EMPIRE ESSAY: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Review

Henry likes to kill people, in different ways each time. Henry shares an apartment with Otis. When Otis' sister comes to stay, we see both sides of Henry; the "guy-next-door" and the serial killer.

by Clark Collis |
Published on
Release Date:

01 Jan 1986

Running Time:

83 minutes



Original Title:

EMPIRE ESSAY: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Homicidal maniacs they may be but, thanks to films like Silence Of The Lambs, big screen serial killers have come to represent a rather more refined kind of ghoul. Sure, Hannibal Lecter might eat your liver, but he'd do so in an Egon Ronay-approved manner more Moriarty than monster. Sadly, in real-life, matters are somewhat less stylish. Take the case of Henry Lee Lucas, one of America's most infamous killers. As a child Henry was repeatedly beaten by both his prostitute mother and her pimp. He was also forced to watch Ma Lucas turn tricks until eventually, following a drunken argument, Henry killed her.

After serving a decade in jail, he teamed up with transvestite arsonist Ottis Toole and went on a murderous rampage. He was finally arrested in 1983. Lucas would later claim that he had murdered upwards of 600 people, although experts are now generally agreed that the still incarcerated Henry is a fantasist who pretty much owned up to any crime that the police forces of 19 different states put before him. There is absolutely no doubt, though, that Henry Lee Lucas is one sick sonofabitch. "I had sex with her," he said of one octogenarian victim. "It's one of those things that I guess got to be part of my life, having sexual intercourse with the dead."

Predictably, Lucas became a huge media star in America and was interviewed on TV. One of the people who found themselves glued to the screen was John McNaughton. A Chicago-based filmmaker McNaughton had secured $120,000 from local production company MPI to make a horror movie but, at the time of Lucas' interview, he was still looking for a suitable subject. "Henry was slow-talking and kind of strange-looking," recalls the director. "But he had this sort of dumb charm. And it was because he had this kind of charm that he had been able to get close enough to people to slaughter them. So I immediately thought, 'Here was a real-life horror.' And, anyway, we had no budget for any chainsaws and special effects and monsters."

The result was Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer — the most unsparing depiction of a killer ever put on film. Filmed with almost documentary-style objectivity, McNaughton's movie tracks our "hero" (Michael Rooker) as he copes with the various banalities of everyday life in between offing hapless victims with dull-eyed indifference. Indeed, Henry's detachment from his crimes is one of the film's more truly terrifying aspects. For, while it is difficult to empathise with his actions, it is also impossible to fully condemn someone who has no real conception that what he is doing is wrong. Such audience complicity reaches its zenith during the unforgettable scene in which we think that Henry and Otis (the script decided to omit a "t") are in the process of killing a family only to discover that the pair are — like us — just watching their previously videotaped actions on a television screen.

"That's the scene where the whole picture turns inside out," agrees McNaughton. "You think you're seeing the murders as they happen. But then the camera pulls back and you realise you're watching it with them on the couch later. If you use your mind at all you're forced to ask: 'What am I doing here?'" But, for a long time, it looked like no one would ever get the opportunity to ask that question. Filmed in the winter of 1985, Henry effectively sat on the shelf for four years after the American censors gave it an X-rating; which is usually only associated with pornographic movies.

"The MPAA objected to the whole thing," says McNaughton. "They said they wouldn't know where to begin cutting."

While the film did receive a smattering of late night screenings in Chicago and New York, it wasn't until the legendary documentary maker Errol Morris booked it for the Telluride film festival that Henry gained an American distributor (another fan of the film was Martin Scorsese, who would subsequently be the executive producer of McNaughton's film Mad Dog And Glory). Meanwhile, in Britain, it took chief censor James

Ferman a full year of umm-ing and aah-ing before he finally decided to grant the film a certificate — and only then after consulting forensic psychologists who had themselves interviewed genuine serial killers.

"One of the psychologists said the film was remarkably accurate," claimed Ferman, inadvertently giving Henry its best review to date. "He said it was a film he would like to show his students because it shows the cold, detached personality of the serial killer who can't engage with the world, who has no strong feelings himself and can't see that anyone else's feelings are real."
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