Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (1986)

MARCH 2, 2008


“Otis... plug it in.”

And that was all that I remembered about Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, a film I had watched a few times when I was 14 and obsessed with “ultra-violent” films like Natural Born Killers and whatever other Tarantino movies I was able to rent. But I sort of grew out of that phase and never revisited the film until now.

I had forgotten how somewhat fragmented and matter-of-fact the film was presented. There is also almost zero buildup to any of the kill scenes - they come (and go) out of nowhere. It's a great idea - why draw suspense when the movie is ABOUT a serial killer? No one is going to survive.The passage of time is entirely unclear (Henry says he doesn’t like to stay in one place for too long, but since he kills like a dozen people in the film, all in Chicago and suburbs, I would guess it would HAVE to take place over a year, or else the police would be suspicious, even if he was using different implements), and the first five minutes are just a series of shots showing the aftermath of Henry’s crimes edited with scenes of him driving around Chicago.

It is in this opening sequence that John McNaughton displays his fondness for cutting to a close-up of something, and then slowly pulling out for a look at the bigger picture. There’s some 568569 of these shots in the film, and it gets kind of annoying, to be honest. It’s effective at first, but there are only so many times you can use the trick. But it’s his first movie, so I guess it’s forgivable. In my first movie I didn’t even have a cameraman to pull off such shots.

For a low budget movie, the acting is surprisingly good. Michael Rooker is, of course, top notch in the role of Henry, and Tom Towles has what remains his largest role to date as Otis (now he’s just sort of relegated to brief appearances in Rob Zombie movies, though he also did a damn good job as Cooper in the underrated Night of the Living Dead remake). The girl playing Becky is also good as the film’s only non-despicable character, though the fact that she looks like Ed Harris is a bit upsetting.

Here’s an embarrassing story – when I first saw the film, I was so unfamiliar with the cinematic “language” of sex scenes that I didn’t even realize Otis was actually raping Becky at the end of the film. Since all of my exposure to sex scenes in movies at that point had been either in slashers or Basic Instinct (where taking ones' clothes off was pretty much the first priority), I thought he was just an aggressive kisser. Oh well. I also didn’t understand what Becky meant when she talked about her father coming into her room and “doing whatever he wanted”. This is the result of putting a movie nerd like myself in Catholic school – I missed out on key discussions of such matters in study hall, which is something we didn’t even have.

Despite being billed as a 20th anniversary special edition, the DVD is a bit of a letdown. The only extra of note is a badly recorded commentary with McNaughton and some British dude. Whenever the Naught raises his voice above a certain level, the sound on the recording cuts out, sometimes completely muffling what he was saying for the next few seconds. He does offer a lot of good info, however, so overall it’s worth a listen. Just don’t be fooled by the claim that the film runs 130 minutes on the back of the DVD – it’s the same 85 minute uncut version (cut versions run about 78 minutes). I am guessing that whoever designed the art didn’t know the difference between an hour and thirty minutes and a hundred and thirty minutes. What a jerk, huh?

What say you?


  1. I was probably around the same age as yourself when I first saw this one. it still manages to be an effective, near documentary look inside the mind of one sick fuck.

    The lack of tension just adds to the coldness of it all. On another note, it would appear I went to a similarly draconian school as yourself!

  2. I remember reviewing this movie for my college newspaper when it came out on video. I tried to capture its heartlessness, its bleakness, its penetrating glimpse into darkness, to make potential viewers understand that while this was a "horror movie" it was certainly no fun; Henry was no corny quipster like Freddy Kruger. It's a tough movie to revisit. The scene in which Henry and Otis murder a family while videotaping it still turns my blood cold. This is truly a giant film in the annals of horror cinema.


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