Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

(USA - 1986)

by Mike Lorefice & Mike McGowan

Cast: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles, Mary Demas, Anne Bartoletti
Genre: Horror
Director: John McNaughton
Screenplay: Richard Fire, John McNaughton
Cinematography: Charlie Liebermann
Composer: Ken Hale, Steve A. Jones, Robert McNaughton
Runtime: 86 minutes

Mike Lorefice: Henry is a harrowing account of a serial killer that murders to pass the time. This movie has no budget ($100,000 to $125,000 depending on whom you believe) and no names (Rooker's portrayal led to him becoming a notable actor), but that turned out to be kind of a good thing. There's no glitz or glamour here, no sensationalizing. It's just pure evil strictly from the killer's point of view that director McNaughton was able to make seem real. That's what makes it so scary, the perverted heartlessness of it all. People die because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it's not because of the "everyday dangers of life," it's because Henry decides that someone being nice to him or doing him a favor is going to die. The pinnacle of this is when Henry & Otis fake car trouble so they can shoot the first person that stops to give them a hand.

The story is purposely one-dimensional; there is no need to muddle a story presented from the point of view of a killer who does not fear (or probably consider) reprimand by including a police investigation. There are really only 3 characters, Henry (Michael Rooker), Henry's cellmate turned roommate Otis (Tom Towles), and Otis' sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) who moves in with them after her marriage goes awry.

Otis is a perverted loser that doesn't really have a mind of his own. He entertains himself by fantasizing over every woman he sees, even his own blood, but really is only happy if he can torment them. Although he's killed before, he's not the type of person that would have had the "brilliant idea" to take it one step further and kill people for "entertainment." When Henry makes him an accomplice, it's not hard for Henry to convince him that killing is the thing to do.

Becky likes Henry, but we really don't know why. It has been explained that she's fascinated in him killing his mother, but she obviously liked him before she found that out. Her character is not here to provide a distracting romance, she's here to bring out aspects of Henry that otherwise would go unknown.

Henry is a very complicated character. He seems like one of those people that could have been a good person, but was ruined by his whore mother who would make him watch her turn tricks in their house even when his father was home. He's incredibly intense, unforgiving, and incapable of loving or being loved. That said, Henry's not such a bad guy when he isn't killing; he is pretty quiet and mainly keeps to himself. He certainly wouldn't seem like someone that was going to be that hard to coexist with until he killed you. He always sticks up for Becky when Otis is having fun at her expense, so he's not totally oblivious to right and wrong. He has no remorse for what he does though, and basically does things because he can. He seems to be the way he is because his emotions are locked up inside him, only coming to the surface when he kills.

Henry & Otis are not the meticulous serial killers we usually see in movies that know how to cover their trail so the police can't find them. They aren't smart enough to be, but they also have no conscious and no worries. Henry will snap a woman's neck, leave her on the side of the road, and never think about her again. He doesn't believe that he can be caught unless he kills too many people in the same area or uses the same gun more than once. As far as we know, the police aren't after him yet. The lack of scenes involving other people is what makes the film one of the few movies that I consider legitimately scary. By removing hope that Henry will be apprehended (the movie is somewhat based on the since recanted confessions of Henry Lucas) and not providing any scenes that would distract or lighten what's going on, the actions of Henry & Otis become that much more horrifying. What's scary about Otis is he went from being largely a misguided worthless loser to a guy who spends all the time his sister isn't around (Becky doesn't know they are going out murdering people) watching their violent murder of a family over and over again in slow motion.


The ending is perfect because there is no conclusion to this story. This character will go about business until he dies or is locked up, but either would introduce the element of justice. Of course, the real Henry was eventually caught and it's a damn good thing, but having that happen here would remove so much of the power by suddenly shifting the mood 180 degrees. This story is totally about Henry's lifeless and orderless world, so we cannot be left with even a glimmer of that hope.

John McNaughton is best known for Wild Things, but that is hardly his best film. It could be argued that movie is cheap, exploitive, and implausible, but none of those terms apply here. Henry is simply gritty, gutsy, and truthful. You could argue that this type of person (it's probably more true of a certain type of serial killer than Lucas himself) isn't worthy of having a film made them. I have no problems with people feeling that way as long as they don't claim the subject matter automatically makes it a bad film. Just don't watch it if you feel that way. Regardless of your opinion here, McNaughton was clearly the right man to make such a film. He's hardly a director of great style, but he's one of the most understanding of the criminal mind and style would be a detriment here. His other really strong work, Normal Life, takes a totally different approach, but is nonetheless exceptional in its portrayal of the bank robbers (the best performance by the gifted Ashley Judd certainly helps) . In a way though, it's more a gender reversed take off on what he has but can't come close to fully exploring here with Henry and Becky, two characters that are perfectly wrong for one another who come together in spite of one's baggage.

Henry is one of the most controversial films of all time. Either you think its honesty makes it brilliant or it's violence makes it's some form of pornography. It was denied an R rating not for one or two scenes, but essentially for the overall brutal, disturbing, and unforgiving nature of the film. It isn't meant for family viewing and doesn't intend to entertain in the least. It's largely a great movie for two reasons. It's gritty, uniquely realistic presentation of a perverse topic that shouldn't be the least bit entertaining and an awesome debut performance by Michael Rooker. The power and intensity of Rooker's chilling performance is just incredible. Just looking at his face, his eyes, when he's ready to act almost seems like it could be enough to kill the poor sap. If any movie is scary, it's this one. It doesn't use cheap fake outs to generate a reaction, but nothing is more terrifying than considering that no matter where you are or how good your intentions are, a Henry could pop up and end you. It's horror in the truest sense of the word!

Mike McGowan: I couldn't agree more that "Henry" is a four star classic. It is one of the rare films that truly transcends its genre, choosing to completely discard many of the formulaic trappings of the horror movie, while folding in elements of suspense, psychological thriller and raw drama in the vein of Taxi Driver. That this film is often pigeonholed as exploitation horror is nearly as criminal as the actions of its lead character.

That said, "Henry" is a horror movie, and it is one of the all-time greatest. I have always felt that the mark of a true classic horror film is the ability to terrify hours, days or even weeks after viewing. We've all seen the cat-jumping-out-of-the-darkness bit for the quick adrenaline burst before, but I don't think anyone ventures home from the theatre genuinely afraid to open their cupboard to find a pouncing feline. No, "Henry" applies none of these cheap gasp-inducing devices. In fact, the film is short on action altogether, instead focusing on the slow building tension of wondering when Henry will next snap.

That is, after all, the beauty of the Henry character. He isn't, as you've said, the brilliant and calculating Hannibal Lecter, who seemingly has every act of violence planned out months in advance. No, Henry is an opportunist, one who is impulsive and a slave to his whims. The script and Rooker's portrayal are integral to the fear we slowly grow in our minds while watching events unfold...when Henry kills we are shocked and disgusted, and when Henry is not killing we have a sense that he could at any minute. Whether he is going to buy a used TV with Otis or is hesitantly enjoying a meal prepared by Becky, the viewer is uncomfortable with the knowledge that Henry's impulses could rise to the fore for no apparent reason and at any time.

The budget of this movie also lends it the credibility it needs for the plot of the film (or somewhat brilliant lack thereof) to survive. Filmed in brilliant Technicolor with fantastic studio lighting, the film would lose its edge; the balance struck by the director is so delicate that the slightest hint of Hollywood magic would tear the viewer out of the story. No, the lack of budget makes it feel raw and gritty, but not forced to be so. And because of this, you feel less like you are watching a film, and more like you are accompanying this unfortunate trio on their journey. In fact, while watching Henry and Otis dispatch the TV vendor, I recall feeling guilty like I should step in and bring a halt to this carnage. It is the ability to draw the viewer in that makes the film so powerful.

After the closing credits roll, it is the absolute realism of the random violence displayed that makes the movie disturbing long after leaving the theatre or returning the cassette. "Henry" was so well written, directed, and acted that you come to the terrifying realization that there are no Hannibal Lectors out there, planning and scheming while perfectly executing a diabolical plan. However, there are a world full of Henrys roaming the streets of our cities, and they are not marked or labeled or readily recognized. They are the man sitting next to us on the bus, the kid bagging our groceries, the waiter at our table and the clown at our children's birthday parties. Henry, unfortunately, is real. And most frighteningly, we see that Henry in the film is human, which leads us to the final most horrible analysis. "That could be me."

The ending is also one of the gems of cinema history. We are convinced into believing (brilliantly through mostly glances and body language, not blatantly told like most hack Hollywood films) that in Becky, Henry will find redemption, or control, or the happiness that has been denied him all his life. As they drive away to find a new life together, the viewer is actually hoping for the Hollywood ending. We hope Henry has finally found the love he sought at the end of a knife but never found. We hope that because his character is tragic, and because we desperately want to carnage to stop. However, the hope is ripped from us when, in a heart shattering scene, Henry removes Becky's suitcase from the car, leaving the viewer with the feeling that the young girl's corpse is inside. It is masterful that, in a film filled with brutal depictions of violence and murder, the most tragic killing of the film is committed off camera, and only inferred by a suitcase left on the side of the road. Not only is it pinnacle cinema, but it is the impetus for the horror that is carried home with the viewer long after. Despite all our hopes and the influences of an innocent girl, Henry is what he is, and nothing can change that. Despite all the indications that he wanted to be another man for this girl, even he could not control himself. He must kill like you and I must eat or breathe.

Rarely does a film come along that compels such soul searching and thought. To those who would dub "Henry" an exploitation film, I would say yes. It exploits our worst fears, terrors and self-doubts. And it does so gloriously. "Henry" gives us a vision that is more terrifying than any other: There is no evil in the world. Instead there is something far worse, man. By stripping away the illusion and excuse of 'evil', we are left with the horrible realization that humanity can be far more dangerous.

Mike Lorefice
Mike McGowan

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