Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole were a pair of serial killers that operated in the early 1980s. Both met in prison, with Toole serving time for petty crimes and Lucas for the murder of his mother in 1960. Famously, Lucas would go on to claim responsibility for over 300 murders, though he was convicted on only 11, and may have been responsible for only three of those. Still, he quickly discovered the fame he received from inflating the number, as well as special privileges he could get by laying claim to nearly every unsolved case he heard about. Lucas died in 2001 of heart failure, Toole years before of cirrhosis of the liver.
Though not at the top of the list of serial killers one hears about outside of true crime documentaries, Lucas's case was still fresh in 1986 when first-time director John McNaughton was asked by producers Malik and Waleed Ali to make a horror film after a documentary on the early wrestling scene in Chicago fell through. Along with Richard Fire he wrote a script that, instead of sensationalizing serial killers as many horror and crime films did, presented them in a mundane light. Certainly neither Lucas nor Toole had been the sort of diabolical geniuses that toyed with the police and played intricate games. Rather, they were depraved individuals who killed and raped without remorse, but could have easily been the guy who pumped your gas or sprayed your house for insects.
Henry (Michael Rooker) is an unassuming man who leaves a trail of bodies behind him, mainly those of women. He arrives in Chicago and reunites with Otis (Tom Towles), a friend from prison. While Henry works as an exterminator to earn some extra cash he spends a large amount of his time pursuing his hobby,
When Otis's sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) arrives after a bad breakup with her husband, she starts to become attracted to Henry. She doesn't know what he does in his spare time but, after picking up a couple of hookers one night, Otis soon learns and becomes curious, accompanying Henry on his outings. Unfortunately, where Henry is rather reserved and has figured out ways of not being traced, Otis is unable to keep his baser needs at bay, including his unnatural feelings toward his sister. With the inevitable clash approaching, and Henry for the first time in his life caring for another human being, things move quickly in the only direction they can go.
While McNaughton and Fire definitely humanize Henry, humanizing is a long way from sympathizing. In some ways he may be a better person than Otis, but he also has no qualms about murdering an entire family at random. While he has his ways of keeping a low profile, he's definitely no genius, as it's made clear when Becky buys a shirt that says, "I Love Chicago", he's not even able to read that much. His way of surviving is largely experience, instinct and having a face and personality that most people would easily forget after meeting him. It's also important to keep in mind that this Henry, though sharing the same name as the real killer, is fictional. There was a real Becky, who was the 11-year-old niece of Ottis Toole, whom Lucas did in fact have a physical relationship with, as among everything else Lucas was also a pedophile.
Putting the fictional Henry on a slightly higher moral standing than Otis is one of the few concessions to typical storytelling that McNaughton makes. Because they are so under the radar Henry and Otis pretty much do what they do with impunity. There are no reports of their crimes on television or radio, no police hot on their trail and definitely no thought given to law enforcement other than how not to get caught.
The result was that the movie, though made over a short period in 1986 and ready for release, sat around while the Alis figured out what to do with it. Instead of a cheap slasher or exploitation film to turn an easy profit, McNaughton provided them with a movie where the murders were realistically disturbing, including a graphic home invasion scene, and in which the audience is introduced to the lowest level of society with barely any civilized veneer. While they thought the movie was unmarketable, they started sending it out to festivals in 1988, and the fame it gathered led to a limited theatrical release in 1990. The movie only cost a hundred thousand dollars, but has since, despite its disturbing material and tone, become a classic. Even before release private screenings of the movie had made Michael Rooker a sought-after character actor, and Towles somewhat as well.
Unlike a lot of small independent films, or even smaller budget studio films, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer feels like a movie put together by professionals, even though everyone was doing this for the first time. The main cast had stage experience and, leading up to filming, had fleshed out the characters themselves and rehearsed much of the script. That connection, and that dedication to making the characters real, is what makes scenes like the one where Henry and Tracy play cards, and find a connection in their broken childhoods, stand above a more traditional scene of Henry and Otis taking care of annoying fence.
Although it is not a fun movie by any means - I had to prepare myself for watching it a second time, as well as warn my wife what I was watching - it does its job of bringing such characters as Henry and Otis down to a human level. The movie takes all the glamor and mystery that the media gives to serial killers and strips it away. McNaughton could have easily gone the cheap exploitation route of a movie like the The Zodiac Killer, but instead gave us the closest a fictional movie can come to describing the monster that can lie behind even the most unassuming face.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Time: 83 minutes
Starring: Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold
Director: John McNaughton