Time: 83 Minutes
Michael Rooker as Henry
Tom Towles as Otis
Tracy Arnold as Becky
Director: John McNaughton
Henry (Michael Rooker) is released from prison following his mother’s murder. He supplements his job as an exterminator with a series of indiscriminate and violent murders. Fellow jailbird and drug dealer Otis (Tom Towles) becomes a willing accomplice in Henry’s bloody killings. But as the depravity escalates and Henry forms a bond with Otis’ sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), things start to get out of hand. The film is based on the true-life story of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas.
I heard some things about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It’s a movie from the 80s where Michael Rooker played the lead role of a serial killer named (in apparently his best role to date), and it was extremely controversial, leading it to be censored and banned in many places. I did hear some positive things about it though, so I decided to check it out. I do think it is good, even though its very much not one I would ever want to go back to
This movie is essentially the examination and portrayal of a psychopath and serial killer, focussing on protagonist Henry as he kills random people without any remorse or empathy. There doesn’t seem to be a point to these senseless killings, but that in itself seems to be the point. The film doesn’t dig deep into motivations or reasons for the killings, but I thought that it worked for the movie. From the very beginning, it establishes an uneasy tone and never lets up. There is very little humanity here; the only shred of empathy is in the form of a character played by Tracy Arnold. While I found myself locked in watching this movie, I will say that nothing substantial really happens with the plot. It’s a good thing that it is only 83 minutes long then, it might’ve suffered had it been any longer. There are some terrible and poor dialogue at times, but the roughness and rawness of the film’s approach does make it work in way, more so than if it was in a more polished movie. The story culminates with a very dark, bleak and chilling ending that lingers in the mind long after watching.
The role of Henry is played by Michael Rooker, in what is quite possibly his best performance yet. He is outstanding, compelling to watch and unsettling, with a subtle menace to him. Despite his character being clearly a serial killer, Rooker makes him someone you are willing to follow (at least initially). He makes him more complex, and you are interested in seeing his interactions with other people. Some of the acting from the rest off the cast aren’t that good. However, much like the dialogue, with the tone combined with the realism, it worked.
This movie is directed by John McNaughton and his work here really made it work. As said before, this film is low budget and it certainly looks like it, throughout it feels very dirty and raw. Its raw and grimy appearance gives it a sense of realism, helped by the 16mm cinematography and the grainy look. It almost makes it look like a documentary riding around with Henry. Additionally, it makes use of real locations and settings that give the story an added sense of realism, only making it more disturbing. Considering that this is a movie about a serial killer, a surprising number of the murders take place off screen and we usually see the aftermath, but they are no less impactful (or perhaps it makes them more impactful that way). The violence feels unsettlingly real with the movie never revelling in it, and the ominous tone and never lets you feel comfortable.
Watching Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, I can definitely see why it caused such controversy at the time. It is uncomfortable to watch and not for everyone, however I found it a compelling watch, and it is at least admirable with how uncompromising it is. While the writing and direction is very rough around the edges, that helped the movie succeed as well as it did, along with a strong lead performance from Michael Rooker.