Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990): John McNaughton’s Sharp Profile of a Monster, Played by Michael Rooker

John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is defined by both incredible suspense and graphic violence.  Combining a social psychological approach with a quasi-documentary technique, end result is a genuinely disturbing and scary horror tale.

The director’s intelligent look at a murderer is profoundly upsetting, more so for the questions than it raises than for the mutilated bodies that it shows.

The fictionalized story is inspired by Henry Lee Lucas, a Texan drifter on Death Row who confessed to numerous murders, but then recanted and said he had killed only his mother. From these facts, McNaughton and co-writer Richard Fire construct the riveting story of Henry, an ex-convict and killer who lives with a former prison friend named Otis and Otis’ sister, Becky.

Henry was made in 1988 for a video company that expected a mainstream horror film.  A theatrical release fell through when the film was rated X, and the movie just kicked around for years. It was only after its successful screening at the Telluride Film Fest that it was rescued by Greycat, a small, courageous company, which released it unrated.

McNaughton, who has worked in advertising in Chicago, shows strong command of the camera and control over his narrative. As Henry (played by Michael Rooker with astonishing calm and control) drives along the road, the film flashes back to quick graphic visions of his victims: a woman sawed in half, another killed with a broken bottle still sticking in her eye.

McNaughton takes the audience into the sordid, claustrophobic life of a killer without explaining his psyche. When Henry teaches his friend Otis (Tom Towles) how to kill, the latter is as excited as a child. Becky (Tracy Arnold), a former topless dancer, is the film’s only innocent character. A good-hearted woman, she can relate to Henry’s killing of his abusive mother, because she, too, has been abused by her father. The two acts of deviance are not on the same level, but the director manages to make an interesting parallel–and a note about abuse in general.

The film doesn’t try to understand, let alone explain, Henry’s motives or psyche, which, admittedly, are more complex than any director can handle. But McNaughton’s observations are so sharp and precise that they gain stature and achieve poignancy.

When Henry and Otis videotape and then play their murder of a family, McNaughton’s implicates his audience in the killers’ position, as they coolly watch themselves on television. But if McNaughton leads the audience into the lower depths of social pathology, he never addresses it from a position of moral authority. As the film critic Andrew Sarris has suggested, the director’s formal and thematic achievement resides in imprisoning the audience in gruesome behavior without ever aestheticizing evil.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press, paperback 2001).