Perhaps one of the most disturbing films of all time, John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer feels like a true independent film that distresses audiences through its casualness. While serial killer movies often instill fear through bursts of wild kills and bloody deaths, this picture utilizes the deliberate pace to unapologetically show how brutal its titular character is. The kills are slow, in your face, and utterly revolting, even embodying some elements of a snuff film: it feels real, and in some respects, it is. Systematically drawing from the crimes of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, McNaughton’s work is a shining example of a film that dares to horrify, without all the cheapness and effects. Everything in this picture is a methodical burning build-up that never seems to stop, even as it ends.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer unapologetically opens with a montage of dead bodies, the handiwork of the film’s titular character, Henry (Michael Rooker), a psychopathic, constantly traveling individual who kills along the way. He lives with Otis (Tom Towles), who subsequently brings her sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) back to their shared apartment. Becky gets to know Henry by asking her how he murdered his mom, and he remorselessly answers her questions, justifying it because of her abuse towards him. Becky discloses that as a teenager, her father had taken advantage of her, to which Henry responds that he does not like sexual abuse towards women. In this initial exchange, they presumably form a bond. In another conversation over dinner, Otis makes a pass at his own sister. Henry relents and threatens him not to do it again, and the scene hints at the idea that Becky is smitten with his “protector”. Early on, the picture unsettlingly presents and critiques the audience’s affinity with tough, mysterious bad guys. Becky, perhaps from innocence, reveals one of her secrets to a guy she barely knows, a mistake that most are familiar with. Now, as a result of this casualness, a dangerous man has his sights on her. It is worth noting that this picture’s signature insouciance acts as its driving force both narratively and thematically.
‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ Finds Fear in the Casual
After a series of “heartwarming” conversations, Henry and Otis decide to cool off their hot heads and drive into the city to look for some fun. They pick up two sex-workers, and in one of the film’s most iconic scenes, the camera slowly pulls in and surveys the car to reveal a dichotomy of sorts: Henry killing his partner, while Otis is kissing and fondling his. However, as Otis’ girl sees what Henry has done, the latter breaks her neck. They dispose of the two bodies, and Henry ends up driving the car with a stoic expression on his face as if nothing happened. He convinces Otis to stop talking about it, and Henry grabs a bite to eat, and in a moment of unintentional hilarity, offers Otis some fries. What’s striking here, and probably McNaughton’s whole intention, is to show how cold, calculated, and ruthless a serial killer is, especially when one stands (or in this case, sits) beside an unwilling accomplice. Once again, the casualness of the imagery of Henry eating a cheeseburger after he just brutally murdered two innocent women strikes fear into the hearts of viewers. Henry frightens audiences while paradoxically having the demeanor of your everyday neighbor after scratching their back, grabbing a beer from the fridge, and enjoying a nice summer day in front of their lawn.
The proceeding sequence further emphasizes the everyday comportment of Henry. Otis, now noticeably more cold-hearted and more attuned to violence after their encounter, breaks their television set, and they make their way to a fence to procure another one. When the fence begins to berate them for having only 50 dollars in their pocket, Henry snaps and stabs him repeatedly with an electric cord while Otis holds him in place. Henry ends his suffering by smashing a television set on his head, while Otis plugs the device in to electrocute him. In ascending fashion, the violence in this picture becomes more apathetic. As it transitions, McNaughton shows every gruesome detail of the murder. Every stab feels like a gut punch to those who are watching, and seems to revel in its disturbing nature. Much like its main character, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has no compunction, no shame, and no emotion. Only the thrill a psychopath gains from this deplorable activity. Afterwards, they grab a camcorder from the dead fence’s stocks, a new toy that would further intensify their emerging bloodlust.
Heightening Terror via Voyeurism
Moving forward, after unsuccessfully attempting to sexually assault a teenage boy, Otis retreats to Henry to seek counsel on how to end the boy’s life. Henry advises him to forget about it. Perhaps enamored by their previous murders, the two take off on a killing spree, first murdering a driver who wanted to help them with their “broken” car. The two soon arrive at a home in what seems to be a suburban neighborhood. The film later reveals, that they have videotaped the entire endeavor, and they gleefully watch the results from their apartment. What ensues in the videotape is perhaps the most disturbing scene in the whole film, maybe even in film history. The tape rolls on to show Henry murdering presumably the father and the son of the residing family, while Otis sexually assaults the mother. It is a sequence that urges the audience to look away, but simultaneously wants them to keep on watching. The camera lens has become a watchful eye, representative of its viewers who have no choice but to continue seeing this brutal defiance of morality and ethics, still carried out in nonchalant fashion. As the gruesomeness of the murders continue to ascend, Henry, and consequently, Otis, still represent the coldness and casualness of killers that have been desensitized to the whole idea of taking another person’s life. Another thing that makes this interesting is it boggles the viewers “standards for badness”. While Henry is indeed a vile character, epitomizing pure evil, Otis seems to fly off as the more revolting and irredeemable character. One can glean that it is a slap of reality from life. The film indirectly tells us that no matter how despicable a person is, there exists a more revolting person somewhere in this world.