Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is, ultimately,about the man who thought he was smart.
Most serial killers in films are presented as having idealized lives who kill, essentially, because it shows the power they have over society. Henry THINKS this is what murder accomplishes. He feels that the whole thing is completely normal, if he didn’t kill then he would be killed. He even tries to uphold certain standards about it, even when he takes on a protege. But he is still a loser by the film’s end.
The film is essentially a biopic of Henry Lee Lucas, who was convicted of 11 murders (he claims to have been involved in 600 murders, although this was deemed a hoax). Henry (Michael Rooker) is a weird loner who lives in Chicago. He follows random women home, and eventually kills them (we never actually see the murders, just the bodies over the sounds of struggle). Eventually, a woman named Becky (Tracy Arnold) comes to live with Henry and her brother and recently paroled convict Otis (Tom Towles) who are living together. This causes some tension between the two (Henry and Becky are in love with each other but don’t want to tell each other). Henry continues to kill random people, while Otis and even Becky look on. Otis even joins in after a time.
This film has a sort of reputation as among the scariest ever made. This is, primarily, due to the fact that it feels realistic. This may be because of the aesthetic; the low budget of the film works wonders, as it did for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. One scene shows the characters…acquiring a home camcorder. Frankly, the entire film looks as though it was filmed on that camera. This, at a time when most horror films were entirely stylized and campy. It became difficult to be scared when you could sense the studio backdrop.
Actually, that is the biggest accomplishment the film made. At a time when murder seemed…almost glamorous due to the continued presence of people like Freddy Krueger, this film showed that if you kill people…they still die. I know that sounds simple, but slasher films tend to overlook that fact. They treat death as a spectacle. At least in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, it feels like people die.
This also makes the characterization of Henry stand out. First, Michael Rooker fits into Henry as a hand does into a glove. It is hard to really talk about the performance, because after a while I was not entirely sure I was watching one. That is the highest compliment I can bestow. Otis admires Henry for being seemingly free, sort of the ultimate Nietzschean ideal. When Otis starts to kill, Henry encourages him, but does not encourage his behavior. We do not see Henry when he commits murder (with one exception). We do see Otis, and we see Henry living vicariously through him. Henry seems just as disturbed with Otis as anyone else would be. Maybe, through this, Henry would see brief moments of clarity.
This is why the film is so violent. It needs for Henry to be just as shocked as the rest of us. At least, I do feel that he is. It is the distinction between destiny and choice. Otis chooses to kill, Henry does not. I seem to recall so many confessions (Dahmer’s comes to mind) about how they seemingly new what they were doing was evil. But that did not stop them, besides, it does ring as a hollow excuse. I imagine Henry would try that same sort of defense if he were arrested.
The film is visceral horror at its finest. The horror does not come from spectacle, nor does it come from any sort of smart killer creating deadly scenarios for his victims. It comes from a blue collar worker who cannot understand his own motivations. You know, like real serial killers.
Oh, one more fun fact. Apparently Henry Lee Lucas is the only person ever pardoned from death row by George W. Bush while he was the governor of Texas.
I will let you make of that what you will.