Director – John McNaughton
Cast – Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold, Kurt Naebig, Ray Atherton, David Katz
Release Year – 1986/1990
Reviewed by John of the Dead
When I first saw this debut horror film from John McNaughton years ago (way before I began reviewing) I thought to myself that this was one of the greatest horror films I had ever seen, and that feeling still sticks with me today. Based on real life serial killer Henry Ray Lucas, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a brash experience that delves heavily into the insane amounts of horror caused at the hand of Henry(in the film), and with McNaughton’s superb execution (on a miniscule budget) we are given one of the most horrifying and gut-wrenching horror experiences of all time.
Henry(Michael Rooker), a former convict who served time for killing his own mother, is housing with a fellow convict, Otis(Tom Towles), and living the simple life of a bug exterminator and serial killer. When Otis’ sister Becky(Tracy Arnold) moves in with them to reposition her life as she runs from an abusive husband, her and Otis are exposed to good that Henry has to offer, but both easily trigger Henry to deliver the evil that resides in him.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer embodies everything that is great about the horror genre. The young John McNaughton managed to scrap together roughly $111,000 and with a lot of help from his cohorts he gave us one of the most horrific film experiences known to man. What The Human Centipede did for the sake of controversy in 2009 pales in comparison for what Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer did in 1990, when it was eventually released after sitting on the shelf since 1986 due to the Ali brothers(Malik/Waleed)’ poor eye for the true gem they possessed. Many films have erupted thanks to renowned serial killers from all over the world, and while basing a film off of a serial killer is not a unique idea McNaughton took things a step further by giving us a Henry Ray Lucas much more brutal than the one who died in a Texas prison.
Our storyline is a simple one overall, but McNaughton and co-writer Richard Fire keep things interesting by giving us great character usage, mostly in relation to dialogue, and give us plenty of horror to keep the viewer on edge. The film paces well, kicking off quickly yet developing the story and our characters nearly the entire film. Some say that too much development is a bad thing given it mostly slows down films when it comes in abundance, but that was not the case with this 83 minute effort as the development comes with many unique elements that keep things fresh. While Otis and his sister Becky provide much to the story, the real star is Henry and he is used to his fullest potential. We watch him give himself unselfishly to his two cohabitants when they need him, and we see him commit heinous acts that consist of grisly elements that will force some to turn away. Much of the film plays on this usage of Henry’s polar opposite personas, showing that regardless of how much a person tries to reintegrate back into society, when they are raised by a woman who operates a home brothel and forces them to put on a dress while watching her have sex with strange men they will never be the innocent soul they once were. This story is symbolic of the tortured mind and its ability to be rehabilitated, and the utterly amazing and disheartening climax we are given is a sad realization of the trauma some people suffer, and how little remorse they show for it.
While the story is amazing and sets up the film to be a success from the get-go, McNaughton’s direction and execution are what sell this piece. His execution of Henry is phenomenal, and we get an iconic performance from Michael Rooker as one of the most savage on-screen killers of all time. His ability to go from charming to true monster is incredible, and he does so with expert mannerisms that will leave you thinking that maybe Mr. Rooker has done some of those things before…seriously. Actors Tom Towles (Otis) and Tracy Arnold (Becky) give great performances as well, and our trio of characters provide for one engagingly cohesive mix sure to keep your attention from straying. To further ensure that, the horror involved is absolutely phenomenal, and we are given a full-frontal experience that leaves no stone unturned in delivering some of the most brash horror I have ever seen, which includes some very traumatic kill sequences film in a purposely trashy fashion that I loved to death. We get a decent amount of gore and the kills are mostly of heinous nature, but it is the execution of the horror that sells this film so well, and makes for one hell of an experience that I highly recommend you not use as a date movie.
Overall, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a masterpiece of horror who’s excellent story and near-perfect direction results in one of the most horrific experiences of all time. Not for the horror newbie, this effort speaks marvels of how low-budget filmmaking can deliver big results, and of course gives us (much like the psyche of Henry) supreme horror that will never be forgotten, no matter how hard you try.