Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer

Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer

Static Mass Rating: 2/5
Studio Canal

Release date: October 24th, 2011
Certificate (UK): 18
Running time: 83 minutes

Year of production: 1986

Director: John McNaughton
Writers: Richard Fire, John McNaughton

Cast: Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold

Until now, I hesitated to see director John McNaughton’s low budget film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. I knew several high-profile critics gave it positive reviews and the film’s “unforgiving realism” was often praised. Having seen a few excerpts, I was skeptical. Can realism alone give a film some sort of artistic merit, especially when it comes to the gritty subject of serial murder?

Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer

The film is loosely based on real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas played by Michael Rooker and is a fairly straightforward telling of his daily life of dull existence occasionally interrupted by the killing of randomly selected victims. His flatmate Otis – also based on real life murderer Ottis Toole – is visited by his sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) who has just split from her husband and came to Chicago in search of a job. While the three of them live together, Henry and Otis develop what I can reluctantly call a friendship.

Henry soon decides to share his passion for taking life with Otis, which results in the two teaming up to become sinister predators looking for prey on the streets of the city.

The first thing I noticed in Henry was the lack of outsider’s perspective. We have Henry, and to some extent Otis, as the protagonists of the film and also the antagonists. It’s an unsettling, uncomfortable and almost unbearable perspective. Looking through the eyes of a pathological mass murderer going senselessly from victim to victim I could only think of one question: Why was this movie made?

Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer

Sometimes there are good reasons to see a movie about a serial killer or about such a crime. David Fincher’s Seven (1995) is a thought-provoking – but ultimately pessimistic – debate about the meaning of life; Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) represents optimism and the older and more experienced Detective Lt. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), pessimism.

Private investigator Tom Welles, played by Nicholas Cage in Joel Schumacher’s 8mm (1999), feels compelled to get personally involved in the case of a young girl after seeing her being brutally murdered on video tape. In spite of its gritty and depressing atmosphere, 8mm is a moving story about compassion and a selfless act of kindness for a young woman who only found someone to care for her after she died.

The Japanese serial killer film Cold Fish (2010) directed by Sion Sono is a fascinating masterpiece about an emotionally repressed man who finds his extreme opposite. In my interpretation of Cold Fish, the serial killer Yukio Murata (Denden) is a mere fantasy in the mind of the protagonist (Mitsuru Fukikoshi). The acts of murder, rape, mutilation, Murata’s lavish life-style and his red Ferrari all serve as distorted images in a mirror invented by a man who cannot take control of his own life and is waiting to explode.

Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer

When I ask myself what it is exactly that I got from seeing Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, I cannot say very much. I was waiting for the film to say something, but it didn’t. There is this guy and he kills people for no reason. That’s what we see in the beginning, the middle and then at the end. The film lacks any sort of arc, structure or point.

As co/writer Richard Fire stated in the Making Of documentary, they wanted to create a character study without social commentary. In that, the film has a great deal of integrity. It’s an uncompromisingly realistic docudrama with Michael Rooker giving a terrifyingly believable performance as Henry. However, I couldn’t find any reason for this story to be told.


  • Making of Documentary (52:30)
  • Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas (26:08)
  • Interview with director John McNaughton (30:31)
  • John McNaughton in conversation with Nigel Floyd (22:14)
  • Censorship History 3 Segments
  • Deleted Scenes and Outtakes (21:03)
  • Stills Gallery
  • Original Storyboards
  • Trailer (01:52)

I think that the kind of things that are shown in the film desperately need some sort of context. Without context, the film is exactly what the filmmakers intended it to be – and in this case it’s simply not enough. In one scene, Henry and Otis are sitting on a couch watching a footage they had recorded of themselves in a home invasion, murdering all members of a family. That’s what we, the audience do when we see the film: sitting on a couch watching footages of murder. This is why context is needed: context would give the filmmakers the opportunity to creatively say something to us about Henry.

I was left depressed and wondering what the point of all this was after the film. Having read Frances Taylor’s review of Sion Sono’s Cold Fish, I thought it might be an idea for me to start Googling for pictures of puppies after watching this disturbing movie in a desperate attempt to cleanse my mind from the hellish ride that is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

About Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.