Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #101


Number of Views: Two
Release Date: January 5, 1990
Sub-Genre: Exploitation/Character Study
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $110,000
Box Office: $609,939
Running Time: 83 minutes
Director: John McNaughton
Producers: Malik B Ali, Waleed B. Ali, Lisa Dedmond, Steven A. Jones, John McNaughton
Screenplay: Richard Fire, John McNaughton
Technical Effects: Lee Ditkowski
Cinematography: Charlie Lieberman
Score: Ken Hale, Steven A. Jones, Robert McNaughton
Editing: Elena Maganini
Studio: Maljack Productions
Distributor: Greycat Films, Optimum Releasing, MPI Media Group
Stars: Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold, Mary Demas, Anne Bartoletti, Elizabeth Kaden, Ted Kaden, Monica Anne O’Malley, Bruce Quist, Erzsebet Sziky, David Katz


Suggested Audio Candy

[1] Death in Vegas “Dirge”

[2] Robert McNaughton, Ken Hale & Steven A. Jones “Henry”


The media of film is one helluva powerful tool. It can make you laugh from the pit of your stomach, sob like a newborn, gasp in sheer astonishment, cower in fear, and break out into impromptu dance if it so wishes. However, on the whole its primary objective is to entertain and enrich your life in some way, no matter how trivial that may seem. While the film I’m about to introduce you to covers the entire aforementioned spectrum, ultimately it just leaves you feeling numb. To anyone merely looking for light relief from their mundane existence, the notion of spending 83 minutes something that molests your very soul is utterly incomprehensible and, to be honest, I can’t really argue with that logic. That said, I’ve never been in this game simply for shits and giggles.


While I’m the first to buckle in for a dash of zany comedy or other suchlike frothy irreverence, I’m also fascinated by what makes people tick. Not being anything approaching an avid reader, film provides the swift fix of psychology that I crave and in a fraction of the time it takes to skim read some unapproachable hardback. Granted, there is no better feeling than being able to relate to the main protagonist and identify shades of yourself in their make-up, but there are over seven billion people in the world and not everyone is all that righteous. In fact, some are downright deplorable. This is where noses get put out of joint. You see, there are many who would challenge my decision to break bread with such human garbage and they are more than entitled to take me to task. However, my response will always remain the same.


I’m comfortable in my own skin, have been for a number of years now, and my days of impressionable have long since passed. I don’t harbor any secret desire to kill or maim another and would struggle to know which end of a blade to grip, if push came to shove. So when I settle in with a film such as John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, there’s no clear and present danger. I take what I wish and discard the rest, that’s how film has always worked for me. Should I disagree with a character’s actions, then I won’t climb on my soap box and rant the odds, and neither will I switch off out of disgust. This is somebody else’s story, somebody else’s choices, somebody else’s ultimate judgement. I’m just the friendly fly on the wall. At the very worst, I may hover down and vomit into their TV dinner, should I hold them in contempt but I certainly won’t be getting high and mighty.


The other thing that could land me in the dock is admitting that there are facets of the protagonist in question that I find rather appealing. Nothing is ever black and white, we’re all only human after all. Laughing at a serial killer’s jokes as he kicks back for downtime shouldn’t equate to blood on my hands. I make the conscious decision to invest my time in whatever low-life the moment I press play and they are afforded the same opportunity as any other to earn my respect or, in certain more extreme cases, passive acknowledgement. Each to their own I say and, while I’m more than happy to embark on some frivolous effects-laden extravaganza, I’m also content with slumming it with the reprobates. 83 minutes later, I’ll still be me, and I’ll have gotten close to some of the most fascinating of all subjects, at no direct threat to myself. Everyone wins, apart from those unceremoniously slaughtered of course.


I still remember the first time I was made aware of McNaughton’s sordid and affecting 1986 character piece. It featured side-by-side with another of his films, The Borrower, in a four-page spread in the once great Fangoria. However, after having my appetite well and truly whetted, it then disappeared without trace for a number of years before eventually resurfacing in the UK deficient of over a minute of footage deemed highly inappropriate. His film didn’t fare much better Stateside either, where it suffered a torrid time with the MPAA over its graphic depiction of family slaughter and other suchlike scenes of debauchery. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2003 that it was finally passed uncut and has since gone on to gain a devoted fan base, alongside any notoriety. Of course, I left it until this uncensored print arrived to sit down with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and form my own opinion. If you’re going to plummet from a ten-storey building to the asphalt below, then you might as well choose one with a view to a kill right?


As very much expected, it wasn’t at all pretty. McNaughton’s film skirts downright depravity throughout before going for the jugular in spectacular and unremitting fashion. It is the absolute epitome of bleak and punctuated with scenes which can make for very prickly viewing indeed. But who said we were meant to feel at ease anyhoots? McNaughton’s story is inhospitable and relentlessly ill-mannered and this was always his intention. However, in the same instance, Michael Rooker’s brilliant portrayal of the titular character reveals just about enough humanity to evoke a certain degree of empathy, albeit vague. Perhaps it is the fact that he shares an apartment with a guy for whom there is even less hope of emancipation.


On the surface, Henry (Rooker) looks pretty much like your regular everyday schmuck. He travels from town to town, staving off the boredom by occasionally (here comes the boom) murdering men, women and children to while away the hours. After migrating to Chicago, he and his old friend Otis (Tom Towles) head to the airport to pick up Otis’s younger sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) before returning to their shared apartment and playing some cards. Sounds riveting right? Prepare yourselves as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer features rather a lot of downtime. One more important tidbit of information, Otis shares his buddy’s sick fascination for slaughtering innocents. Needless to say, Becky is oblivious to their extracurricular activities and the three share scenes together that them appear a fully functioning unit.


Back to Otis for a moment as he is far less brooding than his partner in crime and gleans great enjoyment from their rapidly escalating murder bender. Like a wide-eyed boy granted his first sexual indulgence, he is deeply aroused by the maiming and mass butchery of his quarry, showing no repentance or even the faintest spark of humanity. Just being associated with Otis makes Henry seem comparatively nontoxic, which of course he is most definitely is not. Indeed, he is the more dangerous of the two as he won’t harp on about what is playing out inside that contorted cranium of his and, instead, will just turn on a sixpence and let his actions do the talking on his behalf.


Meanwhile, Becky provides Henry’s counter balance and holds genuine affection for him. Having just come out of an abusive relationship and being related to someone as unhinged as Otis, it seems accurate that her nice guy radar be somewhat off-kilter and her burgeoning affection is reciprocated by Henry, much to his best friend’s annoyance. If she’s looking to compare notes on fucked up childhoods then she’s well and truly out of luck as the fallout from Henry’s own troubled upbringing is far more dense. His tyrannical mother subjected him to cruelty and degradation as a nipper, dressing him as a girl and forcing him to watch as she engaged in sexual conduct with her clientele. We just know that their association isn’t going to end well. It is Henry’s conflicted feelings towards Becky that will ultimately drive a wedge between him and Otis in particularly uncompromising fashion.



Shot on 16mm, McNaughton’s film was shot in little under a month for little over $100k and took its stimulation from the real life case of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to over 600 murders (many of which were debunked) before his eventual incarceration in 1983. To this very day, over ten years after his death, there is no rock-solid evidence that he did any of the “bad things” he declared (and later recanted). McNaughton has clearly done his homework and the results are unanimous, thanks to a career best turn from Rooker (who remained in character for the entire shoot both on and off set) and able support from both Towles and Arnold. Indeed, without her, this would likely be simply too desolate an experience for most and the dynamic between the three ensures that we remain hopeful for the satisfactory outcome that we know only too well will never arrive.


Another fascinating aspect of McNaughton’s piece is the complete ineptitude of the armed forces. Despite the heinous acts being committed, they never once make an appearance. This was totally calculated on his part as he wished to provide his illustration of a lawless world. Amusingly the only time a police vehicle is featured it is moving in precisely the wrong direction, blissfully unaware as our pair make off from a freshly facilitated crime scene. Speaking of which, the acts themselves are deeply upsetting to watch and you will be required to possess a gut of wrought-iron and nerves of reinforced steel to make it through unscathed. It’s not the actual carnage that hits hardest but the pair’s nonchalance with regards to what they are forcing others to endure that leaves the most bitter tang.


Allow me to make this abundantly clear, in case you’re under any illusion whatsoever. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is not a date movie. Its objective is never to entertain, but it does provide valuable insight into the aftermath of maltreatment during early development and how that mental anguish manifests in later life. Rooker’s turn is quite simply mercurial, I have long been an admirer of his acting chops but never before has he tackled a character quite so polluted as Henry. Best run a nice warm bath in advance as you are going to be needing it come the end credits. Come to think of it, you may well change your mind after you see what Henry uses the tub for. Shower it is then.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 4/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: It is not the actual grue, but the film’s repellent nature that lingers long after that primary view. The upsetting mass execution of a family may well lodge in your throat like the broken bottle stuffed into the oral cavity of one of their poor unfortunates. Meanwhile, Henry appears entirely unfazed as he dismembers his associate without so much as a flicker of remorse. The damage has quite visibly already been done by this point, his grasp on reality has slackened, and any bogus wiring is a tad too complex to untangle. Don’t expect to feel good about yourself once the credits roll as there is precious little light at the end of this long dark tunnel.

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Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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