By JERRY JENAE SAMPSON
Serial killers are hot. It’s undeniable. They are featured in endless glossy and sexy documentary series on Netflix – with synth scores and neon splattered homepage artwork. They win awards with “gritty” shows on HBO with millions of viewers. They are grown child actors with raw, sexual potency portraying brutal killers sprinkled with a boyish charm. The serial killers pop culture is obsessed with are safe.
Should they be safe? Should we feel comfortable in the world of such brutal and real-life murderers? Should the soundtracks be “Shazam-able?”
These shows and big-budget films are extremity grounded in reality that’s wrapped in a pretty bow. As the detectives talk about crimes that were committed, graphic photos of the crime scene are displayed. Naked bodies with gaping knife wounds, sometimes the faces are fuzzed out but often not. It feels like the show is normalizing the images on the screen, separating the story from the acts, and often going so far as to delve into the “why” of the criminal as opposed to the “who” is harmed. These men kidnapped, mutilated, tortured, raped, disemboweled, disfigured – they committed all levels of unspeakable cruelty on their victims, and yet in pop culture they are practically revered.
Sexy Ted Bundy, charming Charles Manson, misunderstood Jeffrey Dahmer. These killers have fan clubs, women who can’t hide their fascination. While real-life serial killers aren’t meant to be idolized, there is no doubt that these versions of them are.
In the meantime, films that disengage with this idolization, and instead fall into the realm of extremity are demonized. One such film, perhaps one of the most misunderstood and reviled films of the genre, is HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. Made in four weeks on a $110,000 budget, John McNaughton’s 1986 film carved out a new lane in the realm of transgressive cinema. Featuring an unknown actor by the name of Michael Rooker, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER was an immediate controversy as the release was met with an obstinate MPAA, who refused to give the film any rating below an X. No matter how willing McNaughton was to make cuts to his original film, the MPAA held their ground on more of a moral argument than anything substantive, leaving the film undistributable with a rating that was normally reserved for pornographic films.
We now know that such trials often lead to a film’s future cult status; for many horror fans, being told not to watch something is a sure-fire way to guarantee they’ll seek it out. But at the time, for the small cast and crew of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, their options were limited as they sat on a film that would eventually be revered by many critics and fans.
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER is loosely based on the real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Lucas confessed to having killed over six hundred people, though most of those claims have been proven false. The film is unyielding; a perfect example of guerilla filmmaking. It was shot on 16mm and employed the filmmaker’s family members, found locations, and utilized the same actress for three of the victims. Ultimately, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER was not looking to win awards and industry accolades, it was looking to disturb. It does so artfully.
The film opens on a naked dead woman in a field. And while this may be a common sight in the years since HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER premiered, this image would have been quite shocking at that time. Coming out of the 70s and the incessant censor-centric restrictions placed on films from auteurs such as Wes Craven, Sam Peckinpah, Meir Zarchi, McNaughton’s film provides an un-sensationalized depiction of a poverty-stricken Chicago – and of the American people that the “greed is good” mentality of the 80s later abandoned. The focus on abuse, incest, murder, trauma, and shame struck a chord with those who bristle at the idea of showing these truths without a filter.
The film opens with Henry’s introduction, he’s an unassuming exterminator whose transient lifestyle has him drifting in and out of towns, leaving bodies in his wake. Rooker has a soft face but hard eyes. He has a boyish charm when he wants, but that can change in a flash to a manipulative and harsh angry-dad energy, most often when wrangling his buddy Otis. While following Henry in his everyday activities, scenes are spliced in that show freshly mutilated bodies. There is no evidence that Henry has committed these crimes, as the camera slowly pans over the corpses with the sound design developed around the cries and screams of the victims as they are being murdered. This is an effective tool for building tension but also uncertainty. While it isn’t a secret that Henry is the perpetrator of these crimes, the fact that the majority of the murders are committed off screen only emphasizes the overly sensitive condemnation of the violence in the film.
Henry compliments a waitress on her smile. A man and woman lie dead on the ground. He drives, watching people from his car. A woman is tied, naked to a sink, a bottle shoved into her face. Henry prowls the streets, following the woman of his choice to her home, deterred only after her husband greets her at the car.
The mundanity that is dispersed through images of the aftermath of unspeakable carnage is the perfect depiction of the danger that a man like Henry poses. For any woman who has been followed down the street, these scenes hit hard. It is validation that instincts shouldn’t be ignored. At one point a woman hitchhiking is picked up by Henry, gently placing her guitar case in the back of his car, all smiles and trust. It isn’t until later, when Henry plunks the case down on his kitchen table that the audience knows without a doubt that Henry is the killer we think he is. Of course, HENRY was made in the 80s, well after the innocence of the hippie era as seen by men and women hitch hiking, making road friends, blanketed by the illusion of safety on the American road. So instead of a feeling of wonder, this hitching woman draws ire from the viewer, tempted to utter the loathed “you’re asking for it” as she scoots into Henry’s car.
The film then introduces Becky (Tracy Arnold) and Otis (Tom Towles) in an uncomfortable reunion at the airport and into a tense car ride that projects the inappropriate nature of their relationship right away. Becky has left her abusive husband and placed her daughter in the care of their mother while she plans on earning money in the city. Otis is teeming with crude jokes and suggestive glances and touches. He plays it off as all in good fun, but it isn’t hard to see that Becky is accustomed to such advances. The history of the siblings is established in these very first moments of interaction, a masterful combination of good writing and great acting.
Otis and Henry served jail time together and, while Henry is in town, live together in a rundown apartment. When Henry meets Becky there is an instant attraction on her part. Becky easily steps into a motherly role, cooking for the men and attempting to diffuse many tense situations. Otis has told Becky that Henry killed his mom, but Becky is not turned off by this. During a game of cards, Becky asks Henry about his childhood. She tells him about her dad and the physical and sexual abuse that she suffered at his hands. At one point she reveals her dad’s excuse for his behavior as “he had a right because she was his daughter, that he could do whatever he wanted.”
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER is a portrait of the effects of abuse and the spiral of shame that grows more expansive with time. As Becky relays her past to Henry, she does so in order to help him trust her. It is trauma bonding. As Becky tells her story, Henry opens up to her in small bits, telling her about his “momma,” how she was a “whore,” how she would bring men to the house and have sex with them while making him watch, making him wear dresses, would beat him if he didn’t watch. At first he says he stabbed her, then that he shot her. His story changes with each retelling. He is a completely unreliable narrator, but it’s not apparent that he is intentionally getting his facts mixed up. He isn’t trying to get Becky to feel for him, it’s almost like he is fabricating a new murder each time he speaks, like he is reliving his mother’s death through different means.
As Becky bonds with Henry over their trauma, she says that she feels like she can trust him because he is not judgemental, lending to the assumption that Becky has been faced with victim shaming throughout her life, and later solidified by the revelation that her mom knew about the abuse but didn’t want anything to do with it. The way in which the film approaches this subject is straightforward and jarring. It is the same way it treats the murders as they unfold.
Otis and Henry’s friendship is one of convenience for Henry, while Otis has more neediness. Henry uses this as a grooming tool. On a night out, Otis is first introduced to Henry’s favorite pastime after picking up two sex workers. While parked in an alley, Henry gets overzealous with his lady, strangling her and then snapping her neck as well as the neck of Otis’ companion. While Otis shows shock, Henry is quick to implicate him in the act, sure to emphasize that “we” killed them, not just him. This gaslighting works. Otis is forced to come to terms with what happened. Situations like this keep coming up as Henry familiarizes Otis with the ways in which he can get his aggression out. When Otis is humiliated after making a pass at a teen boy he sold weed to, Henry uses that anger to encourage Otis to commit his first solo murder, and from there the blood lust escalates quickly.
Henry very capably manipulates Otis and quickly establishes dominance over the impressionable man. When, during the most disturbing murder of the film, Otis starts to have sex with a dead woman, Henry barks out “Otis. No!” and Otis stops quickly, like a dog responding to his master’s voice. This dominance likely took hold due to Otis’ upbringing. While there is not mention of him having been sexually abused by his dad, there is no doubt that the dysfunctional home life could cause Otis to flounder developmentally. Otis appears to be seeking a strong male figure to attach himself to and identify with. Unfortunately that male figure is a ruthless serial killer.
It doesn’t take long for Henry to use Otis’ weak will to engage him in increasingly demented acts, but as this transformation occurs, Otis becomes more forward with Becky. One night while his lust surges after watching a home video of the murder of a family, Otis rapes Becky on the dirty floor of their apartment. This occurs after Henry and Becky share an intimate moment that Otis watches on, a catalyst for his envy as he steps into their father’s role, intimating that idea that Becky is his and he can take what he wants.
As the cycle of abuse curls in on itself, it is clear that HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER is so much about the tragic case of Becky as opposed to any aggrandizing or romanticism of the lore of Henry. Perhaps it’s this honest and vexing look at abuse that caused those at the MPAA to morally oppose the film. The American culture doesn’t like to acknowledge that such issues plague society. It’s the justice system that victim shames. It’s the parents who pretend abuse isn’t happening. It’s the church that encourages children to put their trust and innocence in the hands of a man, a pastor or priest. When Becky tells Henry that her mother knew of the continuous abuse at the hands of her dad, the viewer realizes it’s that very mother who Becky’s daughter is left with, and the horrifying reality is that the apathy her mother felt toward Becky is likely to be aimed now at Becky’s daughter. The cycle continues.
Toward the devastating end of the film, Henry has killed Otis in a contained rage. His anger spurs more from Otis breaking his unspoken anti-sex rule with the rape of Becky than anything. Becky and Henry drive out of town in a scene that faintly resembles the final frames of The Graduate. Becky confesses her love to Henry and he reciprocates in a way that betrays his discomfort, and at that point Becky’s ultimate fate is sealed. Her abuse and lifelong victimhood has delivered her into the hands of a man who could never love her, but due to her perceived bond through their trauma, she felt safe, even after watching him dismember her brother.
All extreme horror films tackle subjects that cause discomfort, unease, and often disgust. Some of them substitute subtext for overtly graphic scenes of sexual dysfunction and depravity, violence and gore, but others confront the profound effects of trauma head on. HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER is a grimy scrutinization of those Americans who never had the chance to pull themselves up by their bootstraps in an era that embraced hedonism and greed. It is loosely based on a man who claimed to kill hundreds of people, but really, the film is an unflinching look at the poor American family, the children who are forgotten, and the scar tissue that forms over wounds, never fully healed, never allowing those who carry that trauma to move on.
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER is the perfect example of Beautiful Filth. It is looked down on as exploitative and excessively violent, but in reality it is an artistic expression of the myth of the American dream and those who are left to spoil in their trauma.