“He’s not Freddy. He’s not Jason. He’s real,” warned the tagline for John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Indeed, the inspiration for McNaughton’s film, Henry Lee Lucas, was a real mass murderer. But McNaughton’s Henry fictionalizes the real killer’s actions (worth noting: the real killer fictionalized his actions as well, confessing to nearly 600 murders, many of which he never committed). But the implication is clear: this is not your standard slasher movie. The body counts may be high in Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street films, but there’s no weight; no true horror. The violence is stylized; done-up to entertain instead of sicken. In Henry, the death is cruel, and ritualistic, and disturbing. Worst of all, it seems real.
Henry, which has been restored and re-released by Dark Sky Films for its 30th Anniversary, begins with shots of mutilated corpses: these are Henry’s victims, washed up in shallow creeks, gunned down in convenience stores, left posed in public bathrooms with beer bottles jammed into their faces. It’s as if we’re homicide detectives coming across grisly crime scenes. Michael Rooker brilliantly plays Henry with a dead-eyed stare and a working class sensibility. He drifts through a brown, wintry Chicago, cruising for victims. Henry is not a wise-cracking killer from a slasher film. He’s the shark from Jaws — primal, driven, seemingly unstoppable. In one scene he tails a woman home, and McNaughton recreates the Vertigo-shot Steven Spielberg adapted for Jaws, the camera zooming in while panning out, to signify danger closing in.
Henry lives with Otis (Tom Towles), and one of McNaughton and Richard Fire’s smartest screenplay choices is to make Henry almost — almost — likable by having him spend time with the repulsive Otis. Make no mistake — Henry is a monster, driven to kill during sexual acts. But he’s subdued most of the time, and Rooker’s reserved performance makes him seem almost mild at times. In contrast, Otis is constantly off-putting and perverted. When his younger sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) comes to stay he openly makes sexual advances toward her. Soon, Henry draws Otis into his life of murder, and the pair are committing horrendous acts. Yet there’s always the glimmer there that maybe, just maybe, Henry can be redeemed in some way — narratively speaking. He finds a bond with Becky, and in one of the film’s best scenes he tells her about his troubled upbringing, and about what lead him to murder his own mother. McNaughton keeps the camera on Rooker’s face, and Rooker speaks while jutting out his lower jaw, forcing the words out in a mannered, chilling rhythm. Becky listens rapt, and when Henry finishes speaking McNaughton pans down to reveal she’s been holding his hand the entire time. Again, the film lulls us into something approaching sympathy for Henry — but it’s a ruse. Henry is beyond sympathy; he’s inhuman.
Thirty years later, even after increasingly violent films, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer loses none of its power. It’s a thoroughly nasty, unpleasant film; a film that seems to be covered in a glaze of blood and filth. This is not horror for the faint of heart. Those who seek the type of scares found in carnival haunted houses or on roller coasters need not apply. Henry is beyond that; it’s horror is more elemental. More cruel. And worst of all, it’s unstoppable.