- Monthly Theme: Perverted Killers
- The Film: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
- Country of origin: U.S.A.
- Date of U.S. release: September 1990
- Studio: Maljack Productions
- Distributer: Greycat Films
- Domestic Gross: $609,000
- Budget: $111,000 (estimated)
- Directors: John McNaughton
- Producers: Malik B. Ali, et al.
- Screenwriters: John McNaughton & Richard Fire
- Adaptation? Not really. The film is loosely based on real-life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole.
- Cinematography: Charlie Lieberman
- Make-Up/FX: Jeffrey Lyle Segal, et al.
- Music: Ken Hale, Steven A. Jones & Robert McNaughton
- Part of a series? There is a 1996 sequel title Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part II
- Remakes? No.
- Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Genre stars Michael Rooker (The Dark Half, Shadow Builder, etc.) and Tom Towles (The Borrower, Night of the Living Dead (1990), etc.).
- Other notables?: No.
- Awards?: Silver Raven at the 1991 Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film. 4 awards at the 1991 Fantasporto. Best Actor [Rooker] at the 1990 Seattle International Film Festival. 3 awards at the 1990 Sitges-Catalonian International Film Festival.
- Tagline: “Before The Silence of the Lambs comes the most highly acclaimed and controversial film of the year.”
- The Lowdown: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was made in 1986 but remained unreleased until 1990 because of its controversial content. The movie is a low-budget docudrama about a pair of mass murderers who are thinly-veiled fictionalized versions of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole. The film follows Henry, played by Michael Rooker, a laconic working class man who preys upon random people – mostly women – stalking and brutally murdering them. The film opens with a montage of Henry’s victims: a naked woman floating in a river (recalling Hitchock’s Frenzy), a topless woman bound to a toilet with a broken bottle jutting from her mouth, an elderly couple shot to death in their convenience store. For the rest of the film we follow Henry as he inculcates his loutish roommate Otis, played by Tom Towles, in his criminal behavior. Meanwhile, Otis’ meek sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) arrives to stay with them while she figures out her life, leading to a bizarre, tense triangulation of sex, violence and confession between the three of them. Henry was filmed on the cheap and, when it was finally released, was a mini-hit, garnering rave critical reviews and a passionate cult following.
If you haven’t seen Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Sean: Should we just get into it?
Kristine: If you are ready.
Sean: I will never be ready for this conversation.
Kristine: Okay, can I make an opening statement?
Kristine: I liked this movie. I would recommend this movie. But I think it is… a lie somehow. This is not a perfect movie and it is not a portrait of this man. It is something else.
Sean: Well, you know that it’s based on real people right?
Kristine: Yes. I know all about it.
Sean: So it’s a “docudrama” in a weird way. But it also is saying it’s not one, too.
Kristine: You realize this weirdly dovetails into our conversation the other day when we were emailing about the new Herzog TV miniseries On Death Row, which is kind of a spin off on his film Into the Abyss. And I confessed my gothic weirdo habit of reading Texas death row inmates’ last words and last meals on the Internet.
Sean: Oh right…
Kristine: And the real Henry – Henry Lee Lucas – is very famous in Texas criminal and political history, since George W. Bush commuted his death sentence. And he is the only person on death row in Texas that George did that for. It is a big deal.
Sean: You know the real-life Otis – Ottis Toole – is the man who killed Adam Walsh, right?
Kristine: Yes, I know.
Sean: I have to tell you a story because Adam Walsh plays a big, mythic part of my personal history.
Kristine: Really? I never knew this.
Sean: Adam was abducted and murdered in 1981; I was 6. At that time, my mother told me the story of Adam Walsh in order to keep me from “wandering” in stores.
Kristine: Oh boy….
Sean: And she told me, at the local D&L (a department store at the Manchester Parkade in Connecticut in the ‘80s), that if I wandered away then she would find my head in a dumpster. Like Adam Walsh.
Kristine: Jesus Christ.
Sean: And it froze me to my core. And a couple of years later, my mother and my sister lost track of me while we were all shopping at the West Farms Mall in Farmington, CT. They just walked away from me and went off to like, browse clothes or something, and didn’t realize I wasn’t with them, and I ran around the mall hysterical looking for them, certain that I was going to be decapitated. Until a security guard rescued me and brought me to the Info Desk, where they paged them.
Kristine: See, in my mind’s eye, young Sean would have, like, climbed into the family’s kitchen trash can and buried himself up to the neck in trash, and when your mother went to throw out a Diet Coke can, croaked out, “Mom why did you leave me alone at the mall?” And your mom would have dropped dead.
Sean: Um… that’s a very inventive fiction.
Kristine: I picture you a fearless, feckless ruffian.
Sean: It was actually very traumatizing.
Kristine: I’m sorry bunny rabbit.
Sean: I thought about Adam a lot and wondered about him and tried to imagine his final moments. I tried to imagine what he must have been feeling when he was taken. I tried to imagine what had been done to him. It obsessed my private thoughts for years.
Kristine: Oh, man. Child abductions were such a thing when we were growing up in the 1980s. We’ve talked about this before: abductions, recovered memories, Satanic sex cults… Those were our boogeymen, our urban legends.
Sean: Yeah… so maybe as a result of all that, I find Otis in the movie to be quite terrifying.
Kristine: Otis is absolutely terrifying and repulsive. The difference in my reaction towards him versus Henry is a topic for discussion.
Sean: And the idea of real-Ottis decapitating Adam is very upsetting to me, and I mean he must have molested him, right? I haven’t even looked into the details of Adam Walsh because it’s so upsetting to me…
Kristine: I always assume molestation. Part of the baggage of my ‘80s childhood.
Sean: Because Ottis was a fagioli and he was gay with Henry Lee Lucas.
Kristine: Right, they got gay.
Sean: Which they sort of took out of the movie, even though Otis feels up that jock… And I can’t decide if it’s good or bad that they changed that so much.
Kristine: When did you originally see this? And when you did, did you know about the connection to the Adam Walsh murder?
Sean: I did not have any idea about Adam’s connection when I first saw this. I saw it around the time it came out on video in 1990. I would have been 15 or 16, depending. It was made in ‘86 and sat around for years because they wouldn’t release it.
Kristine: And what did you think?
Sean: When I saw it I thought it was upsetting and transgressive and I loved it. The home invasion footage in particular scared and upset and titillated me.
Kristine: How did you feel about Henry?
Sean: I thought Henry was gross and horrid. You thought he was sexy.
Kristine: This is all true.
Sean: Why are you obsessed with thinking Henry is hot?
Kristine: I believe it is a deliberate intent on the filmmakers’ part to make Harry weirdly attractive (other then the psychopath serial killer part) and Otis is made extra horribly disgustingly monstrous because he acts as a foil to underscore that point.
Sean: Yeah, I actually think the movie tries very hard to be titillating and it’s a problem.
Kristine: Yes. It does.
Sean: It’s very problematic. In fact, watching it now, I am pretty sure that the movie is…. bad or something. By the way, Ebert loved this movie. So that’s weird.
Kristine: I agree, and this all hearkens back to my opening idea that the character of Henry in the movie is a lie and therefore, this is not a portrait of Henry Lee Lucas.
Sean: Yeah in what way is this a “portrait” of Lucas? It is not a portrait at all, and the title and the way it frames the movie is really off-putting and wrong.
Kristine: See, it’s so weird, because we get such seemingly intimate access to Henry. We hear about his traumatic childhood. We see him stalk and hunt women. We see him interact with people he might even care about. We see him teach Otis about killing and explain his philosophy on murder. But we don’t know shit about him, really. And his behavior is totally random and incongruous.
Kristine: And I get that the randomness – the lack of motivation, or any easy way to pathologize or “diagnose” and thus understand the killer – is part of the point of the scariness of a modern psychopath, but it just… is thin gruel. It doesn’t bear up. I still think it is a successful movie, but not as a portrait.
Sean: I actually thought all those details about “my mom was a whore, she made me watch her fuck, she dressed me like a girl” were dumb and trite, but then it turns out those details are all lifted from the biographies of the real Henry and Ottis.
Kristine: I know what you mean – I thought the blank delivery of those details was supposed to speak to Henry’s antisocial tendencies and also his and Becky’s need to make a connection to one another.
Sean: I think this movie could have very easily been a feminist triumph, but it fails miserably on that front.
Kristine: I agree.
Sean: If only Mary Harron had directed it.
Kristine: Right? What did you think of the acting, overall?
Sean: Um, the acting swung from atrocious to wonderful.
Kristine: I thought the acting was quite good, overall.
Sean: I do think Michael Rooker is pretty amazing.
Kristine: I agree.
Sean: I think Tom Towles’ performance as Otis seems bad in some parts and great in others, though he is definitely the right “type” for the part and embodies it beautifully. But Tracy Arnold as Becky… Sometimes she’s decent, but mostly she’s wretched. Though again, she’s the right “type.” But I actually like the movie for being a bit cheesy and cheap. I like the wooden acting in parts.
Kristine: You know what was distracting to me? That her character was named Becky and she reminded me of Becky No. 1 from Roseanne.
Sean: Totes Lecy Goranson.
Kristine: Becky for me was the one who seemed the most “ultra low budget film.” Totally Lifetime 1980s.
Sean: Were you shocked by the rape scene at the end?
Kristine: Yes, and it did not work that well for me.
Sean: I remember being really shocked and affronted by it, back in the day.
Kristine: I thought the other murder scenes were truer and more affecting, specifically the fat gross fence in the warehouse and the home invasion.
Sean: Yes, the sequence that held up the best for me was the murder of the fence. That’s my favorite sequence in the movie. It’s really raw, and naturalistic and funny, but also shocking and scary. The violence feels real.
Kristine: Okay, that scene is interesting because you want Henry to unleash his murderous rage on this sick fat fuck, right? And it is hilarious.
Sean: I actually don’t see the guy as a “sick fat fuck” – I mean, he’s kind of a dick, but he’s obviously playing hardball with them because he’s jaded and over it.
Kristine: Yeah. And I liked the detail that the equipment they stole from the guy was what they used to such incredibly creepy affect in later murders, specifically the home invasion.
Sean: It’s very effective.
Kristine: In the original cut of the movie – before it was edited for release in 1990 – Henry and Otis get gay on the couch after watching the home invasion murder on the camcorder. But they cut that sequence out, according to my online reading.
Sean: Oh really? I didn’t know that. That would have been weird and better.
Kristine: I find Otis an odd choice for Henry to mentor in the art of serial killing.
Sean: Well, what do you think about them editing the gayness out?
Kristine: I think if it didn’t work, which I can’t see it working, then, fine, good choice. It would just muddy the waters.
Sean: In real life Henry and Ottis were both the fugliest, most diseased beasts imaginable.
Kristine: I know. Oh god, I know.
Sean: I am sort of glad they cut out that sequence just because of the weird pathologizing of queerness that happens with this stuff. Like, look at the deviance. Queers are such deviants.
Kristine: Right. So, I thought it was interesting that the five murders we actually see on screen are all so different. I know Henry semi-addresses this when he schools Otis that to keep from getting caught a killer must constantly change his M.O. What did you think of that? Was it a choice to underscore the randomness and unpredictability of a warped mind? Or was it a nod to that fact that in the real criminal case, Henry confessed to hundreds and hundreds of murders, that he could have no way committed all of since they were all so different? In other words, are we seeing Henry’s real crimes, or visualizations of Henry’s false confessions?
Sean: Hmmm. Well it could simply be them trying to come up with a believable explanation for why the real Henry Lee Lucas’ crimes were so random. I think a good movie to pair this with for the purposes of analysis is the movie Monster with Charlize Theron.
Kristine: Oh, that movie so so so upset me.
Sean: I think if we contrast those movies against each other, we see some important differences. I don’t think this movie is embarking upon the same project as Monster was. Monster purported to be the “real story” of Aileen Wuornos and it wanted to humanize her and make her sympathetic, while also really reckoning with her crimes.
Kristine: Right, and which it does successfully, I would argue. And I don’t fault Monster for that.
Sean: But Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is not doing that. It’s more of a roman à clef than Monster was.
Kristine: Sure, Henry is more about the nature of crime then a portrait of anything, which again makes the title a bit bewildering.
Sean: It’s distilling all the real facts of the case into a fictional portrait. It’s more akin to the kinds of books Joyce Carol Oates writes “about” real life events. Black Water = Chappaquiddick. Zombie = Jeffrey Dahmer. My Sister, My Love = JonBenét Ramsey.
Kristine: I agree.
Sean: And isn’t Henry, more so than Monster, about eroticizing the crimes? And eroticizing the idea of the serial killer?
Kristine: I don’t think it is. Perhaps the latter but not the former. I think Henry can also be read as a cautionary tale for the same reason.
Sean: If Henry has an audience proxy, it’s Becky. But we always know so much more than Becky that it’s hard to root for her or even like her. I think one of the most sexist things about the movie is the way it pits the audience “against” the character of Becky. So, how do you see Henry as a cautionary tale?
Kristine: I mean a cautionary tale that is warning viewers that if the guy is polite and doesn’t look at your tits, that doesn’t mean he won’t dismember you and leave you by the side of the road. Becky is dumb because she doesn’t get that she should beware of Henry. I agree that the movie is anti-Becky.
Sean: I see what you’re saying but I don’t accept that reading, because it implies a female audience for this movie. And I definitely see the imagined audience for this movie being male. But your reading would cast the movie as a portrait of the Boogeyman, right?
Sean: That the film is saying, This is what evil looks like. Maybe it offers men an opportunity to witness and confront some of their most base, perverse desires, and disavow them, but also be turned on by them. I guess the movie is a success on that front.
Kristine: Especially because for all we know, Henry escapes unscathed, to kill on and on forever. Like the killer in Wolf Creek.
Sean: Sure. But this also feels like a very different kind of movie than Wolf Creek for me.
Kristine: Oh, definitely.
Sean: Did it upset you as much as Wolf Creek did?
Kristine: No, not at all. This movie did not scare me.
Kristine: So, the home invasion scene. Though parts of it were highly unpleasant… Okay, correct me if I am wrong, but it was very similar to the home invasion in A Clockwork Orange, right?
Sean: Oh it has been years since I’ve watched A Clockwork Orange (a movie I consider to be overrated, by the way). I don’t remember the specifics of that scene. It’s an old man and his young wife? And they rape the wife?
Kristine: Yes, while the patriarch is tied up but can hear what is going on.
Sean: That brings up an interesting question about, again, the gender politics of the movie, especially as they concern audience identification. Is that supposed to be a scene about the patriarch/husband’s terror, and we identify with him? “That’s my wife.” And that’s the horror. Or do we identify with the women/mother/wife? Or with Henry/Otis? I guess this is one of the ways in which the movie is a “portrait” of a serial killer. Unlike with Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees or other horror movie slasher/monsters, the characters we know and are “with” are Henry and Otis in that scene. Usually we spend a slasher movie with the victims, and then the mysterious killer intrudes, murders “our” characters, and is defeated. But here our familiarity lies with the killers, and the victims are mysterious and unknowable. It’s also interesting that there’s no rape here…. And that when Otis wants to fuck the dead body, Henry yells at him. Henry’s “code” is one the things that makes him appear heroic.
Kristine: Right. The movie implicitly asks a very fucked up question which is, who would you rather be trapped in a room with? Henry or Otis?
Sean: Yes, it’s such a weird choice for the filmmakers to want Henry to appear “better” than Otis. The real Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole were just both awful, evil men.
Kristine: They are both totally vile and terrible, but the movie makes Henry out to be a moral psychopath, whereas Otis is a total degenerate. And that is a lie, because of course Henry is just as bad. But everyone would rather be a in room with Henry then Otis.
Sean: Why did George W. Bush pardon Henry?
Kristine: Well, he didn’t pardon him, but he commuted his death sentence. I think technically it was because the specific crime that awarded him the death penalty, he did not commit. It was a clear false confession, and even though he undoubtedly committed many other horrible murders, they weren’t the ones that got him on death row.
Sean: So, a technicality.
Kristine: That’s correct, and the reason why this is outrageous is because of the case of Karla Faye Tucker, for example. She is very famous in Texas criminology. She was a woman who was definitely guilty of murdering two people with a pickax, who found God in prison and semi-reformed herself. The point is, Bush not only did not commute her sentence, he publicly mocked her pleas for clemency and her conversion to Christianity. Bush like, put on a little girly voice pretending to be Tucker begging him not to kill her.
Sean: Oh and Laura Bush got really mad at him for it, right? I have heard this story. Laura was furious behind closed doors.
Kristine: But then Bush did commute the sentence of this fucking degenerate serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas. I am not a fan or advocate of Tucker’s, but Bush’s treatment of her murder by the state is…so so horrible, especially considering his own religious grandstanding and his commuting this other death sentence.
Sean: I have some gender thoughts, actually. I am fascinated by how gender difference dictates the ways in which Henry Lee Lucas and Aileen Wuornos’ stories are told, in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Monster respectively. We want to see Wuornos punished for two reasons: (1) It is so unusual for a woman to be a violent criminal, so there’s pure curiosity, and (2) I would also argue that seeing her punished actually reaffirms patriarchy and even feminists are drawn to Monster for prurient reasons. Like, how they’d slow down outside a car wreck to see the gore and mayhem. The spectacle of Aileen being put to death is prurient and engrossing. But for Henry, he is not an anomaly right? He is, as a man, the Big Bad Wolf. We accept that he exists.
Kristine: Right. In fact, he is a necessary part of society. We have discussed this before. The specter of the Big Bad Wolf is functional for society.
Sean: So it’s fascinating that Henry doesn’t interest itself in Lucas’ capture. It’s like a weird enaction of male privilege: the right to be a predator, to be a monster, to be out there…
Kristine: I agree. A pyschopathic woman has no place in society and must be rooted out.
Sean: But I’m not thinking from a sociopolitical view. I’m thinking purely on a psychological level.
Kristine: Well, I would argue one begets the other.
Sean: That’s why the movie eroticizes Henry and makes him like, knightly even as he’s a deviant. The TV show Dexter and this movie’s version of Henry share some DNA.
Kristine: Another difference is that in Henry there is a feeling that at any moment Henry is going to make the “right” choices (marry Becky or whatever) and become a fuctional member of society. With Aileen, she is portrayed as way too damaged to ever make it even though her character is actually actively trying to do exactly that – move beyond her crimes and past and be “normal” and “good.” Henry doesn’t even try. This mirrors the Bush thing with Karla Faye Tucker and the real life Henry Lee Lucas. Karla reforms, she is good now, she goes to school in prison, starts a ministry, blah blah, but then she is mocked and put to death. Real Henry is unrepentant and, in fact, lies and glorifies his evil and his crimes and he is rewarded. He is the subject of fascination. Karla Faye and Aileen are the subject of disgust. I think society thinks men truly can reform from their own criminality, whereas women are ruined once they “break bad.”
Sean: Have we talked about how Dexter is Mom Porn?
Kristine: We have not discussed this. I feel… over Dexter. I stopped watching and I was going to resume, but now I don’t know if I care.
Sean: Well, first of all, every Mom I know, liberal or conservative, watches Dexter with lust in their hearts. I think Dexter is a really interesting case study in female masochism. I think that it encourages the viewer to identify as female…
Kristine: Right, so true…
Sean: and to have a masochistic relationship with the show. The “fantasy” of Dexter is strangely erotic and self-annihilating.
Kristine: Okay, well here’s what’s problematic – “man as killer” is a historical thing. Killers = power. There are not many female killers that are heroes. But the majority of history was made by men that kill. We could get into the gender politics of the military right now, but let’s not… But, this is going to be a thing in society for a long ass time.
Sean: Yes. And Dexter is like, an “avenging angel.” The problem with the show Dexter is that it pulled back, around season 3, from really being true to Dexter’s dark side and turned him into Batman instead. The fantasy of Dexter is actually less dangerous now than it was in the show’s first two seasons, when there was always a tension underlying the show’s treatment of Rita: was she safe with Dexter? Was he capable of hurting her to keep his secret? Ditto Deb.
Kristine: See I stopped watching after Season Two. When Dexter started being able to kill and have a relationship. I was like, ‘No.’
Sean: Interesting pop culture counter-examples for your “killer women” theory would be Kill Bill, right? Sucker Punch? Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Even though all of those women are eroticized in a way that panders to the male imagination. They all belong to a subgenre I like to call “Boobs with Swords.”
Kristine: Yeah and also except that in those cases, aren’t the female badasses unable to have romantic relationships, or at least struggle mightily to do so? Whereas their male counterparts – Dexter – do not have the same kind of problems doing that. Henry + Becky. You know what I am thinking of? Don’t make fun…
Sean: I promise nothing.
Kristine: Olivia versus Elliott on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Olivia can’t have relationships because she works brutal SVU cases, but Elliott is this family man with 5 daughters (eventually his marriage falls apart later in the show, but still).
Sean: Oh good point. Can we just briefly touch on Otis and Becky before we’re done? The actor who played Otis is in the remake of Night of the Living Dead from 1990, he plays….. Harry.
Kristine: Um. No, thank you.
Sean: That remake is also directed by Sex Machine from From Dusk till Dawn, just fyi.
Kristine: My horror worlds are colliding.
Sean: Right? Did you think he was good? As Otis?
Sean: I was actually surprised and thought it was hilarious that his look came off as current-day-hipster to me. The trucker hats, the retro moustache.
Kristine: I know.
Sean: I could see him drinking PBR’s in Williamsburg or Bushwick.
Sean: Oh we didn’t even address the eye-gouging. That is an infamous moment from this movie. What does Becky use? The heel of a shoe? I forget.
Kristine: A comb.
Sean: Oh god. Something girly, I knew. A longhandled she-comb.
Kristine: Do you think the escalation in the fucked-upness in the Otis/Becky relationship worked? Because I thought it was realistic.
Sean: It worked for me.
Kristine: Yeah, I buy Otis’ parroting how their father abused Becky. That happens.
The Girls Rating: A worthy film, but won’t keep me up at night.
The Freak’s Rating: Total trash! I’m not sure I loved it.
9 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)”
Sean, (not to alienate you, Kristine), I told the Adam Walsh story to my kid when he was little, too.
He was always running from me! I had to try to find a way to stop him before I lost him.
So. Yeah… Otis DID confess to being the man behind the beheading, BUT he also confessed to 3000 other unsolved murders. I know John Walsh deserves peace of mind after all those years, but…I don’t buy it.
I never heard any evidence – only a confession. AND, and… how about this – since Otis Toole was the side-kick and slow-witted partner in crime of Henry Lee Lucas, wouldn’t HLL be held somewhat accountable, too?
I swear, I don’t comment to argue! Haha! I just never get to have these discussions with any of my friends.
Now… Sean… boxer-briefs are sexy as hell! I do not want to see a man in tighty whiteys, and there is something oh so redneck about walking around in regular boxers. Sure, nekkid can be the way to go – but you have to remember, a lot of guys ain’t THAT pretty. Straight or gay, there are only so many pairs of sexy muscular thighs. The only guys I want to watch walking around in the buff are the guys who have those lines… those things above the thighs, below the pelvis, they make a perfect frame for…ahem.. I don’t know what they’re called. Aaron Paul has em – Ryan Reynolds in Amnityville Horror bathtub scene has em, those things that make smart girls stupid.
Boxer-briefs give those ‘I’m not fat – but I don’t exercise’ guys a fighting chance.