This article is part of Biff Bam Pop’s ongoing “Now Streaming on Shudder” series.
The reputation of a horror film can often loom so large that even the thought of watching it elicits fear. Such is the case with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. After years of hearing it was one of the most realistic and shocking cinematic depictions of a serial killer, I purposely avoided it.
After growing fond of Michael Rooker as an actor over the years, I was also worried that he would be so believable I wouldn’t be able to watch him in anything else. I finally got the nerve to tackle Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer a few weeks ago.
Did Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer live up to my expectations and fears? One of the most remarkable things about it is the way that it both upholds and tears down horror film tropes.
There are no punches pulled in the movie’s opening shot: an extreme close-up of a woman’s open eyes. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal that she’s naked, bloody, and dead in a field. The lush grass and the sounds of birds chirping belie the hideous reality that she is a murder victim. Then, there’s a sudden cut to a close up of a cigarette being stubbed out in an ashtray. The implications of this Eisensteinian-style edit are obvious.
The man with the cigarette compliments a waitress on her nice smile. While her reaction is shown, his face is not. Then the film shows scenes of a man—filmed both at a distance and through point of view shots—driving around the city streets and alternates these with slow, tracking shots of murdered women. One woman is in a bathroom, slumped on a toilet with a broken bottle wedged in her face; the other is floating face down in a dirty stream filled with trash. The sounds of screaming are heard in the soundtrack and even though we only see the aftermath, imagining what they went through before this is frightening.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer utilizes some of the methods of older horror films, which because of budgetary restrictions and MPAA guidelines, often couldn’t show the violence and had to imply it. It also evokes the way that some monster films frequently keep the central figure in shadow in order to heighten suspense. By not showing, but implying, that the man in the car is the same one responsible for these deaths, it increases the audience’s fear of this faceless figure. When Henry is shown, it is his face reflected in the car’s side view mirror as he scopes out his next potential victim. The audience is removed from him but also gets to see how he stalks his prey.
The act of looking plays an important role in the film. Henry and his roommate Otis eventually become partners in crime. They lure two women into Henry’s car under the pretext of wanting sex; Henry strangles one woman and breaks the other one’s neck when she screams. Otis is upset but Henry rationalizes his behavior: “Look at the world: It’s either you or them, and you know that.”
Later, Otis acquires a video camera to film the duo’s murders, reliving his actions by watching the tape repeatedly, frequently pausing or watching in slow motion to prolong his pleasure. These scenes are among the most difficult to watch in the film as they are incredibly, shockingly violent. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was so violent, in fact, that it was rated “X” by the MPAA and didn’t play in theaters until four years after its premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1986.
The film doesn’t romanticize Henry’s compulsions; it shows them in all of their ugly truth. The movie’s low budget ($110,000) and 16mm film stock give it a gritty, gruesome sheen. The implication is that this kind of life is the reality for many people, one in which poverty and abuse beget poverty and abuse. Becky, Otis’s younger sister, escapes an abusive spouse to live with her brother, who also makes sexual advances towards her. When she meets Henry, she gazes at him in a way that reveals she’s instantly attracted to him. Becky tells Henry that her father raped her as a child; Henry tells Becky that his mother was a prostitute who would make him watch her having sex with her johns.
Even though Henry later kills and dismembers Otis when he catches him raping Becky, he is really only saving her death for later. The two leave town but the final scenes show Henry dumping a bloody suitcase by the side of the road. Becky is nowhere to be found. Did Henry kill Becky because she knew too much or because his pathology demanded it? The movie ends much like it began, with a woman being murdered and Henry driving around in his car.
As much as the high-concept, stylized universe of Hannibal the TV series fascinates me, the harsh reality is that serial killers are not always glamorous, well-educated, handsome men in bespoke suits who kill and eat rude people. Sometimes serial killers are victims of sexualized violence who enact that same abuse upon others. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is dirty and disturbing, and not just because it’s based on real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. The movie feels real, and that’s what makes it scary.