Film Review: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990)

Henry-Portrait-of-a-Serial-Killer

In the 1970s and 80s, the United States saw many of its most prolific serial killers come and go. Gary Ridgway was still strangling prostitutes in Seattle. Two thousand miles away, Jeffrey Dahmer stashed pieces of his young male victims in his freezer. Gacy had his clown suit on, and Bundy was on the hunt for brunettes. All managed to kill for years before their capture. During this time, a career criminal named Henry Lee Lucas drifted through the American south to Florida, where he met Ottis Toole, his eventual partner in crime.

It is at this point that John McNaughton picks up their story in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, filmed in 1986 and distributed in 1990 after a three-year battle with the MPAA (eventually ending in an unrated release). Henry is loosely based on the real-life partnership of Lucas and Toole, changing many true-to-life details for translation to film; Michael Rooker’s Lucas is shown to be a much quieter, more focused and intuitive individual than his real-life counterpart, with the balance of the film showing the violent fantasies confessed by the killer, rather than his actual crimes. Henry is realistic, gory, and terrifying, a dark work of art that continues to stand the test of time. While this film is made-to-order for true crime enthusiasts, horror fans, and gorehounds alike, it holds its own outside the genre as a true character study and technical achievement.

On its first viewing, Henry should be experienced un-spoiled, so to summarize briefly:  the film begins in the aftermath of several crimes, showing victim after victim interspersed with shots of Lucas in his element. We are soon introduced to Toole and his sister, Becky, who has come to stay at their apartment after separating from her husband. Henry and Becky have an awkward but immediate connection that informs their actions throughout the narrative.

A chronicle of the Henry/Ottis partnership follows, beginning with their initial killing of two prostitutes. Henry is shown as a mentor, coaching Ottis on the basics of murder as we learn the details of his own checkered past. We see their crimes escalate and their methods change as they go; their enjoyment is clear and they show no remorse. Becky is continually drawn further into their orbit, ultimately leaving Chicago with the nomadic Henry.

Henry Poster

The always-incredible Michael Rooker is transformed as Henry Lee Lucas; Tom Towles (Ottis Toole) and Tracy Arnold (Becky) both knock it out of the park. They feel real, and are the raw heart of the picture. The special effects read like crime scene photography, with most of the murders occurring onscreen, forcing the viewer into the horror of each moment and highlighting the killers’ satisfaction with their work. There is no humanity here, and there’s an honesty in that which is absolutely chilling.

Coming in at a budget of $125,000, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is an indie masterpiece. Ominous in tone and bleak to the extreme, it feels at times like a documentary of actual events. Few films come along that just work, in every way, on every level, and this is one of those few; it’s hugely important to a horror education and essential to a collection. Though its truth may make it a difficult watch for some, it’s worth the discomfort. This film is unforgiving, and for that, it’s superb.

Rating: 5/5 ★★★★★ 

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About Kara_E

Kara is a Senior Office Assistant for the Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics at Indiana University. A past English major and lifetime writer, she has also served both as an actress and behind-the-scenes assistant for several projects with our friends at Clockwerk Pictures. Kara lives with her husband in Bloomington, Indiana. In her spare time, she is a freelance editor/proofreader for international students at Indiana University, and serves as an organizer of the Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

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