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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

A Bleak Portrayal of Wanton Killing

Score 8/10 - Recommend

Posted by Anthony DeRouen | May 5th, 2022

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a reflection of 1980's urban city life. Dark, dank, disgusting, and drenched in self loathing. Through director John McNaughton’s skillful eyes Chicago has no redeeming qualities. Even the Chicago Bears are shunned. A young and brash Michael Rooker plays Henry (loosely based on the real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas) an emotionless killing machine who goes about his bloody business in a city ripe with grim and decay and which pays him little heed.

While technically Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is not Michael’s first role, it’s certainly his first big role. Michael is up to the task in every facet. Whether by natural skill or directorial design Michael’s exudes a haunting stillness that maintains the cinematic tension throughout. In truth Michael’s character is not an over character – it’s the subtleties that garnered his role widespread praise.

The film follows Henry's friend and roommate Otis' sister Becky (played by Tracy Arnold). She's staying with her older, sleazy brother until she can get on her feet.. Becky has a disarming personality that clashes with Henry's stoic persona and Otis' consistently aloof and drunken stupor. We learn a lot of both Henry and Becky when they share a hear-to-heart. We learn Henry is a broken and sadistic killer, born from his early days, and Becky escaped her sexually abusive father.

The apartment Otis (played by Tom Towles) and Henry share is grimy, as is the clothes they wear, even the food they eat. Nothing in their lives appear to hold any value or worth, but their luck changes after Otis breaks their TV and Henry invites him to go shopping. They visit a dealer involved with stolen goods. The shop owner insults Henry, which is a terrible idea by the way, and they return home with a VHS recorder. The ensuing scene paints a vivid picture of the three characters through the lens of the recorder. We see Becky still has a light inside her that hasn't yet been extinguished, we discover Otis has dark, sexual traits he shares with his father, and Henry struggles to conceal outward and intimate emotions, even in a playful setting.

Throughout the film we get a sense that nothing will end well for any of the characters. This is not a story with a happen ending, rather a warning for the underbelly of society. Individuals like Henry and Otis cannot be allowed to roam free. There is a distinct lack of authority in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Younger audience will correlations between Michael Rooker's performance and that of the main character in a Grand Theft Auto video game. A frightening comparison.

Throughout the film we get a sense that nothing will end well for any of the characters.

Henry and Otis' killing spree is not lost on Becky. She soon quit her job and implores Henry to leave with her, whom she now has developed feelings for. When Otis stumbles on the the pair something inside him gives way and he assaults his sister the moment they are left alone.

Throughout the film Henry is shown as an indiscriminate killer. His ultimate motive is not revealed, but he communicates to Otis how to stay one step ahead of the police, thus showing an awareness to his actions. He is conscious of his vile deeds, aware of the repercussions, and continues unabated. What Henry will not do is harm Becky, or allow her to be harmed. This sets the stage for a brief, yet violent confrontation when Henry returns home to see Otis on top of Becky.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a tough watch for even the hardiest of horror fans. If you enjoyed Se7en this is right up your alley. I recommend it for Michael Rooker's performance and for John McNaughton bleak yet effective visual pallet.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Michael Rooker recently. During our interview we touched on his portrayal or Henry -- have a watch!

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