. It’s a typical childhood slight, a rather benign story not even that worthy of retelling. Becky, though, nods and immediately tells him in sordid detail about her childhood torture and molestation at the hands of her father, even bringing up that she thought she’d get pregnant multiple times. “Didn't get along with your daddy, huh?” is Henry’s deadpan response. Then there’s Otis who, after killing a child, a mother and a father in the same room, picks up the dead woman’s hand and waves at the camera with it. Nothing I’d exactly call laugh out loud but I guess it depends on if you’re into murder-slapstick.
At it’s heart, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a commentary on both the mutability of morality and the culpability of voyeurism. Henry as a character is shown to be a man of strong morals. Sure, he kills multiple people at random, but he’s also shown drawing the line several times in what he thinks others are allowed to do. Otis, for example, is constantly being policed by Henry’s sense of right and wrong; he’s fine with slaughtering random innocent women but trying to engage in necrophilia with one of those women is a step too far. So is sexually molesting your sister, something Henry has to stop Otis from multiple times. In that way, the film humanizes a lot of Henry’s violence with this idea that if it’s coming from a place of disciplined moralistic judgment; in comparison to Otis’ wild free for all, Henry’s actions feel almost reasonable. When the final scene comes, you not only understand why Henry kills Becky, but you also know it was better for Henry to have murdered her than letting her brother do it.
Which brings us to the third accomplice: the camcorder. Otis’ slippery slope into the world of serial killing seems to be encouraged no so much by peer pressure as the thrill of being able to record and replay himself engaging in it. That it takes the death of the camcorder to create the first crack in their murderer’s bond is telling—Otis is in it for the thrill of watching. Even Henry kind of rolls his eyes at Otis when he greedily proclaims “I want to see it again” after watching the tape of their triple homicide.
But here’s where its gonna get all after school special on you: the camcorder is also you, dear viewer. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is like a funhouse mirror to our expectations and our own codes of honor. That it’s cool and socially acceptable for us to seek out and watch this horrifically violent movie is it’s own stretching of morality. Where do we draw the line between getting our kicks watching said darkly comedic movie that normalizes serial killers and shows graphic depictions of death, and just going out there and doing it for ourselves the way Otis is encouraged to? The portrait of the serial killer… was you all along.
Okay, I won’t go that far—but you certainly will leave this grimy film feeling like you might need a bath.