Director: John McNaughton
Writer: Richard Fire, John McNaughton
Producers: John McNaughton, Lisa Dedmond, Steven A. Jones
Composers: Robert McNaughton, Ken Hale, Steven A. Jones
Production Companies: Filmcat/Fourth World Media/MPI/Maljack
Principal Cast: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles
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Widely described as the crime of the twentieth century, serial murder became a hot box office property with the release of the much over-hyped Silence of the Lambs (1991), which briefly made the serial killer flavour of the month and which earned star Anthony Hopkins an Oscar, a knighthood and a certain amount of immortality as crap impressionists everywhere reeled out his fava beans speech. In the States, the serial killer had already attained a bizarre cult status, the random, multiple slayings of complete strangers becoming a sort of modern folk mythology. By 1992, T-shirts were available featuring your favourite mad psycho, comics were sensationally re-telling the 'true' stories behind the grisly crimes and there was even a serial killer board game.
Horror movie fans had seen it all before, of course. Back in the late 1970s, the success of John Carpenter's seminal Halloween (1978) had kick started the slasher bandwagon into motion and the serial killer movies of the late eighties and early nineties (and the subsequent Scream (1996) inspired revival) were really nothing more than the repackaged dregs left over from the earlier cycle. This time, the real life exploits of America's all too real serial murderers leant the new wave of films a certain warped credibility. The situation reached its most ludicrous and possibly least tasteful nadir when American television made a sanitised two part mini-series, The Deliberate Stranger (1986) about the man widely regarded as America's most vile and brutal multiple killer, Ted Bundy.
What makes John McNaughton's debut feature Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer unique amongst this motley crew is its uncompromising approach to its murderous protagonist. Loosely based on the real life exploits of Henry Lee Lucas who, in terms of claimed body count, remains America's most 'successful' mass killer (he claims almost 300 victims in his 'career'), Henry succeeds where others fail because it portrays its killer as an ordinary, almost boring and banal young man, just another lost soul in blue collar USA, superbly played by Michael Rooker.
The film has a peculiar, lazy feel to it as it unfolds at a serene pace while regaling us with images of stomach churning brutality. The opening sequences are quite superb; Henry wanders aimlessly around an anonymous suburb, relentlessly choosing his next victims and doing a spot of shopping as slow tracking-shot flashbacks reveal the carnage he's left in his wake, the mutilated bodies of his predominantly female victims. The details are presented without a synchronised soundtrack, just an ominous rumbling and the overdubbed sounds of Henry struggling with and launching bilious verbal assaults against his victims. The film takes some while to recover from this remarkable opening sequence as it leisurely introduces us to Henry's room-mate and future killing partner Otis (Tom Towles) who picks up his troubled sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) at the airport.
Henry tends to play fast and loose with the real facts behind the true story, though to be honest, a strict adherence to the facts is not really what McNaughton was looking for. In the film, Otis is a lumbering dunderhead who makes a clumsy gay pass at a guy he's selling coke to, before raping his sister and being killed by Henry. In real life, Otis Toole is alive and well, incarcerated in a Florida penitentiary and was a far more insidious character even than the scumbag that appears in the movie. An alleged member of the infamous - and possibly non-existent - Satanic cult The Hands of Death, Toole was a homosexual cannibal who has claimed to have committed at least a hundred and fifty ritual murders with Lucas, although law enforcement agents put the likely true number (which is never now going to be known) at around 200. Becky was Otis' niece in real life and was much younger than she's presented in the film.
But such deviations from the facts are acceptable and even to be encouraged when the end result is a film as profoundly disturbing and shocking as Henry. The leisurely pace is occasionally interrupted by scenes of stark brutality; the murder of a TV salesman who simply pisses Henry and Otis off; the casual murder of a couple of prostitutes in a parked car; Henry and Otis calmly video recording a beating in a park; and perhaps most notorious of all, Henry and Otis numbly watching the video they made of their horrifying assault on a middle class family, with Henry having to tear the bestial and sex-crazed Otis from the body of a murdered suburban housewife.
The film closes in the only way left open for it by Richard Fire and John McNaughton's bitter, gloomy script. Becky, having confessed her love for Henry after Otis' death, lays her own trap and the movie's ominous final image is of Henry taking a large suitcase from the back of his car, dumping it in the desert and driving off alone. It's a suitably chilling and downbeat finale to a film that is remorselessly bleak and lacking in any lighter moments to relieve the sordidness of it all.
Henry is pretty much a three handed show, with Rooker, Towles and Arnold giving fine performances as the human detritus rejected and abandoned by a society that refuses to accept or accommodate them. Completely relaxed before the cameras and giving thoroughly convincing and naturalistic showings, the triumvirate transform what could easily have been just another mad psycho slasher epic into a grim and depressingly accurate portrayal of American society in decline.
McNaughton cannily uses his three leads to paint a brutal portrait of poverty, rejection, isolation and cruelty. Nowhere in the film is it ever suggested that Henry is actually crazy, simply that he enjoys what he's doing and can find no good reason to stop. The unhurried pace and long, drawn out takes (none of the fashionable lightning editing, shock cuts or fancy camerawork here) suggest that McNaughton was trying to rise above the standard horror fare, typified in the mid-80s by the likes of the increasingly irrelevant Nightmare on Elm Street series. That he succeeded is a tribute to his tremendous talent for storytelling and the exploration of character.
The making of Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer is, in itself, a fascinating glimpse behind the commercial facade of 80s film making in the US. The story goes that the original production company stumped up a meagre $100,000 for McNaughton, a former documentary maker, to shoot a simple horror flick. When they saw the harrowing piece of pseudo cinema verite that McNaughton delivered, they got cold feet and dumped the film, leaving it to gather dust on the shelves of their vaults. Slapped with a kiss of death 'X' rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (usually reserved for hard core porn and, as such, denied access to either prominent advertising or the major cinema chains), Henry floundered, only to be rescued by Vestron and Atlantic Entertainment, who bravely opened the film at the 1989 Telluride Film Festival to a staggering reception.
Since Henry, McNaughton has singularly failed to develop the talent hinted at in his feature debut. His subsequent film, the $2 million invader from space comedy The Borrower (1991) was a complete disaster, reduced to quoting Henry (look for the wanted poster on a fire hydrant featuring Michael Rooker's image, or TV film critics discussing the movie) and stubbornly failing to add anything new to an already overcrowded genre. Still, some things never change - after many a hassle with the MPAA, The Borrower finally got itself its prized R rating only for distributor Atlantic to go belly up, leaving the movie stranded on the shelf... Of his later work only Wild Things (1998) has achieved anything like a cult following.