In John McNaughton’s debut feature, Michael Rooker plays Henry – by day a soft-spoken pest exterminator, by night a ruthless serial killer.
Made in 1986 but not released until 1990, due to the difficulty distributing such a disturbing film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is based on the confessions (many of which were later proved false) of real murderer Henry Lee Lucas. This grounding in reality is maintained throughout the film, making it a particularly chilling watch. This has none of the fun brought by its horror contemporaries; none of the surrealism of the Nightmare on Elm Street films or the comedy of the Evil Dead trilogy. With its gritty, working class backdrop and domestic, kitchen-sink setting, this is really an art house horror film.
Like all good horror films, the terror isn’t achieved by gore or jump scares, but by building real atmosphere and characters. The first is achieved right from the opening shots of Henry’s butchered victims accompanied by the sounds of their murders, creating an effect that’s nasty without being overly graphic. The second is down mainly to Rooker’s disturbingly understated performance; apparently he remained in character for the duration of the 28 day shoot, even off set. That must have been fun for his wife, who decided it would be best to wait until he’d gone back to being himself before she revealed that she was pregnant.
An interesting study of a psychopath, Henry’s fingerprints are all over works as recent as Dexter. Not that Henry would be careless enough to leave fingerprints anywhere – it’s his nomadic lifestyle and constant changing of methods that allow him to kill and kill again, completely undetected. By focusing solely on Henry and never even suggesting the risk of police detection, McNaughton gives the deliberate impression of blue-collar America as a lawless landscape. Instead of the risk of police involvement, tension is created elsewhere – specifically in Henry’s relationship with the almost-as-damaged Becky (Tracy Arnold), who also serves as the audience’s point of access to this sparse, bleak world.
Aside from some distracting music cues, which threaten to undermine the otherwise naturalistic tone, this is a strong, bold horror film. With it’s unflinching violence, chilling neutrality and total lack of hysteria, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is exactly that – a portrait of a serial killer. A portrait is still and neutral, even when what it depicts is shocking and disturbing.