Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a overwhelming film that keeps a constant sick feeling in your stomach; that is what we are suppose to feel when watching someone get murdered. Very, very, loosely based on the absurd confessional by Henry Lee Lucas -- admittedly falsified by Lucas himself; Lucas claims to have murdered 600 people, nearly one a week, from 1975-1983. It doesn't glamorize its title character's exploits or personality. We are not meant to hate Henry (Michael Rooker); the right emotions are fear with brief hints of sympathy. This here is a perfect film to spend a shoe-string budget on -- its budget was $110,000 -- it does not require any flashy stylization and A-list stars would take attention away from its powerful intentions. As the unwilling audience we are forced to see a side to the world and human nature that is usually ignored, and, or shied away from. This film is not "entertaining" and if you are a Slasher fan, well, you can just pass up on this because you are likely not going to appreciate something that doesn't use violence to exploit.
The film opens with Henry sitting at a coffee shop, and as he goes about the "normal" parts of his day the sickening aftermaths of various murders he had committed are shown in slow-paced, lingering sequences -- the horrifying sound effects are played over the graphic images causing the opening sequence gut-wrenching start to the film. With that, Henry's madness is clarified quickly. His roommate Otis (Tom Towles) has brought his troubled sister Becky to come live with them. Becky is played by Tracy Arnold, her performance, and character, is nothing special, yet she is vital because of how she is able to get Henry to open up and reveal his inner pain; it is one of their talks early in the film about each other's childhoods that reveals the causes of Henry's inner pain which incorporates the sympathy factor. By letting us sympathize with Henry early in the film -- before the madness begins -- is genius because it lets us reminisce about it later while still showing him for what he really is.
The relationship between Henry and Otis is powered by the constant tension that Henry's emotional unbalance radiates. Otis is played by strongly by Tom Towles; his performance is a pawn off of Hooker's that actually brings its own strength to the film. Otis is a trashy idiot who gets high on the drug of sadistic violence, although he isn't a master at the art like Henry. Otis' unnatural lust for his corrupted, but pure-hearted sister, Becky, proves to be the one of his many flaws that is fatal.
Director/producer/co-writer John McNaughton dedicated his time, money, and even got much of his family to participate in making his work come to life. He was undoubtedly passionate about his film, but with being passionate he is able to remain indifferent to the character he is portraying. His direction is calm, it allows the events to work out at a nice steady pace. The way he quietly brings a documentary feel to the film works perfectly, adding to the already breathtaking raw power. Filming at pace that deserves its own separate praise -- shot in 28 days. I think I could safely say that this is a film the defined how filmmakers from the "Indie Movement" of the 90s wanted to make their films, even probably what they wanted them to look like. McNaughton makes a film that is simple in its story, creation, and intentions. All he tries to do is accurately, and realistically, give us a "portrait" of a psychopathic murderer and he achieves those intentions with such ease.
This film is visceral brutality; it doesn't hide what it means and there is no shyness in what is shown. The tortured unstableness of Rooker's performance steals the screen. Knowing that Rooker had isolated himself from the cast and crew and had completely entranced himself into the role creates only adds to how terrifying his performance is; when he is off the screen the film just doesn't feel as powerful -- now that is a presence! McNaughton hides most of the intense violence, the occasions when he lets the violence loose will tighten up every muscle in your body. Not many times does a shallow (in relation to depth) film leave such an impact and keeps your mind running in full gear after it ends.
Audiences outside film aficionados will struggle intensely to watch Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. There are no redeeming factors, if your hold your breath for some moment of sweetness or a dim light of hope, you will suffocate miserably. I am a sucker for films who try something new -- quite cliche now, but in 1986 this was unheard of -- and aren't afraid to be brutally, and violently, honest. Rooker's film debut features a once-in-a-career performance that hasn't been touched ever since in his very respectable career. McNaughton's film career was stalled and started simultaneously do to the controversy of this film, but it has since become a cult classic. And its rightfully earned praise did finally roll in, although it took some time to arrive.