For years I have been avoiding the horror film Henry: The Portrait of a Serial Killer. I know a couple of guys, my age, that tried to watch it one night and had to turn it off because they were too scared, "freaked out" I think are the words they used. Every time I walked by it in a video store, I'd say to myself not tonight. I don't think I am in the mood for that. Once I became a Netflix subscriber, I put it in the bottom of my very large queue. It came in the mail a few days ago and I watched it today. It is scary and quite gruesome, but very dated. This genre has been done so many times over since this film was made in 1986 that it is seems a little stale. One of things you notice is that the grisly murder scenes are shot in the same exact way as every other scene, no close-ups, no distorted angles ... very little manipulation is happening here. This makes it very real, too real, maybe, considering the subject matter. There is no formula followed in this film. No hero comes to save you, no comic relief, no young girl is left to battle the monster to a cheerful end. There is no hope. No excuses either. The director and screen writer make no attempt to explain why Henry is the way he is. Watching this, you are more likely a shocked observer than a watcher of entertainment and it is quite disturbing. Much of the criticism I have read about this film complain about it's lack of flash, "it is boring," or it's lack of redemption or any police involvement. All of these criticisms I find are its strength. When violence is done in film, it should not be with flash or style and should be shown as it really is: horrible, painful and senseless.
The film's director, John McNaughton, was given a shoestring budget of $100k to film a horror film on any subject of his choosing and in any method he'd like. He had never directed a horror film or any film. Prior to this, he was the delivery man for a video rental equipment company. He had no idea where to start. He then saw an episode of 20/20 on the killers Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole. Lucas confessed to over 600 murders while a drifter in the 1970's, but only 350 of them were actually ever linked to him. Over 100 of them he collaborated with Toole. The 20/20 episode was the first time McNaughton had ever heard the term serial killer. . McNaughton had his inspiration. Henry has been called America's first serial killer due to the fact that most Americans didn't even know what a serial killer was until this film came out.
Not much of the film is accurate. Henry had a glass eye. His girlfriend, Toole's sister, in real-life was 12 while she is a full grown woman in the film. McNaughton didn't want to put a young actress through the trauma of portraying her. Henry did most of his murdering in the American South from Florida to Texas (Surprise!) while the film takes place in Chicago. Why? Because McNaughton lived in Chicago. Most of the victims in the film are portrayed by unpaid volunteers, not actors. He simply asked his friends to help out. Henry and Otis met in Florida where Otis was a male prostitute. In the film, they meet in prison.
Henry is often called The Confession Killer because of the number of killings he confessed to. When he started to confess to these murders, he wasn't taken seriously until they noticed he had key information that only the killer would know. Because of this, he became famous and eventually very demanding. His demands included a television and VCR for his cell among other things. The Henry Lee Lucas Task Force was formed to research the confessions. Many of his confessions were lies causing the Texas police and FBI thousands of man-hours. McNaughton wanted to make the sequel, Henry II, about the task force but that film's producers only wanted another film about a bunch of other killings. It sounds like McNaughton's idea for a sequel might have been a good idea. Henry II was released in 1998 and I hear it is just an awful slasher film.
It took the original film four years to get by the censors. Originally the MPAA gave it an X rated, when the produced appealed this, they responded by giving it an XXX rating. It was finally released, due to so much critical appeal and festival fanfare, in 1990 with no rating at all. Several seconds of film were removed from the family massacre which I am probably grateful for. The scene is awful enough.