Posted on August 18, 2015

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) Review

Elizabeth Erwin

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer   | 98 min   | 1986   | John McNaughton | X[i]

Synopsis: Henry is an unrepentant serial killer who forms a murderous bond with another man.

Review: Michael Rooker’s chilling tour de force performance is perhaps the greatest serial killer characterization ever committed to film.

Grade: A

Viewing Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is not for the faint of heart. Stark and unyielding, the film is a deeply unsettling look into the mind of an unrepentant murderer. The film centers on pathological murderer Henry, who discovers a kindred spirit in his roommate, Otis. The two engage in vicious murders as Henry schools Otis on the finer points of evading capture. Their relationship is tested when Otis’ sister Becky comes to visit and becomes enamored of Henry. Based on the life of Henry Lee Lucas, the film is both a psychological exploration as well as an explicit foray into gore.

As one of the best examples of a Grindhouse style exploitation film, Henry is steeped in a potent mixture of sex and sadism. Audiences looking for meta commentary and campy humor will be sorely disappointed because Henry doesn’t so much entertain as it shines a light on deep perversions couched in normality. The low budget works to the film’s advantage by giving a uniquely accessible feel that works to heighten the realism.


The opening minutes of the film are an effective barometer for whether you’ll be able to withstand the carnage to come. Scenes of mutilated corpses are unrelenting and are designed to showcase how far and wide Henry’s carnage has spread. Interestingly, we never see Henry commit the murders shown in the first five minutes. Instead, the camera pans on the mutilations endured by the female victims and the audience is left to fill in the blanks of what occurred. In this case, filmmakers use the audience’s imagination as an effective weapon because nothing shown could come close to what they will envision for themselves. The montage is set to screams and the sound of Henry yelling, which further colors what the audience believes happens to those women.


Perhaps the most disturbing moment of the film is when Henry and Otis kill a family and videotape it. We become viewers of the videotape—and thus culpable in the carnage. We see the mother sexually assaulted and then strangled, the son get his neck broken, and the father stabbed to death. Our forced participation as an audience member works to heighten the sense of realism. It feels authentic and is deeply triggering.


The fact that the murders are done without rhyme or reason is especially compelling because there is no premeditation. Henry kills because he feels like it and this fact is underscored by Michael Rooker’s flawless performance. While audiences now recognize him from The Walking Dead or Guardians of the Galaxy, Rooker was new to the acting scene when he took the part of Henry. His subsequent Independent Spirit Award comes as no surprise given his fearless performance. While most on-screen serial killers are depicted as either observably maniacal or as cultured elitists, Rooker’s Henry is so unique because of his averageness. There is absolutely nothing that would indicate he is capable of such brutality, which adds to the film’s message about the horrors that you can never anticipate or for which you can never prepare.


The ending, in keeping with the film, is bleak. There is no catharsis or sense of justice. Instead, the last shot is a zoom in of a bloody bag disposed of by Henry. Audiences are trusted to know what is in the bag and it is a knowledge that lingers far after the film ends. This is not a horror film that invites repeat viewings but it is an unflinching portrait of depravity bolstered by some surprisingly strong performances.


[i] At the time, this meant that no one under 17 would be admitted to the film. That rating is no longer in effect.

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