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“Invitation to Dance - It’s a Dance. And sometimes they turn the lights off in this ballroom. But we’ll dance anyway, you and I. Even in the Dark. Especially in the Dark. May I have the pleasure?” --- Stephen King ::::::::::: MY CRITERIA FOR DISCUSSION ENCOMPASSES THE HORROR GENRE AND BEYOND, SO I USE THE TERM "NIGHTMARE MOVIES". SPOILERS CAN OCCUR WITH OR WITHOUT WARNING. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

May 20th 2008 01:52
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer DVD artwork
It took four years before John NcNaughton’s disquieting low-budget shocker Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) finally received a theatrical release. It had a rating-exempt screening at the Chicago International Film Festival in 86, then sunk into a dark corner while McNaughton tried in vain to secure an R-rating.

The MPAA wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. Not because it was graphically violent, although it is very violent in places, but because the American censors felt its overall tone (lack of moral tone to be precise) rendered it irredeemable. McNaughton didn’t want the dreaded X-rating (box office kiss of death), and there was no NC-17 rating at the time. Eventually McNaughton opted to release the film unrated in 1990.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Mary Demas
The movie's opening image of one of Henry's victims
It appalled most conservative audiences and critics who saw the movie as utterly irresponsible and deeply prurient. They missed the point. But it wouldn’t be the first time a modern horror movie has confused the general public. The film was heavily cut, even re-edited, especially in the UK and Australasia. It was originally banned in New Zealand, and other European countries.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Tom Towles, Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold
Otis (Tom Towles), Henry (Michael Rooker) and Becky (Tracy Arnold)
Very loosely based on the homicidal exploits of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas Henry follows ex-convict Henry (played with a sombre chill by Michael Rooker) around Chicago, after having done time for murdering his mother (“Yeah, I killed my mama …”) as he kills randomly and with little rhyme or reason (this is a point of contention with some audiences as his lack of any real Modus Operandi questions whether he is technically a serial killer).

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Tom Towles and Michael Rooker
Otis and Henry familiarise themselves with a video camera in the park
Unnervingly charismatic Henry has a jailbird buddy; the repellent sociopath Otis (Tom Towles) who eventually joins him in his killing spree. Otis is visited by his young sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) who falls for Henry. It’s inevitable the three of them will reach critical mass. And there will be blood.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Tom Towles and MIchael Rooker
Otis and Henry view their murderous handiwork
A key sequence, and one which brought the movie much criticism from audiences easily offended, is a home invasion where Henry and Otis murder a husband and wife and their teenage son. The event is depicted through the lens of a video camera which the murderers have acquired and the audience see the mayhem in real-time. It’s not until Otis tries to sexually violate the dead wife that Henry shouts at him, off-camera, to stop, at which point the persective pulls away from the murky pixilated image on the television and Otis and Henry are revealed to be casually watching the footage being played back whilst in their own living room. Otis then begins to rewind the tape so they can watch it all again. It’s a genuinely ugly moment, but powerful nevertheless.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Tom Towles, Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold
Bloody chaos after Henry walks in on Otis raping his own sister
There are several audio-visual elements which make Henry such a resonant movie. Firstly McNaughton’s cinematographer shot the movie on 16mm and used mostly available light, then had it blown-up to 35mm, so there is a grain and darkness to the image which reflects the movie’s unrelenting tone. Frequently the mise-en-scene looks like the tackiness of a cheap day-time soap, but this pedestrian visual-style only heightens the movie’s tone of unpleasant realism.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Michael Rooker
Henry studies his dark reflection before making a final decision
Secondly, McNaughton uses sounds of mayhem and hysteria which he layers subtly behind several of the scenes, most notably in the movie’s opening montage sequence which features tableaux of Henry’s murder victims (one – the half-naked prostitute with a broken Coke bottle rammed down her face and neck - which caused great censorship controversy).

The electronic score by Ken Hale, Steven Jones and McNaughton’s brother Robert, is also of note; very 80s, but it adds a potent element of unctuous sleaze to the movie’s overall soundscape. It reminded me of the early movies of Abel Ferrara (The Driller Killer and Ms. 45).
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Mary Demas
An offending image that was cut from most UK and Australasian prints
Henry is an urban nightmare about the absence of hope. Although the movie is named after Henry, much of the atrocity within the movie can be attributed to Otis. In many respects he is portrayed as an even more appalling character than Henry. The dire truth though is none of Henry’s victims or associates can be saved. Henry is a murderous rogue, and this stark portrait is a studied reflection of his darkness. The final image is truly haunting.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer skillfully and uniquely plays exploitation against art film. When it came out there hadn't been a film of such bleak intensity that had garnered such media attention. It still retains nearly all of its repellant power.

(Of note: McNaughton would go on to direct the successful Wild Things, which used exploitation elements and a dynamic cast to enhance an ordinary thriller into a guilty pleasure.)

Here's the chilling home video/DVD trailer:


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6 Comments. [ Add A Comment ]

Comment by Damo

May 20th 2008 04:34
This is one of those movies that if I watched it whilst my wife was home I might not be allowed watch any movies at home again.

I am not big on the bleak movies with a message. They remind me of bleak movies with out a message.

Yet the review was good.

Comment by David O'Connell

May 20th 2008 05:18
I remember this one vividly too Bryn, it's still the first thing I associate Michael Rooker with to this day whenever I see him in a film - he'll always be Henry.

It's a very disturbing film, no doubt about it. I haven't seen it for years though and obviously without a gory scene or two, but must revisit again one day when I'm feeling a bit too damn bright and cheery!!

Comment by Bryn

May 20th 2008 07:00
Damo, fair enough. Yeah, methinks the wifey would throw a fitty ...

David, the production values remind me of low rent porn meets taky daytime American soap, which only adds to the overall atmosphere of inspired degeneracy, but the ending is still damn chilling ...

Comment by JohnDoe

May 20th 2008 07:26
Hi Bryn,

This is possibly the greatest serial killler film ever made, certainly one of the most convincing. Gone is the glamourising and falsity of the Hannibal Lecter style films, replaced instead with stark realism.

Challenging the viewer to ask why they are fascinate with such despicable personality types. Henry really is a window into an vile mindset and is still very hard to watch. What an ending!

Great review

Comment by Tracy

May 20th 2008 12:08
Great review, Bryn. I haven't seen this yet...I've wanted to but just haven't got around to it.


Comment by Bryn

May 21st 2008 01:41
JD and Tracy, cheers!

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