“Henry Portrait Of A Serial Killer” Challenges Us To Readdress Our Reaction To Screen Violence

John McNaughton challenges us to readdress our reaction to screen violence as Michael Rooker chillingly plays Henry, a man loosely based on multiple murderer Henry Lee Lucas.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a difficult film to watch not least because very little actually happens. Indeed, when something does happen we either don’t see it (the imagination set into override thanks to a dead girl with a bottle inserted into her face, sat askew on a toilet seat; the bloody handprints on a suitcase, its disembodied contents surely horrific) or we watch events as voyeurs on the perpetrators television screen.

The notorious scene, by which the film is most often remembered, sees the gruesome pairing of horrid Henry and his slightly dumb, hugely twisted friend Otis film the home invasion and murder of a family. The pivotal scene is the most affecting and graphic of the entire film but it is perhaps the unseen violence, which makes up a significant proportion of the film, that is most effective. It is our imagination that fills in the gaps, much like Henry himself, who recounts his tally of killings with creative license.

portrait of a serial killer, john mcnaughton, michael rooker,

Loosely based on the tales relayed to police following the capture of serial murderer Henry Lee Lucas, John McNaughton’s film spends a few days in the life of a loner, also named Henry (Michael Rooker), who has moved into a grimy Chicago apartment with ex-cell mate Otis (Tom Towles). Otis’ sister Becky comes to stay at the apartment following the breakdown of her marriage and immediately forms an unlikely friendship with Henry. She is quizzical over Henry’s supposed killing of his own mother, telling him that she has also thought about killing her father who sexually abused her. Henry tells her that he did indeed murder his mother because of the way she treated him as a child. His mother, who was a prostitute, forced him to dress up in women’s clothing and watch her having sex with her clients. However, Henry’s recollection of the events of her death differ – he tells Otis he killed her with a baseball bat, while his method of carnage changes as he tells his story to Becky. No doubt this is reference to Henry Lee Lucas’ overzealous and falsified admission to over six-hundred murders. He was eventually convicted of eleven murders although it is believed he could have been responsible for over two-hundred.

Henry’s differing recollections of how he murdered his victims highlights his desensitised approach to butchery but it also examples just how powerful the imagination can be. The film begins by depicting various victims, presumably murdered by Henry, in the state in which he left them. A naked woman lying in a field, another woman lying upside down in a stream, a couple in a convenience store. We see a picture of the aftermath and have to piece together the horrific events leading to that bloody conclusion. Director McNaughton is enticing us to want to see what happened. Like passing a car accident and wondering what events led to that car sitting upside down in a ditch. The film is therefore testing our reaction to screen violence – do we want to see it or do we not, do we condone it or do we not, when is it okay, and when is it not.

Ultimately the film hinges on two scenes – the cartoonish killing of the seller of stolen goods, and the frantic, voyeuristic killing of the family. In one instance, director McNaughton sets up the scene in which villains fight villains with the most villainous getting his comeuppance This scene is almost played for laughs with a television being crushed over the stolen goods seller’s head and consequent electrocution. Following this Henry and Otis enter a family’s house and graphically butcher a whole family (although some of the slaughter is off-screen). We watch this awful event through Otis’ television after the pair record the murders on a video camera. We see the killings as they do. The two men are glued to the television screen, enjoying their reprehensible actions. In the first instance, we as an audience are complicit in the murder of the stolen goods seller (he’s set up as a rather nasty criminal while Henry and Otis appear as comical simpletons), while in the second we are thoroughly appalled (Henry and Otis are calculated, cold-hearted and praying on the innocent). Watching on the television screen along with the characters themselves, effectively anti-heroes in one scene, truly monstrous individuals in the next, raises the idea of screen violence being a piece of entertainment. There is the ambiguous line between the gratification garnered from screen violence when presented as an act detached from reality and repulsion when presented more authentically.

henry portrait of a serial killer, slasher film, screen violence,

Henry: Portrait of the Killer is notorious more for its run-in with the film censors all over the world. The film was shot in 1986 but not released in America until four years later for a multitude of reasons, one being disagreements with the MPAA over the film’s violence. In the UK the film was eventually released in 1991 following a minute of cuts, most prominently to the home invasion sequence. And perhaps that is a big part of the film’s reputation. While it raises some pertinent questions about screen violence, and appeared at a time when the horror genre was relishing exploitation, the film’s minimalist plot and stilted character development leaves frequent moments of banal emptiness and a detachment from the story that is sustained until the credits roll. But that mustn’t take anything away from Michael Rooker’s roaming madman, whose callous yet calculated actions leave a sour taste in the mouth. Rooker is perfect for the role – physically threatening, emotionally disconnected.

As entertainment Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer veers away from classical Hollywood narrative to meditate on the miserable lives of two miserable people. It is therefore an uneasy piece of cinema to watch, both in its violent inferences and graphic depictions as well as its downbeat, detached central story. But as film commenting on film, Henry is an interesting artistic product that raises questions about the way in which we approach the violence we see on screen.

Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer was released on Blu-ray in the UK on the 24th of October.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

This review is part of 31 Days of Horror:

Directed by: John McNaughton
Written by: Richard Fire, John McNaughton
Starring: Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold
Released: 1990 / Genre: Horror / Country: USA / IMDB

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Dan O. Reply

    This one was incredibly messed up and just kept on getting worse and worse throughout the film. Let’s not also forget just how great Rooker was here too. Nice review.

  2. Avatar
    mark Reply

    When this was first released in Australia the censors snipped some sound out at the start (when Henry passes himself as a bug exterminator and kills a woman in her house) … something which reinforces this review’s correct observation that most of the extreme violence was offscreen.

    At the time one (1992ish) of the country’s leading film critics (working for the Murdoch press) defended the censorship, basically on the grounds (and this is open to some interpretation) that, given it was so brutal, who in their right mind would really miss the cuts. In other words, censor knows best.

    Not sure if everything’s been put back in in this age of DVD – haven’t brought myself to rewatch it, even after 20 or so years.

    Having said that, it is a well made and truly frightening film

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