From the opening credits, accompanied by a haunting score, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer is eerily brilliant. What follows is a horrific slow rotating reverse tracking shot of a murdered woman left naked in the grass. We find ourselves immediately immersed in the life of a man, who we assume is Henry (played with vigor by Michael Rooker, who is perfectly cast) as he finishes a meal at a diner, pays the check and flirts charmingly with a waitress as any normal human being would do. We see Henry at first shot from below and rarely in the centre of the shot, but he appears to be a menacing presence that lurks beside the image, almost as if the camera is scared to look at him or is reluctant to shoot him in this environment. It’s odd. As Henry drives from the diner the scenes are intercut with more horrific sequences of murdered people, most disturbingly a prostitute (partially naked), bloodied and slumped over a toilet with a broken bottle protruding from her face. The sound of female screaming and yelling accompany these images to signify the audio at the time of the crime. We attribute these murders to Henry, and dismiss his charming nature, which we see briefly at the diner, as a well crafted cover to his true psychopathic nature. This 1990 film directed by John McNaughton is one of the most disturbing films ever made about a serial killer. Loosely based on the case of Henry Lee Lucas, a confessed serial killer, this is a film that remains with you long after the closing credits. Michael Rooker is a very intense actor who often finds himself in roles that involve conflict or violence, and his stony gaze is void of any heart or emotion for much of the film. He is completely empty and even when Becky, later in the film, stresses her love for him, he utters back “I suppose I love you too.” Following this scene at the diner we see Henry scanning women in a car park for his next target. He eventually picks up a female hitchhiker carrying a guitar, which we assume he kills. When he returns to his apartment, we are introduced to brother and sister, Otis (Tom Towles) and Becky (Tracy Arnold). Otis lives with Henry, and Becky has come to stay with Otis while she searches for a new job. Henry presents the guitar carried by the woman to Otis as a gift, and our fears are proven correct. We learn that Henry and Otis became friends during their tenure in prison, and that Henry was admitted for killing his mother.
During a sequence where Henry and Becky play cards, we see a brief glimpse of Henry’s humanity, showing emotion at the death of his father and brother. Becky reveals a horrific childhood at the hands of her abusive father and trusts Henry not to judge her. Henry claims that the reason he killed his mother was because she was a whore who had many men come to the house, and often made him watch her with these men. Both have battered souls and are full of hate for their families. Henry has unleashed his anger on the world, while Becky has remained relatively sweet considering what she has been through.
Tensions build one night in the kitchen when Becky reveals that she found a new job, and was past working as a stripper/dancer. Otis taunts her and eventually tries to kiss her. He is restrained and scolded by Henry, and the re-bonding session between the men results in the murder of two prostitutes, much to the shock of Otis. Henry asks Otis if he has ever killed anyone before, and he replies by saying that he may have had no choice. Henry responds by saying that “it’s always the same but always different” and that choice plays no role. After one of Otis’ drug clients punches him in the face, Otis swears revenge and vows to someday kill somebody in cold blood. Taking him under his wing as his partner in crime, Henry teaches Otis about how to kill and to evade capture. Using a camcorder they stole early in the film the duo film themselves terrorizing and murdering a family. They stab the man, molester the wife and then watch and enjoy it again and again. Reminiscent of the home invasion sequence in A Clockwork Orange, this is, however, far more revolting. The final sequences are some of the most harrowing in cinema history. Henry comes home to find Otis raping his sister, and both ultimately kill Otis. His body is cut up for easy disposal and Henry and Becky flee, dumping his body off a bridge on the way.
McNaughton’s film never glorifies its central character, never asks us to love or hate him. Despite the heinous acts committed by Henry, we actually dislike Otis far more. He is who he is, and it deals with the consequences of his behavior in a purely natural way, without being over-the-top. The entire film is filled with these devastating murders. Much of the violence is removed from the film but we witness the grizzly aftermath of the murder in most cases. It is a powerful insight into the life and nature of a confessed serial killer that accepts who he is, and is so heartless in his attacks. The murder of the appliance salesman is so callous. Michael Rooker and Tom Towles deliver menacing performances, and the score is brilliantly haunting. While we do witness a human side of Henry through his relationship with Becky, he is predominantly a psychopath who craves spilled blood. But even the awkward romantic sequence between the two at the end is free of any emotion by Henry, and ultimately Becky was just a brief escape from the mental torture that plagues him as a result of his actions. You will not leave this film feeling anything other than deeply disturbed by its terrifying images.
My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars