John McNaughton in 1985, then an aspiring director-to-be, worked for producers Waleed and Malik Ali of MPI a localized video firm, who wanted to have their own horror film, crafted in the slasher genre, and granted John a $111,000 budget and one month to complete the movie. As a result, the movie generated incredible fear and backlash, for the brutality of killing and the relentless emotionless actions of the primary focal point Henry, a character full of layers of both misunderstanding and rage for who and what he is, a stone cold killer, and likely one of the most noted villains on screen. When a cinema-goer hears the name Henry, they in generally think of Harrison Ford in the tender and sympathetic film Regarding Henry (1991), however when a horror fan hears the name Henry some answer with “Oh God, That Movie!” The film to this day generates strong memories for some, and fear of it, by others, many retorting that after watching it then and now today it, they need to refresh themselves by viewing anything, which positive and uplifting. Some even wonder if one watches it and feels nothing afterwards they too are hardened and shock proof or are they a sociopath. You can decide for yourself after viewing the film.
Although, the movie itself, shelved for approximately 3-years and earned a little over $600,000 with extremely limited theater release, it later went to earn millions, in VHS, DVD and now VOD sales, though cable and television rights remain in virgin territory. The rumors still mixed with the truth concerning the delay of the release of the film, some evidence suggests MPAA slapping a X-rating on it, in essence the commercial suicide, and later repeal for the feared NC-17, still a box office nightmare due the immaturity of all adults involved, the movie now bears NR (Not Rated or Unrated). The producers had no clue what to make of the chilling examination of horror and the killing, they sought a slasher flick, McNaughton, delivers a charged movie, with T&A, offensive language, shocking kill scenes, and monster of assailant. Therefore, one needs to know who Henry actually represents none other than Henry Lee Lucas (who died in prison of heart failure on March 13, 2001, his low-key personality and tone allowed him to penetrate the personal safety space of any potential target, a measure shown in the movie. One aspect of film, which clearly stands out, aside from it more identity in the genres as biography, crime and drama, than horror, notes no understanding into the human psyche and no police involvement, a line in the movie solves the problem.
The murder scenes shown in the early portion of the film are based from Lucas’ murderous past, especially a longing tight shot with slow pull back of the nude woman posed in exactly the same position as a victim in a case involving Lucas. All of it showing a mass murderer killing with unforgiving realism that it inspired angry debates at every showing in a cinema venue. Viewers claim the movie contains evil itself, and while it might actually exist, no denying excellent filmmaking and showing the bare necessities needed for provoking the audience to extreme displeasure. The title while dull in terms, actually reveals much more, take for example the portrait of Mona Lisa, the discussion ranges from a woman to man, and the suggestive lips of the month, a knowing secret between the woman and Leonardo Da Vinci. Hence in McNaughton’s Portrait of a Serial Killer, a reflection of what he is, damage individual, killing a way of life, passing time, and waiting for the next opportunity.
In the beginning, the camera travels aimless, and the viewers see only the aftermath of the crimes corpses arranged in horrific positions, while the soundtrack echoes with the victims’ death throes. The words of shut up and die, muffling screams echo in the background, the stark reality in cold presentation, by the third opening scene an empty gallon of milk floats by a corpse, discarded without a care, a reminder of how isolated and uncaring life was then, when social media never existed, not much changing, in throwaway society. Henry shares a drab Chicago apartment with a prison buddy named Otis on parole working in a gas station, selling pot on the side to high school students and then his sister, Becky arrives from out of town adding more dynamics to the story. Soon we learn of each other’s attributes, obviously Henry the serial killer, a mild outlook and brooding rage hiding under the surface. Otis clearly presents a sleazier, excluding a deep sexual deviant side for women, especially to his sister, and homosexual suggestions for men. Over a meal Henry and Becky share a bit more about themselves, Henry at fourteen, stabbed his mother to death, a hooker who dressed him as a girl and forced him to watch her in bed with johns, while Becky, a former stripper, abused sexually by her father, accepted the situation. When speaking of his killing his mother, the confusion of stabbing or shooting, brushed off, but it goes deeper, just as in The Stepfather (1987), the killings blur together, never caring when, where, and who, perhaps all reflection of the hate for his whorish mother. A key moments truly standout in the film, when Henry enters in nonchalant manner into the room with Otis and Becky carrying a guitar case, with a phrase “picked it up” and everyone knows from whom and how.
Unlike typical killers in horror movies, name the slasher subgenre, no witty one-liners, no masks to hide the face, not even special weapons, the usage of what exists to kill, in a heartless manner, effective and efficiently. Henry uses other methods to enter the victim’s homes rarely is the killing shown to the audience, rather leaving it a private moment between the predator and prey, only afterwards all reveal seeing the body, hearing the death, the motionless and the sounds making it far worse than any slasher movie. Here again influence of Hitchcock, from his film Psycho (1960) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), in reference to the ordinary looking killer.
The movie ramps up the level of violence when Henry snaps the necks of two prostitutes they take parking, Otis shocked at first, he gleefully joins Henry on his killing spree, soon surpassing his mentor at conscienceless brutality. The lessons of killing find themselves exposed, as Henry professes easy to get a gun, phone call or going to right place, but the bigger picture patterns kill you, Henry instructing, different people, different manners of killing, different areas, confuse the police, they want neat tidy cases, not random. This all leads to the most controversial moment in the movie and cause the most walkouts, the filming of a family’s scene.
One must touch on the acting, of actor Michael Rooker, who remain in character for the duration of film, regardless where he was or with who, not socializing with anyone, rather keeping distance looks. Cast and crew noted the unusual and uneasiness around him, unsure who possess the moment Michael or Henry, either way the cold empty demeanor works effectively well. He wonderfully expresses a deadeye mannerism and appears in a polite manner, soft spoken, nothing near overacting or showing threat. Rooker, since then advanced his career with serious intent and devotion, and worked opposite of Gene Hackman in Mississippi Burning (1988) in vicious role and then against Al Pacino in Sea of Love (1988), later in horror television series The Walking Dead. Very few actors nail a memorable performance on their first role ever Rooker did it and then some, to show his quality talents. Tom Towles (who died in 2015), presented a toxic persona of Otis, while not as brooding as his friend, the sexual prowess existed on another level, with uncontrollable bursts of rage. Lastly Tracy Arnold, as Becky, relegated her role definitely more into the shadows, except to show interest in Henry as a person whose parents damage him like her. As with all movies, the audience requires someone for them to have a redeeming quality and that person they pull for, and hence you cannot help but feel her plight in the film, a husband in jail for murder, and a baby-girl at home, and yet a bit naïve.
By September 1989, the movie graced very few screens, in many cases a midnight showing with audience referring to the film as too violent and without morals. However, this view not shared by all as the movie justifies itself because of its uncompromising honesty in a world where most horror films cheapen death by trivializing it. The cast brought together brilliant elements of script showing the suffering of sexual molestation and ignorance of parents, resulting in the monster creations. The movie has since had very few comparisons but among those Monster (2003) which starred Charlize Theron.
The ‘family kill scene’ contains no easy downplay, full display of violence. Although, it does contain a redeeming quality, it wins for the most horrific moment in the movie. Setting scene Henry and Otis attack a suburban family and videotape the deed, only stopping it when Otis wants to explore necrophilia, and Henry stops that behavior immediately. Other films since this one has done similar acts, such as director Jack Thomas Smith’s Infliction (2014) and yet somehow they never quite achieve the level of rejection of for this one scene. Cinematographer Charlie Lieberman showed Rooker how to work the VHS turned a camcorder thereby creating a true home movie, in which the actors choreography their own involvement. The effect of filming themselves gives wonderful jolt for the audience, to endure unfocused, bizarre angles and then reveal, watch it for you and enjoy. The tape beyond self-incriminating, and goes against Henry’s lessons, one wonders if the concept originates from serial killers Charles Ng and Leonard Lake, who in the hunted in the early 1980s filmed themselves raping and torturing their female victims before murdering them.
While Henry, is a true horror film, McNaughton, presented a smart feature of obscuring a moral center for the killer, and allowing him to exist in society without connection. This allows for a grindhouse feel, but never sinking to the depths it, using a loose script allowing the actor Rooker, use his facial features and body movements dictate his emotion outlook and while a fluid direction with regard to story and scenes. Rooker earns the accolades of his detached emotional state, without judgments, no passion for the moment, a core lack of reasoning, a machine, in other words a human terminator. His movie lacks the special effects and other methods used in a conventional horror film, rather the coldness shows an authentic and effective shocking flick, with the ability to effect countless years later. As flaws, none clearly exists many scenes contain extreme violence and harshness of life, generating distributing images to some, but actually a reflection on society itself. A sheer trivia notes for those that wish to watch the film very close, Henry often telegraphs when he’s going to kill, it involves a piece of clothing . The Director’s Commentary sheds some light on this bleak movie, and with noting the issues of casting and filming a 1970s atmosphere with grayish tint in the movie, representing the coldness and indifference of the city. In addition, reminding us the good guys not only finish last, some don’t finish at all, and noted filming sequence of the ‘good samaritan’ and another wonderful cinematic moment the close out of the film, the final image echoes an extreme lasting impression.
The real impact of the film resides in two areas, first the extreme imagery and sexual deviant behaviors act more as set pieces than actual provoking actions, creating the reference point of utter desolate atmosphere. While, the killer, Henry a force of reality, he’s capable of being one’s mechanic, serviceman, or even a family member, and never revealing his true self, other movies examine this aspect, such as American Psycho (2000) or even No Country for Old Men (2007). However, not with the matter of fact approach, and herein, you, the reader, knows evil not only never dies its waiting for you on the other side of your door right now.
This review was originally published on the now defunct Rogue Cinema website in September 2016 with a view count of 2,308.
- The shocking true story of Henry Lee Lucas.
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- before “The Silence of the Lambs” comes the most highly acclaimed and controversial film of the year.”
IMDb Rating: 7.0/10
Baron’s Rating: 7.5/10