The scariest movies are the ones that are the ugliest. Not necessarily gory, an “ugly” horror film focuses less on disgusting kills and more on examining the unpleasantness of being alive. This kind of hard look at life is rarely seen in the horror genre where providing scares is more important than dispensing social commentary. Released in 1986, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a very ugly horror movie.
Based on real life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, Henry was met with controversy when it was first released. The movie contained scenes of graphic violence and was given an “X” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. The film opens with some of the scenes that would later cause controversy. Director John McNaughton employs an interesting technique: instead of showing the grisly murders, McNaughton shows the already dead bodies while audio of the killings plays over the shots. This is very effective as it forces the audience to imagine the violence that has occurred.
Henry is centered around three characters. This small cast allows the movie to focus on its story and the audience to see the ugliness that exists in the world. Henry is a life-long criminal. Otis is an ex-convict who met Henry in prison. Though Otis does not speak about specific events of his past, his treatment of his sister Becky gives an idea as to what kind of big brother he is. Becky has apparently lived in fear her entire life. The movie constantly reinforces the theme that there is nothing worthwhile about life.
Henry is the most frightening character in the film. While Henry talks to Becky once about his twisted childhood, the audience is given little insight into his motivation to commit his crimes. Henry tells Otis it’s an “us or them” attitude, but otherwise it seems as if Henry is just killing simply for the sake of it. This is terrifying as without motivation, there seems to be no hope for rehabilitation. In most movies the villain will have a weakness or can be reasoned with, but Henry reminds the audience that sometimes the only answer is one you would rather not hear.
While Henry is the scariest character, Otis is by far the worst person in the movie, is involved in its ugliest moments, and has no redeeming qualities. He mistreats his sister, sells drugs to high school kids, and begins filming his and Henry’s acts. While the movie’s title clearly states the audience is seeing a portrait of Henry, it is also a picture of Otis — an already scary man devolving into an even worse one. Henry seems to act without reason; Otis is obviously taking pleasure in what the two are doing.
Becky is arguably the film’s most tragic character. She has spent her entire life in fight or flight mode, moving from one abusive situation to another. As a result, Becky is unable to let her guard down throughout the entire movie. Any scene involving her is filled with tension, since the audience never knows what horrible thing will happen to her next. Becky also serves to show that even love cannot break through the ugliness of the world. Whether it is family, her husband, or a new person, Becky always ends up being betrayed by love. This enhances the bleak world created by Henry.
The ugliness of Henry is not just limited to its characters: The entire movie is spent in the seedier parts of Chicago. The apartment the three live in is run down and incredibly cramped. A broken television anchors their living room, while one room has a curtain in place of a door. They live in squalor and live like squatters. There are prostitutes, drug addicts, and back alley dealings, but there is never a sense of normalcy. The lack of contrast is a great idea. The movie can focus on its grisly world building while the audience can use their actual lives as a point of comparison.
A big theme of Henry is sexual tension. Almost every scene in the movie is filled with it. Whereas early slasher films of the 1980s promoted the idea that promiscuity was dangerous, Henry seems to be saying that even the idea of sex is wrong. Sexual abuse has been an issue for two of the characters while the third character is a perpetrator of it. Sex is a constant source of violence in the movie and is even seen as the possible reason for something much worse.
While the writing of the movie is first-rate, the more technical aspects are hit and miss. Tom Towles is generic in the early parts, but gets much better as the story progresses and Otis is given more depth. Tracy Arnold does a great job as Becky, but the real standout is Michael Rooker’s Henry. Rooker (Yondu from Guardians of the Galaxy) plays Henry as an aloof loner who is not especially smart or charismatic. Rooker’s Henry is also not cold or calculating; his actions are almost workmanlike. Rooker’s facials and slight movements add to the character.
The lighting is perfect to the feel and tone of the movie, but the music is horrible. The music is heavy drums, occasional synth, and some guitar that is reminiscent of an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. The music is so out of place that it can be reasonably argued that having no score may have been the better option.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is an ugly movie. The entire movie is under a cloud of fear and anger. The story, themes, and characterizations in the film are very well done while the music is noticeably bad. Henry is a great movie, but be prepared for the worst.