“You got a real nice smile,” Henry says.
“Thanks,” the waitress replies.
Moments later, we see the waitress's corpse. Her face has been torn to shreds, probably with the broken glass bottle that is sticking out of her jaw. Why did Henry kill her? Because he wanted to, I guess. That's the terrifying thing about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer: it never gives us any idea of why Henry does the terrible things that he does. There is no psychiatrist to explain the precise nature of Henry's psychosis, nor is there a police investigator to elaborate on similarities between the victims. It only gives us what the title promises: a portrait of a serial killer. All we can do is observe and wonder.
The film is based on the life of Henry Lee Lucas, a notoriously cold-blooded killer who was convicted of eleven murders and claimed responsibility for hundreds of others. Director John McNaughton avoids giving us too much information about Henry's life outside what we see in the film, though there is a monologue in which Henry reveals the manner in which he killed his mother. He stabbed her to death, it seems. Later, he says he shot her. Why would he lie? Maybe he's committed so many murders that he can't even remember which is which. Maybe his mother just meant that little to him.
Michael Rooker (The Walking Dead) more or less plays Henry as a blank slate, albeit a blank slate that occasionally brightens up with murderous cruelty. He is shy and quiet, and he lives with an old prison buddy named Otis (Tom Towles, Mad Dog and Glory). Every so often, Henry wanders off and kills somebody – a habit Otis eventually discovers. Rather than turning his friend into the authorities, Otis becomes Henry's eager accomplice. Both men are capable of murder, but only Otis seems to find much pleasure in it. They begin videotaping the crimes they commit together, and in one scene they sit next to each other on the couch and watch a particularly horrific crime. When it's over, Otis starts rewinding it. “What are you doing?” Henry asks. “I want to see it again,” Otis replies. Otis kills because he enjoys it. Henry kills because... well, because.
The other central character is Becky (Tracy Arnold, Baywatch), Otis' sister. She's getting out of an abusive marriage, and just needs to stay with her brother until she can figure out what to do next. Otis has an unsettling tendency to leer at Becky in a not-so-brotherly way, but at least he doesn't smack her around, so she shrugs it off. Becky learns of Henry's murderous past (though as far as she knows, it's all in the past), and the news doesn't frighten her. She thinks Henry is a misunderstood soul who just needs the right woman. She doesn't notice when he wipes her friendly kisses off his face, or that he slowly scoots away from her when she sits next to him.
This is a difficult film to watch, but it never feels like an exploitation film. There's no joy or glee in the way McNaughton presents the scenes of slaughter – if anything, there's a dead-eyed detachment from the mayhem that proves unsettling in an entirely different way. It would be more comforting somehow if we felt Henry had some warped sense of purpose, but his mind seems impenetrable. There's such appalling heartlessness in the way Henry sees the world – you get the sense that it doesn't much matter to him whether anyone else is dead or alive, though he eventually ends up picking death. Only in one scene does a murder seem to be rooted in some sort of passion – and you get the sense that it's a feeling he doesn't really know what to do with. Probably best to kill that, too.
The film was initially shown to an audience in 1986, but didn't get a proper theatrical release for another three years due to a combination of legal issues, corporate cowardice and ratings battles. The film was given an “X” rating, but was one of the movies responsible for the creation of the NC-17 rating – a different “for adults only” label that didn't have the same pornographic stigma attached. It certainly isn't a movie for young, impressionable viewers, and viewers of any age will need to have a strong stomach to endure it. It's difficult to love the film, but I respect the craftsmanship and commitment a great deal – there isn't a single moment that feels false, and the actors fully inhabit the characters they play. It's a stripped-to-the-bone affair thematically, devoting itself solely to offering a brief look into the heart of inexplicable evil. Like it or not, it achieves exactly what it sets out to achieve.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 83 minutes
Release Year: 1986