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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
USA 1986
Directed by John McNaughton
Running time 83 minutes
Rated R

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Despite the grisly and violent subject matter at its core, John McNaughton’s low budget film is exceptionally well made, harrowingly realistic and without the usual exploitational gloss usually found with this kind of material. Loosely based on the true-life story of Henry Lee Lucas it is somewhat of a misnomer to call Henry a serial killer for he is more a mass murder, indiscriminately killing anyone who he happens to feel like with seeming affectless efficiency.

Whilst Michael Rooker, making his big screen debut as Henry is chillingly matter-of-fact, it is Tom Towles as Otis,Henry’s depraved accomplice, who really gives the film its twisted horror as he takes pleasure in the killings, in the hardest to take part of the film, videoing their crimes and playing them back like home movies.  The third principal character, Otis' sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), who, intrigued by the fact that Henry killed his mother, naively falls for his laconic self-absorption, provides a well-judged contrast to the gruesomeness of which we are aware but she is oblivious.

If the economical script and excellent performances are a considerable portion of the film’s success McNaughton also makes the lonesome inner-urban Chicago (McNaughton’s home town) setting a vital part of the film’s mood, all wintry grey, rainy streets and gloomy back alleys, neon-lit convenience stores and crummy flop-houses, a no-man’s land where, as Henry explains to Otis, one can kill with impunity.  

Make no mistake, Henry is discomforting view (there was much debate about the moral value of the film at the time of its premiere at the 1986 Chicago Film Festival and it was not commercially released for three years due to want of a ratings classification) but it is intense, immediate film-making.

FYI: There was a 1996 sequel without Rooker as Henry or McNaughton as director that, unsurprisingly ,was comprehensively disparaged.

 

 

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