Initially meant as a direct-to-video release, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was shot in Chicago in 1986 for a budget of less than $150,000 and using unknown actors from the city’s Organic Theater Company. While working for MPI, a local video distributor, director John McNaughton was asked to make a cheap slasher movie that the company could sell. What they got was something quite different.
Alfred Hitchcock once said of Psycho "People will say, 'It was a terrible film to make. The subject was horrible, the people were small, there were no characters in it.' I know all of this, but I also know that the construction of the story and the way in which it was told caused audiences all over the world to react and become emotional." These words certainly also hold true for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a disturbing and brutal examination of a man with no remorse and (almost) no morals. In the film we learn about the drifter Henry, his current roommate Otis, Otis’ innocent sister Becky, and how the three of them form a strange sort of love triangle and get sucked deeper into Henry’s sinister world.
Henry is shot on video in an almost cinema verite style that allows it to quickly become real in our minds. The grainy colors and urban grime are reminiscent of Taxi Driver, and Henry and Travis Bickle certainly seem to share similar feelings about humanity. The violence contained within the movie is held with an unflinching eye, and the style allows it to become even more hauntingly realistic and disturbing. Henry is an ugly, grim, and painful film. It is not presented in a strictly "body count" fashion like most slasher flicks. Violence is not glorified, it’s just…there. Initially all we see is the aftermaths of Henry's killings, that of the bloody and broken bodies lying spent in creeks and alleys. As the film progresses we are pulled in deeper and presented with more and more of the brutality.
All of this eventually reaches its appalling peak in a sequence where Henry and Otis videotape themselves breaking into a home and murdering the family inside. The sheer terror presented in this scene puts anything The Blair Witch Project attempted to shame. In fact, I could see it being separated from the rest of the movie and being spread on the internet as something entirely real. It is also in this scene where Henry presents at least some form of morality when he prevents Otis from making out with the half-nude corpse of the wife. Henry also later stops Otis in his attempts to form an incestuous relationship with his sister.
All of this probably sounds to you like a movie that’s not very enjoyable to watch, and you’re right, Henry isn’t fun. After I was done watching it, Henry made me feel like I did after I saw Requiem For A Dream or Saving Private Ryan. The movie grabbed me and shook something inside of me. I felt disturbed. This is a horror film about the banality of evil and the terror that might lurk within our own city blocks.
I don’t want to imply that this movie is simply a series of vignettes about killing. We also delve into the empty lives of our protagonists and they open themselves up in Henry’s drab apartment, giving us their backstories and hinting at why they might be the way they are. Especially notable is the performance of Michael Rooker as Henry. He is able to make Henry into an utterly hollow man who still manages to maintain some semblance of humanity on his exterior. Henry almost seems to become tender towards Becky and protects her, but when you look into his eyes all you can see is death.
And I must say that it is a testament to the film that for all the shock and the violence that it has in it, the one thing that stays with me the longest is the final, chilling shot: A blue suitcase lying on the side of the road.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was initially shown at the Chicago Film Festival in 1986, after which it was given an X rating by the MPAA for “extreme moral tone”, which essentially barred it from any sort of mainstream distribution. In fact, the MPAA was unable to offer any recommendations on what cuts could be made in order to garner an R rating. The film languished on the shelf until 1989 when it began showing at midnight screenings at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago and eventually moved on to New York where it was noticed by the Village Voice. Noted documentarian Errol Morris invited the film to be shown at the Telluride Film Festival in 1989, where most of the audience walked out during the home invasion segment. However, the film created such a buzz that it eventually received national distribution in 1990, where it was given much critical acclaim along with protests against its unerring portrayal of violence. Since that time, the film has been re-branded as NR, not rated, allowing it to be sold in places where X and NC-17 movies are not allowed.
The film is very loosely based on the real-life confession of convicted serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who really did drift around the country with his friend Otis Toole and Toole's younger sister Becky. Although Otis and Becky met different ends in real life, and Becky was a young teenage girl when the events took place. Interestingly, Henry Lee Lucas was the only Texas death row inmate to have his sentence commuted by then-Governor George W. Bush.
A sequel was made in 1998 entitled Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer 2 - Mask of Sanity. No one from the original production was involved.