Saturday, July 8, 2017

Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer

Joe Coleman's poster that appeared in The Horror Handbook.

Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer. Starring Michael Rooker, Directed By John McNaughton (1986).

Even though I love this film, I’ve avoided it for several years. It’s extremely depressing, disturbing and generally unpleasant. I decided to revisit it the other night while drunk as a skunk and it’s still a brilliant and harrowing independent film with guts to spare. The violence is ugly, unrepentant and disgusting but for some reason it picked up a buzz from some high-brow critics like Siskel and Ebert. That’s actually where I first saw a clip of it and couldn’t wait to check it out. My dad actually freaked out at me for wanting to see it, years later I taped it off Cinemax. It really resonated with the thumbs up, down guys—they defended it against the tide of irrational censorship and convinced others to watch it. These same critics, who demanded their audience boycott slasher movies in the 80’s, it seems were major fans of this John McNaughton film. They saw it as not exploitation but delivering a message more so than the typical brainless exploitation and it doesn't glorify the violence. Once the ultra- conservative Bush/Reagan era bit the dust in the 90s, it seemed as if these types of gritty realistic horror films were given more of a chance under the context of an artsy film. Of course, now it’s a billion times worse in the current society and political climate but that’s irrelevant to this review.

I'll have you know Amerikkka is great again!

In the Deep Red Horror Handbook, Chas spoke about this film in his chapter “I Spit in Your Face: Films that bite”. Balun placed it among what he categorized as “drano enemas” like Nekromantik, Deadbeat and Dawn and Last House on Dead End Street, all films that were impossible to find at time in 1989 for the average video junkie. They were the kinds of movies that got inside and ripped out your guts. He praised its low tech, high caliber acting and was unsettled by the fact that McNaughton makes Henry so fucking likeable and never indicts him.

all the girls want to know, who's the cutest boy on death row?

The two main characters are based on actual murderers like Florida’s Ottis Toole, who killed and ate Adam Walsh and even had a cannibal BBQ sauce that was listed in Mike Diana’s sick zine Boiled Angel. Also, Henry Lee Lucas and Otis’ sister Becky existed but she was significantly younger. They took these true crime figures and gave them their own spin, even though it’s biographical most of the details are rearranged or fictionalized, like the fact that in reality Henry and Ottis were gay lovers.

See I'm straight, I got a Jesus shirt!

It begins with the aftermath of different murder victims, we hear the disturbing audio of their last moments as Henry (Rooker) goes about his day. Tom Towles is in my opinion the most frightening aspect of this entire film, he’s a pervy, learing sexual predator who constantly is on the verge of a conniption fit over nothing. He doesn’t have the concept of “dial it down” and at one point kicks in a T.V., when he can’t get the rabbit ears to work. I like Siskel's theory about this scene, where Otis equates people as objects and only knows to deal with them thru savage violence or screaming at them until they comply. This leads to one of my favorite cinematic characters possibly ever, the fat-assed television salesman played by Ray Atherton. He looks like a mutant, deformed version of the Comic Book guy from The Simpsons. Atherton was not an actor but a producer of sleazy movies like FART: The Movie and Death Scenes 2, I can’t make this shit up folks!


Henry (the film not the character) acts as a scared straight for the dangers of buying pot from some scumbag dealer, instead of going the dispensary route. The scene where Otis, sells dope to a high school kid and tries to molest him was most likely shown to legislatures as a reason to enforce these new pot laws—yeah right!   

The part that was seriously effective and unnerving to me occurs when Henry (Michael Rooker) and Otis (Tom Towles), “go out for a beer,” which is code for let’s go out to assault and murder an entire family in the burbs. That moment, which they capture on a camcorder is played endlessly on a loop as the slobby, perverted sister rapist Otis snoozes in his grundies in front of the boob tube.


This movie was shot in 1986, but remained unreleased for 3 years because of hypocrisy and censorship. There’s something viciously organic about the mutilation and graphic violence that really turns up the gas on the nightmare fuel. That aspect was why I haven’t revisited it since high school. Even though, the film is very uncomfortable, it is worth re watching and carries the fury that most serial killers movies wish they could accomplish. Rooker of course went onto super stardom with The Walking Dead and Guardians of the Galaxy. Towles played a guy who's dog had rabies and bit Elaine on Seinfeld, he appeared in a few Rob Zombie movies then died tragically from a stroke a few years ago. This director never made a film that impressed me all that much sadly, this however is his finest moment.


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