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Retrospective – Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Henry is a testament to how powerful a film can be even without much of anything to work with at all. Based loosely on the story of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, it was made for only $100,000 and its low budget helped it immensely. Henry does not feel polished and is not beautiful to look at. It doesn’t feel like a Hollywood production. It doesn’t even feel like a movie at all. It feels like a documentary, like these events are really happening. As a result, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of the most unsettling movies ever made.

It received an X rating when it was released, with the MPAA noting that there were no possible cuts that could be made to the movie in order to grant it an R rating, and that the “moral tone” was enough to result in an X. It’s an unfair assessment on the part of the censors that only hurt the feature’s release and popularity, but Henry is an incredibly bleak film, that much is true.

It seeks only to show what this person does in his daily life, what he’s capable of, it doesn’t even make him out to be too much of a monster. Nor does the film try too much to humanize Henry. It only shows him, only looks at his life through a camera lens and allows the audience to reach their own conclusions.

Henry: Portrait of a killer directed John McNaughton based on the serial killer Henry Lee Lucas.

Becky has moved to Chicago to escape her abusive husband (who only mirrors her abusive father) and moves in with her brother, Otis (Tom Towles). Otis also lives with Henry (Michael Rooker), a friend of his who he met in prison. While it’s unclear what Otis was in for, he tells Becky that Henry was in for the murder of his mother. Becky immediately latches onto Henry as sort of a knight in shining armor.

He’s nicer than her obnoxious, crude brother and he doesn’t treat her too bad. He doesn’t let Otis do anything to her, at least not while he’s around. It’s unclear just how much she knows of what Henry and Otis are doing before the end, but she appears on the surface to be wholly oblivious.

Henry is a serial killer, of course, and he gets Otis involved in this business as well. We don’t see a lot of the actual action of murder in this movie, though, except for one extremely hard to watch and noteworthy sequence in which Henry and Otis videotape their crimes. It’s the scene that cements that this is about violence as entertainment.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

After killing to get their hands on a camcorder, Henry and Otis videotape themselves murdering a family. We see the action, then pull back and in a great reveal see Henry and Otis watching the recording the next day. Otis is enamored with it, but Henry is almost sickened by seeing the work after it’s already been done.

In the film’s incredible opening shot, we’re treated to a series of haunting shots showing Henry’s victims lying dead and discarded—we’re seeing the aftermath of murder but we’re hearing the audio of the event as it’s taking place. These are provided almost as art exhibits in their finely laid out detail.

These shots are intercut with Henry driving, so that when he stops and picks up a hitchhiker, we don’t need to see anything else, not even a hint of violence because we’ve seen enough of Henry’s previous work already to know exactly how this ride will end. It works backwards and is a very inventive and chilling scene.

Henry 1988

Things only get bleaker as Henry progresses. Even if it changes from one moment to the next, Henry seems to possess some kind of moral compass that Otis does not have. Otis is just along for the ride and can’t even be left alone with his own sister without attempting to rape her. Things escalate to a head and reach a conclusion that, while jaw dropping, is also inevitable.

The acting is great all around. A movie like this, with such a low budget, really only has its actors to rely on. Michael Rooker’s performance as Henry is so subtle and haunting, it almost seems effortless. It seems as though he really is that person, even though he obviously is not. He carries with him a sense of danger where you feel as though he might go off at any moment and yet in some scenes he seems genuine and almost even kind.

In short, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a masterpiece and one of the most chilling films ever made. It is a haunting portrayal of how real serial killers work and act and is a hard pictrure to shake long after it’s over. Not great for a simple evening’s entertainment, but a powerful and thought-provoking feature nonetheless.

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Written by Nat Brehmer
In addition to contributing to Wicked Horror, Nathaniel Brehmer has also written for Horror Bid, HorrorDomain, Dread Central, Bloody Disgusting, We Got This Covered, and more. He has also had fiction published in Sanitarium Magazine, Hello Horror, Bloodbond and more. He currently lives in Florida with his wife and his black cat, Poe.
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