Drifter: Henry Lee Lucas (2009)

SEPTEMBER 11, 2009


With his 3rd serial killer movie (at least) in the past few months, I am starting to suspect that Michael Feifer is trying to win a bet with fellow serial killer churner Ulli Lommel to see who can make the most in a single year. But at least Feifer’s are watchable, so he’s got the edge there. Drifter: Henry Lee Lucas is, much like Bundy, a surprisingly decent movie, though it suffers from many of the same issues that that film (and BTK) did.

For starters, Feifer seemingly has a strong opposition to what some folks might call a timeline. His films always start at the end of the killer’s spree and thus the whole film is presented in flashbacks. But the length of time between scenes is always annoyingly unclear, and in some cases, I can’t even tell if we are back in the current time or if he is simply recounting another time that he was in jail (Lucas, like most serial killers, was imprisoned and let go or escaped at least once or twice before his final incarceration). In Lucas’ case, it KIND OF works, because Lucas lied about a great number of his kills and thus establishing a firm date for something that might not have happened wouldn’t make much sense. Still, it’s frustrating to never get a sense of context in terms of the characters. We see Becky and Henry arguing - have they been together for years or for months?

He also tends to gloss over the more interesting elements of the real case. Henry would confess to crimes he did not commit in order to get special treatment (some reports claim he would be given the security codes for certain offices in the police station where he was held), but this aspect is limited to him being taken out to buy cigarettes. They also don’t spend enough time on his insane upbringing, limiting it to a few flashbacks (within flashbacks!). But we get a full 3 minutes of him and Ottis Toole (“Plug it in!”) driving around and acting up on the freeway.

But otherwise it largely works. Antonio Sabato Jr is surprisingly strong as Lucas (though it’s a bit distracting how much he looks like Mark Ruffalo and sounds like Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain). My only familiarity with him stems from half-remembered episodes of Melrose Place circa 1995, so I don’t have too much of a sense of his range, but regardless - he’s quite good here. This is the first “real” Henry movie I’ve seen (Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer was very loosely based on the case and skipped Henry’s upbringing (and glass eye) entirely), and I suspect his take on the role will be the one to be judged against in the future. The other acting varies (grats to Feifer for managing to find an actress even MORE awful than the ones that played BTK’s family in that film), but Sabato Jr’s performance makes up for it.

It’s also largely accurate, compared to what (admittedly little) I know about Lucas. Where BTK seemed to be largely made up, this is more like Bundy - sticking to the facts. But also like Bundy, it perhaps works with too large a canvas, instead of focusing on one time in his life and making it really compelling, it sort of takes a fly on the wall approach to every major event from his documented life, rarely spending more than 2-3 minutes on an event. It’s like the "Cliff’s Notes" of Lucas’ life, which is fine if you don’t know anything about him, but those who have read a book or seen a CourtTV piece about the guy will likely get bored due to the lack of any real depth.

As always, Feifer provides an audio commentary, where he is joined by Sabato Jr. If you’ve ever listened to one of his other tracks, you know what you’re in for: he points out friends and relatives in (thankfully) small roles, plugs his other films every chance he gets, and points out shooting locations that he likes to use over and over, such as the one small stretch of desert road where Lucas has at least three different kill scenes. But it’s also sprinkled with anecdotes and discussions about filming a Texas-set period piece in modern day LA, so it’s worth a listen. A still gallery is also included, for people who can’t just hit pause when they see a frame from the movie that they particularly like.

What say you?

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  1. So, I just saw this for the first time...I thought it was poorly done. I thought Sabato did a decent job, the other actors were run of the mill. However, it made me actually feel compassion toward Henry Lee Lucas. The revelation of his upbrining was heartbreaking. Also, I thought they should have gone deeper into the relationship between him and Ottis Toole. I was kind of relieved that I only paid a $1 at Redbox...I would give this movie a D-.

  2. I would much rather watch Henry, portrait of a serial killer. Even though it's only loosely based on him, it's a much better movie all around.

  3. The only scene with which I had a problem was the movie theater scene. How could someone murder a man and abduct his wife in such a public place without anyone noticing?


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