Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Review
"Of course it’s black and white, what do you expect for fifty bucks, f#@kin’ 3D for Christ’s sake?"
It might surprise you to discover that whilst Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is many things, the one thing it isn’t is a horror film. That may have been director John McNaughton’s original brief when executive producer Waleed B. Ali gave him $100,000 to make a ‘horror film with plenty of blood’ but that isn’t what he ultimately created. The characters in the film commit horrible acts to be sure but the film itself is more like a documentary, eschewing the cliches of horror cinema to provide an unflinching look inside the mind of a serial killer. It’s this approach that gives Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer its veracity and what ultimately gives the film its power and apparently Ali was not impressed by the final product, so much so in fact that it sat on the shelf for four years. Of course Mr. Ali’s lesson from all of this was that he should have actually read the screenplay before writing any cheques.
The film was co-written and directed by John McNaughton who had previously worked for Waleed B. Ali and his similarly monikered brother Malik B. Ali on various documentaries for their production company Maljack Productions. This company specialised in using public domain footage for documentaries and they hired McNaughtom to create a documentary about 1930s Chicago gangsters using only material in their library. The resulting documentary was called Dealers in Death and it was moderately successful both financially and critically, so much so in fact that the Ali brothers asked McNaughton to work on a follow-up documentary about the 1950s Chicago wrestling scene.
However when the Ali brothers were negotiating for the rights to the wrestling footage they wanted to use, the owners suddenly increased their asking price. Incensed the brothers decided to produce a feature film instead and offered the assignment to John McNaughton, giving him a budget of $100,000 on the proviso that the finished feature be 'a horror film with plenty of blood'. They also appointed Steven Jones as the producer and he hired Richard Fire to work with McNaughton on the screenplay. The two writers soon realised that on such a limited budget they couldn’t afford monsters or aliens and so started looking through Maljack Productions extensive video library for inspiration. It was here that they stumbled across a documentary about the serial killer Henry Lee Lucas and immediately decided to make a fictionalised version of his life.
The real Henry’s story is not a pleasant one and is covered in a documentary included as an extra on the disc. His father lost his legs in a train accident and his mother was a prostitute who dressed Henry in women’s clothes, abused him and made him watch her having sex. The character of Will Graham says it best in Manhunter, no one is born a monster, they’re made one by years of systematic abuse and poor Henry never stood a chance. As his psychosis grew he took out his developing pathology on animals, which he would kill and have sex with before ultimately killing his mother in 1960. Henry was convicted of her murder and sentenced to 20 to 40 year, although he was released in 1970 due to prison overcrowding. Henry married in 1975 and promptly started abusing his new wife’s two daughters, aged 6 and 9, before being caught by her. Incredibly she gave him a second chance but upon getting caught again he went on the run. At this point he hooked up with a man named Ottis Toole who was a drifter and male prostitute. Tool was gay and Henry was bi-sexual so the two of them developed a sexual relationship and began a killing spree in 1977. Their need to kill was like an addiction and they apparently killed dozens of people but they avoided detection by constantly being on the move.
Henry met Toole’s niece Frieda Powell, who preferred to be called Becky, when she was 12 and began a sexual relationship with her. The three of them moved around together as Henry and Ottis continued with their killing spree until Henry and Ottis ultimately fell out. Becky stayed with Henry until she was 16 when he killed her in an argument, had sex with her corpse and dismembered her. Henry was finally arrested in Texas in 1983, tried and convicted for 11 murders and given the death sentence. Whilst in prison Henry confessed to numerous murders, claiming he had killed over 600 people. However a subsequent investigation revealed that he couldn’t actually have committed many of the murders he confessed to because he was somewhere completely different at the time. In part because of his tendency to confess to crimes he hadn’t actually committed, in 1998 his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the then governor George W. Bush. Henry Lee Lucas died in prison of a heart attack on the 13th of March 2001.
John McNaughton and Richard Fire took elements of Henry Lee Lucas’s life and then fashioned their own story around the existing facts. In their version Henry meets Otis in jail and Henry teaches him how to kill, resulting in the two going on a killing spree. In the film Becky is Otis’s younger sister and is considerably older than the real Becky. The film retains some of Henry’s back story and makes specific mention of his father losing his legs, his mother’s prostitution and Henry killing her. However McNaughton and Fire really just used the actual Henry as the basis for a film that is in fact a commentary on violence as entertainment. They felt there had been a trend for films to make the villains so horrible that you are glad when the hero kills them, no matter how violent the hero’s methods. It was this blood lust that the two writers wanted to address by making people confront the reality of violence. The writers achieved this by making Otis so unpleasant that Henry almost appears heroic and by including an equally horrible character early on who Henry and Otis could almost be justified in killing. However they then juxtapose that killing with the slaughter of an innocent family in order to expose the true nature of violence.
In order to maintain the film’s veracity McNaughton needed to cast a group of unknown actors, although the film’s lack of budget probably made using established actors impractical. McNaughton used a number of actors from the Organic Theatre in Chicago, including Tom Towles who played Otis and Tracy Arnold who played Becky. Initially they struggled to find an actor to play Henry, that is until Michael Rooker showed up for an audition in his work clothes, McNaughton immediately realised he had found his lead and hired him. The actors researched their parts, wrote back stories for their characters and in the case of Tom Towles even had special teeth made. The clothes that Michael Rooker wore were largely his own, he stayed in character on set throughout the one month shoot and was apparently not particularly nice to be around.
John McNaughon is a native of Chicago and was thus able to call on friends and family to help with the production, utilising them as extras and borrowing their cars and other possessions. As such he was able to stretch his resources and achieve far greater production value than the film’s meagre budget would normally have allowed. The film was shot on 16mm using mostly real locations, some of which were quite run down at the time. The production rented an actual apartment to use as the set for Henry and Otis’s apartment, although they had to dirty it up a fair bit. The exteriors were largely shot guerilla style with most of the people seen on the streets being actual pedestrians. An actress friend of McNaughton’s named Mary Demas is actually in the film three times, first as the naked body that the film opens on, then as the woman with the bottle smashed into her face and finally as one of the hookers killed by Henry when he first introduces Otis to his unusual hobby. Other friends and cast members also appear in the film including the art director, the storyboard artist and in one scene even executive producer Waleed B. Ali.
Like the rest of the film, post-production was completed on a shoestring and McNaughton and his collaborators found innovative ways of completing their opus. The editing was done on a rented 16mm flatbed set up in the editor’s living room. The first cut ran for two hours but was soon cut down to a tight 82 minutes. The disc includes 20 minutes of deleted scenes which were either cut because they didn’t work or looked silly. This is particularly true of a love scene between Henry and Otis which might be factually accurate but looked comical. The score for Henry is especially effective with the three composers using 8 bit digital sampling which was actually quite cutting edge for 1986. They sampled screams and even a dentist's drill to give the soundtrack a very unsettling effect. The entire score was completed for $2500 in a studio owned by rock and roll Christians who, needless to say, were slightly surprised by the footage they saw but didn’t interfere.
The film opens with a series of shots of dead bodies, these vignettes are meant to show that Henry is an artist of mayhem but they are also a sly joke. Since the real Henry confessed to murders he didn’t commit, there’s no guarantee that the corpses we see are actually Henry’s handiwork, we just assume that. In fact despite its horrendous subject matter, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer actually contains quite a lot of black humour, especially where Otis is concerned. The murders themselves are shown in a detached and non-judgemental manner and it is this approach that gives the film an almost documentary feel. This sense of veracity is especially relevant in the film’s depiction of the actual lifestyle that serial killers lead. They are not evil geniuses, toying with the police and manipulating people from their jail cells. In real life serial killers are unpleasant, degraded and debauched creatures who move unnoticed through society. Henry’s activities make the erudite Hannibal Lecter with his fava beans and chianti seem more like some demented Maître d’. Unusually for a horror film there is also no retribution at the end, Henry remains free to continue with his murderous ways.
It goes without saying that when John McNaughton presented his masterpiece to the producers they were less than enthuiastic. They certainly weren’t expecting a realistic character study of a serial killer and as one of the producers said “where’s the blood, where’s the tits?” In fact they were so disappointed that they shelved Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer for nearly four years, until it started getting shown at the Chicago Film Festival. Despite a number of walk outs in the first screening, the film received excellent reviews and the Ali brothers arranged a distribution deal, at which point Henry’s problems really began.
It’s fair to say that if the producers weren’t big fans of the film then the US ratings board - the MPAA - liked it even less. In fact they rated it X which with its connotations of pornography is effectively a commercial death sentence. The MPAA is a trade organisation that was set up by the movie studios to self-police the film industry and thus avoid government censorship. Since they are not a government body they can’t actually tell you what to do, nor can they suggest specific cuts. All they can do is make suggestions to help the film get a lower rating but in the case of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer they perhaps not surprisingly objected to the whole moral tone. If the MPAA had requested specific cuts, John McNaughton would have made them to secure an R rating but since they didn’t and clearly just disliked the film in its entirety he decided to just release it unrated. Whilst this approach would limit the film’s box office potential, McNaughton felt that at least he wasn’t compromising his vision.
Here in the UK, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has a particularly complex history as far as its relationship with the BBFC is concerned. First of all the UK distributor Electric Pictures removed one of the opening shots of the dead woman with a broken bottle in her face before even submitting the film to the BBFC for classification as they felt it might prejudice them. As it was the BBFC demanded cuts to the murder of the TV salesman and especially to the scene showing a home invasion and murder of a family. It was this scene in particular that the BBFC had problems with, especially when classifying the film for its home video release. It wasn’t just because of the violence, although the scene is tough to watch even by today’s stanards, it was the way that John McNaughton had presented it. The entire home invasion is seen as video footage on a TV and at the end the camera reveals that Henry and Otis have been watching the recording at home for their entertainment. By revealing this at the end of the scene the viewer is made to feel complicit, as though they have been watching along with Henry and Otis. It makes explicit McNaughton's criticism of violence as entertainment, especially as Otis rewinds his favourite scenes and pauses the action. To the BBFC this was just too close to their misguided belief that videos influenced peoples' actions and they inserted a reaction shot of Henry and Otis much earlier which dilutes the power of the scene and completely destroys the point that McNaughton was trying to make. Thankfully things have changed over the years and Henry was finally released uncut in the UK in 2003. There is a detailed discussion of the film’s censorship history in the extras section of the disc, which also includes comparisons of the uncut and censored scenes.
John McNaughton and his collaborators set out to redefine the horror film and they certainly succeeded, creating a genuinely unnerving experience in much the same way the that Tobe Hooper did with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a decade earlier. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is not an easy film to watch by any stretch of the imagination, it confronts you with the reality of violence whilst simultaneously using the cliches of exploitation to deconstruct the horror film. However the end result is a powerful and deeply unsettling film that will stay with you long after you have ejected the disc.