HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER
What makes Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer so disturbing is its very ordinariness. John McNaughton does not dress his direction up in horror film trappings suspense, jumps out of the edge of the frame. Instead, the camera seems to just blankly focus on the action, recording it as disinterestedly as it does say a car driving through the Chicago streets. The lead psycho is no Hannibal Lecter manipulating and scheming or a one-liner spouting camp villain as the films advertising byline says, Hes not Freddy, Hes not Jason, Hes real just an ordinary unemployed stiff. Instead of being set in a mansion or some variation on the old dark house, the majority of the film is set around a kitchen table in a dreary apartment and the result is in some ways even more scary.
The understated nonchalance of the film is disturbing. In the opening scenes, Michael Rooker is seen picking up a hitch-hiker who has a guitar and then a couple of scenes later casually gives the guitar to Tom Towles, saying it was just something I came by. Or the scene where the two of them get a motorist to pull over on the side of a road and then shoot him and stand laughing over the act like two drinking buddies celebrating. One of the more disturbing scenes is where Michael Rooker and Tracy Arnold sit at the table, where she tells about how her father sexually abused her and then the camera closes in on his impassive face and he states with cold chill vehemence My mother was a whore and launches into the story of how he killed her for making him watch her have sex with her men friends. However, at the end of the telling he confuses how he killed her, as though all the women he has killed since have blurred into an indistinguishable whole in his memory.
John McNaughton achieves a great deal in the way he etches his characters, although ironically doing so largely by allowing their motivations to go unspoken. At most, Henry offers an Its either you or them, one way or another, as explanation of his motivations. Michael Rooker went on to build a reputation as a beefily solid supporting character in films such as Sea of Love (1989), Days of Thunder (1990) and Cliffhanger (1993), but has never seemed more suited to a role than that of Henry here. His looks and silky voiced soft-spokenness seem attuned towards portraying an inexpressive sullenness that broods and then explodes forth into blank psychopathic violence. By deliberately making Tom Towles irritably crass and unlikable but also the one who at first objects to Henrys killing but then joins in with hick sensibility John McNaughton draws one into a disturbing redefinition of normalcy. And it is a scary definition of normalcy You tellin me you never killed anybody before? Henry asks Otis incredulously at one point. Were Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer any less a film there might have been something comic to the twos exchanges like the scene where Henry and Otis shoot a motorist who pulls up to help and then Henry almost mockingly asks Otis Feel better now? The most sympathetic character in the film is Becky her sympathies are clearly misplaced and far too simplistic but her plaintiveness is the most normal and appealing thing in the film. Despite who Henry is, one almost wants to see the two of them get together.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is loosely based on the true-life story of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Lucas was arrested in Texas in 1983 and in police custody confessed to killing up to 600 people in his wanderings across the US. Police officials from various constituencies began to queue up to talk to Henry and were able to close the books on some 150 cases with Henry supposedly providing details that only the killer could know. As the film generally recounts, Henry spent some time in the company of another drifter and self-confessed multiple murderer, the gay hustler Ottis Toole, who also confessed to multiple murders after being arrested. Henry was also involved with Ottiss underage cousin Frieda Becky Powell whom he later killed. The main problem that became apparent only after Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was released was that Henry Lee Lucas appears to have made up most of his confessions. In almost all cases, Henrys confession was the sole thing tying him to the murder and came unsupported by any forensics. Many investigators have shown up discrepancies, such as proof that Lucas was in other states at the time he claimed to have killed certain victims. It was believed that Lucas had confessed to most of the cases due to his enjoyment of the sensationalism and an overeagerness of the police task force who readily showed him crime scene photos, which he simply fed back to them. In 1998, Lucass was the sole death sentence case ever commuted by then Texas Governor George W. Bush. This does place the film in the embarrassing position of being based on a hoax, with it estimated that at most Henry Lee Lucas killed only fifteen people, conclusively less than half-a-dozen. As the film recounts, one of the murders that Henry did do was his own mother who frequently had sex with other men in front of him.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a disturbingly effective film. Sadly, John McNaughtons career has been somewhat erratic since Henry. He made the problem-ridden sf film The Borrower (1991), which heavily disappointed when it was eventually released. McNaughton picked up with the witty Mad Dog and Glory (1993) but, despite good reviews, this was a flop and McNaughton was left directing tv until he had a hit again with the wonderfully sleazy spoof sexual thriller Wild Things (1998), although was subsequently back directing tv. He also directed the horror film The Harvest (2013).
The film had a sequel Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Part II (1996), although this does not involve any of the personnel from the original, nor has the originals blank effectiveness. Drifter: Henry Lee Lucas (2009) was a further film based on the Henry Lee Lucas story starring Antonio Sabato Jr and more accurately depicts the fact of the case where Lucas made most of his confessions up.